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Commissioner Says Rebuilt Schools Will Change the Face of Education in Territory

From left, Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien, left, and Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington testify to senators Monday about the future of education in the territory. (Photo by Bernard Matthew and Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

Virgin Islands schools had a rough start this school year, with air quality issues, a heat wave, and a landfill fire causing closures. However, Dionne Wells-Hedrington, commissioner for the Education Department, was able to give a positive report to the Senate’s Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure and Planning Committee on Monday.

The positive spin was easy to make as she rolled out the names of schools being rebuilt.

Construction at Arthur A. Richards Junior High School has already started at the former Edith Williams campus. It will serve more than 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Contracts have been signed to construct a new Central High School and a new Charlotte Amalie High School. The St. Croix school will serve 1,195 students, and the St. Thomas one, 1,500 students.

Wells-Hedrington said strategies are planned so all students can continue attending school while the buildings are being constructed. She added that the new buildings were making allowances for the growth in the number of students in the territory and for new teaching methods.

Julius E. Sprauve Elementary, which will hold 460 students; Alexander Henderson Elementary, which will hold 575 students; Lockhart Elementary and Claude O. Markoe Elementary, which will hold 1,070 students, are in the design stage. Henderson School has been closed since 2019.

Committee Chair Sen. Milton Potter questioned whether the territory would be able to come up with the 10 percent local matching funds for the school projects.

Wells-Hedrington said she was “very optimistic” that the matching funds would be there when needed.

Adrienne Williams-Octalien, director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, who also testified at the hearing, said the commissioner was “absolutely” correct. The territory has $238 million available as matching funds for federal grants, and the schools were a “priority,” according to Williams-Octalien.

After viewing a video rendering of the proposed rebuilds, Potter said the layouts were “beautiful” and it was “what our children deserve.”

Wells-Hedrington said the new schools would “change the face of education in the territory.”

Chaneel Callwood, the architect for Education, said senators would see “a lot of new schools by 2030,” and all the projects would be complete within 10 years.

Other schools to be rebuilt but that have not reached the design stage are Alfredo Andrews Elementary, Juanita Gardine K-8 School, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Ulla F. Muller Elementary, Joseph Sibilly Elementary, and Jane Tuitt Elementary.

Sen. Novelle Francis asked how much students were involved in the planning of the new schools. Wells-Hedrington answered, “Not enough,” but added that it is changing.

The commissioner said that an increase in the maintenance budget from $2 million to $5 million annually was having a positive effect on the schools now.

She also reported on territory schools receiving fencing or retaining walls. The schools in the St. Thomas-St. John District include Boschulte, Edith Williams, Kean, Gomez, Sibilly, and Muller. The St. Croix schools receiving fencing are Educational Complex, Pearl E. Larsen, Rivera, Woodson, Andrews, Markoe, Gardine, Muckle, Ricardo Richards, and Central High.

Senators present at Monday’s committee hearing included Milton E. Potter, Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Kenneth Gittens, Marise James, Franklin Johnson, and Carla Joseph.

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