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Education Department Shares Insights on Summer Initiatives; Legislature Investigates Student Progress Monitoring

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interior of a school with desks equipped with protective plexiglass screens to allow social distancing to prevent covid 19 infection. 3d render.

The V.I. Department of Education provided a comprehensive update to the Senate Committee on Education & Workforce Development about their ongoing initiatives for the upcoming academic year and the summer activities being undertaken by students.

Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Education Commissioner, outlined a clear vision for the future, revealing the department’s move towards digitizing its operations, refining pedagogical practices, and enhancing the overall quality of education in the Virgin Islands. A testament to this drive towards a digital future is the recent successful roll-out of online registration and the anticipated launch of an online cash management system by year-end, aimed at streamlining school-related financial transactions for parents.

A critical component of the revamped education strategy is to provide greater autonomy to schools, allowing them to design tailored programs catering to the unique needs of their students. With this change, schools will also be subjected to performance-based evaluations, using metrics like academic achievement, student growth, language proficiency, and attendance rates. Dr. Wells-Hedrington emphasized that schools needing assistance would get targeted support through the imminent Education Turnaround Office. This office’s primary objective would be to intensively support schools, ensuring educational excellence while minimizing operational roadblocks.

Insular superintendents then shed light on their district-specific undertakings. Dr. Stefan Jürgen from St. Thomas/St. John reported participation from over 1100 students in various summer programs. These programs catered to a broad spectrum of learners, from special education students to those looking for advanced academic opportunities, such as those offered by prestigious institutions like Emory, Harvard, and Berklee College of Music. A notable mention was the success of the Saturday Academy program, where students outperformed their peers by a significant margin in Math and English over the past two years.

From the St. Croix district, Ericilda Ottley-Herman detailed a plethora of offerings, from academic enrichment programs to specialized academies focusing on arts, gardening, and coding. Furthermore, St. Croix also had specific bridge programs to aid the transition of students between crucial stages of their education, focusing not just on academic prowess but also on critical life skills like time management and emotional intelligence. Ms. Ottley-Herman proudly mentioned a consistent decrease in the number of students repeating grades, pointing to the district’s successful educational strategies.

During the discussions, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory inquired about the mechanisms in place to track student performance over time. Dr. Jürgen elucidated that students requiring additional support were promptly identified, and the necessary arrangements made. However, Senator Frett-Gregory stressed the importance of having robust tracking mechanisms to ensure every student’s continued success.

In response, Ms. Ottley-Herman highlighted the PowerSchool system’s “flagging” feature, which allowed for monitoring student progress post credit recovery programs. Dr. Wells-Hedrington concurred with this approach but also recognized the importance of a holistic student tracking system, underscoring the department’s commitment to narrowing the achievement gap.

Addressing Senator Frett-Gregory’s concerns, Dr. Wells-Hedrington stated, “Your concerns about tracking tools are valid. We are on the lookout for comprehensive solutions. Rest assured, the superintendents and I will further discuss this matter, aiming to not only monitor but also to create alternative academic avenues for our students.”

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Education

U.S. Virgin Islands to Enhance Career Training with New Courses Pending Certification

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The U.S. Virgin Islands is poised to expand its Career and Technical Education (CTE) offerings, as the CTE board anticipates the certification of new curriculums in a variety of fields. Monique Faulkner, the state director of Career and Technical Education, announced at a recent board meeting that new programs in nursing, phlebotomy, medical massage therapy, medical assistance, and computer network engineering are on the horizon.

Faulkner emphasized the importance of formal certification for these programs, some of which have been informally implemented for years. Certification by the board will facilitate their integration into high school curriculums and alignment with university programs, thus streamlining educational pathways and reducing redundancy.

A particularly innovative aspect of the expansion is the adaptation of an agricultural curriculum from Mississippi, which is being customized to meet the unique needs of the Virgin Islands. Faulkner’s team plans to ‘Virgin Island-ize’ the curriculum, ensuring it is relevant to local students and industries.

The Department of Education’s internal committee is set to collaborate with CTE Board Committee Chair Anastasie Jackson on evaluating and refining the agricultural curriculum. Faulkner proposed a flexible curriculum model that includes specializations in areas vital to the local economy, such as agritourism, agribusiness, and aquaponics.

A key goal for Faulkner is to ensure students earn industry-recognized certifications that hold value both within the Virgin Islands and nationally, propelling them into meaningful careers in agriculture and beyond.

Collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands, particularly leveraging its aquaponics expertise, is central to the initiative. This partnership aims to offer students dual credits and certifications, enhancing their educational and career prospects.

The board expressed strong support for Faulkner’s leadership in developing these essential CTE programs, despite challenges in retaining teaching staff for existing courses. This initiative represents a significant step forward in equipping Virgin Islands students with the skills and certifications needed for successful careers in emerging and traditional sectors.

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Addressing the Exodus of Career and Technical Education Instructors: A Growing Concern for the CTE Board

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The Board of Career and Technical Education is grappling with a significant challenge: a rapid decline in the number of instructors, leading to the potential loss of critical educational programs. Joane Murphy, the board’s chair, highlighted this pressing issue during a discussion with the Education Development Center (EDC), a notable global nonprofit dedicated to providing technical support and expertise to educational authorities. This conversation took place at a recent Thursday meeting, where EDC officials were present to understand the board’s concerns better, with an eye towards securing federal support for initiatives aimed at mitigating these challenges.

The scarcity of instructors is felt across various sectors, with the construction and healthcare fields experiencing particularly severe shortages, as noted by Ms. Murphy. This shortage not only threatens the continuity of these essential programs but also the future readiness of students entering these industries.

Genevieve Whitaker, a board member and former senator, underscored another significant hurdle: the lack of sufficient financial resources to support educators facing administrative barriers. Whitaker emphasized the board’s desire to provide more substantive support to teachers in need of additional classroom resources, a goal currently hampered by financial constraints.

Additional concerns were voiced by board member Suzanne Magras, who pointed out the increasing issue of school violence, alongside deficiencies in teacher certification, basic resources, and technology. Dr. Magras advocated for a focus on preparing both educators and students for the advancements in artificial intelligence, underlining the importance of readiness for future technological impacts.

The dialogue with EDC was deemed beneficial by Sandra Espada, an EDC representative, for identifying the specific needs of the territory. This understanding will guide the organization’s efforts to secure federal funding aimed at systemic improvements. Nicole Breslow, a project director at EDC, emphasized the goal of facilitating support at a systemic level, indicating a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges faced by the CTE Board.

Future meetings with Department of Education officials and the Board of Education are planned by EDC representatives. These discussions aim to create a comprehensive overview of the territory’s career and technical education needs, fostering a collaborative approach to overcoming the obstacles highlighted during the board’s meeting.

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Champions Crowned in USVI District Spelling Bees, Gearing Up for Territorial Challenge

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Rayan Felix and Evan Fahie have emerged as the luminaries of the District Spelling Bee competitions, hosted by the V.I. Department of Education this past Thursday. With 24 students from across the islands converging to showcase their spelling prowess, the event was a testament to the academic dedication and skill of the participants.

Evan Fahie, a bright student from Lockhart K-8 School, clinched the title in the St. Thomas-St. John District, while Rayan Felix, representing Free Will Baptist Christian School, secured victory in the St. Croix District. Their triumphs have set the stage for their next challenge at the Territorial Competition, scheduled for March 19, 2024, on St. Croix, where they, along with 10 other talented students, will compete for the prestigious title of USVI Territorial Champion.

The finalists from St. Croix include a roster of adept spellers: Chasidy Pickering from Pearl B. Larsen, Joseph Greaux of Eulalie Rivera, Jasem Rahhal from Good Hope Country Day School, J’adora Burke representing Ricardo Richards, and Layla Jacobs from St. Patrick’s Catholic School. Meanwhile, the St. Thomas-St. John District will be represented by Kaiden Lettsome-Dowe from Antilles, Eli Blash of Moravian, Amera Paul from Calvary Christian, alongside Kashyma Paul, Yvonne Bowsky, and Kwalane Flemming from Ulla Muller School.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Education Commissioner, lauded the competitors, stating, “Our heartfelt congratulations go out to all the students who took part in this distinguished event. Your enthusiasm for learning and commitment to mastering the complexities of the English language are truly inspiring.”

The Department of Education also extended its gratitude to the schools, educators, coaches, and families for their unwavering support, as well as to the sponsors who helped make the event possible. Emphasizing the importance of the Spelling Bee, the D.O.E. recognized it as a vital platform for promoting literacy and effective communication skills, both of which are crucial in nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.

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