The Virgin Islands Board of Education debated whether or not to loosen teacher certification standards to address the territory’s ongoing teacher shortage at a two-part meeting held Friday afternoon and Saturday morning on St. Croix.
The board also approved plans to hold a conference on St. Thomas at which board members and experts will discuss with the public and teachers their plans to overhaul the territory’s student discipline policy.
On Friday afternoon, Executive Director Carol O’Bryan Henneman passionately spoke against the prospect of lowering teacher standards. She said the board had received a request from the V.I. Department of Education requesting some of the certification requirements be waived so people who had not yet finished their teaching degrees could be hired by the public school system.
“I have been in education for 37 years now and I have seen the ramifications of lowering our standards to accommodate people or persons who want to teach but didn’t bother to train to teach,” Henneman warned.
She asked board members if they would feel comfortable seeing a doctor or a lawyer who had not finished his or her education. Teachers should be no different, she said.
Henneman left the door open for negotiation, saying she wouldn’t be opposed to working with prospective teachers who were in a “transition state,” but did not want to make too many concessions.
“I oppose a policy that allows people to come into our system full force without being certified and without possessing the tools that our children need,” she said.
After the meeting Oswin Sewer, chairman of the board, said it was possible the department’s request could be granted with strings attached. He said some members were in favor of establishing a deadline by which uncertified teachers would have to finish their training. He also said there had been discussion of allowing new hires to work under the supervision of veteran teachers or organizing Saturday training courses to teach them pedagogy.
Everyone agreed that the teacher shortage was an issue that needed to be addressed, however.
Earlier this month at the department’s budget hearing, acting Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory warned senators that staffing the schools in September would be a challenge. She said the department was struggling to attract qualified teachers from outside the territory due to financial reasons.
“We are unable to attract teachers from the mainland primarily because of our economics—the cost of living is very high, particularly compared to the salaries we are offering,” she said at the time.
At the meeting Friday, board member Debra Smith-Watlington said she felt the issue warranted more discussion before the board acted upon it and the request was tabled for further committee hearings.
Saturday, the board approved plans for their student discipline conference. The conference will take place Sept. 6 through 8 at the Sugar Bay Resort on St. Thomas.
Board member Judy Gomez stressed the importance of the conference, saying the new disciplinary policy they put in place “is going to be affecting students for generations to come.”
Board member Winona Hendricks said they would consider several modern and progressive theories of school discipline, such as a moratorium on suspensions, in hope of improving outcomes for students.
“We’re trying to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.
The board approved a budget for the conference of $10,624.
Voting in favor were board members Gomez, Hendricks, Sewer, Watlington, Terrence Joseph, Arah Lockhart and Nandi Sekou. Mary Moorhead voted against the measure and Martial Webster was absent.
In other business, Laurie Isaac, director of business and finance, gave an update of the board’s financial aid program. She said to date 393 students have received aid this year totaling $773,506 through the board’s various scholarship and loan funds.
Isaac said more money would be distributed, as the board received a total of 1,527 applicants this year.
She also said that the process of cutting students a check had become much faster than previous years thanks to legislation that streamlined the process. She said the board now works directly with the Department of Finance to release the funds, while previously requests had to be routed through the Department of Property and Procurement.
The board also voted to invite the V.I. Police Department, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to meet with them to discuss implementing an anti-bullying policy.
The board announced that its annual school-management plan was overdue and would be further delayed. The plan, originally set to be completed June 15, is not expected to be finished and submitted until Aug. 9.