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USVI Department of Education Faces Challenges Amid Staff Shortage and Pending Health Report



The US Virgin Islands Department of Education faces mounting challenges, from staff shortages to an impending health report that holds the key to reopening schools. Commissioner Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington expressed concern over the continuous loss of educational professionals, especially against the backdrop of a burgeoning student population on St. Croix.

This past Monday, Dr. Wells-Hedrington brought to light the departure of 65 education experts from the USVI public school system. A concerning pattern has been observed on St. Croix, where all grade levels, with the exception of kindergarten and second grade, are witnessing an upward trajectory in enrollment. This revelation came during the Department of Education’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development.

In addition, the national education landscape is not looking any brighter. By way of illustration, Wells-Hedrington pointed to the drastic loss of more than 200 teachers in Florida’s Brevard County. Zooming back in on the USVI, from late May to mid-July, the territory witnessed the resignation or retirement of 65 key education professionals. This figure included 37 teachers.

In an effort to counteract this drain, proactive measures are being adopted. The department is organizing job fairs and has even opened its doors to international educators through the J-1 visa exchange program. “Employee retention is paramount,” Dr. Wells-Hedrington emphasized.

Regarding infrastructural enhancements, the commissioner shed light on a slew of maintenance and upgrade activities undertaken for the upcoming academic year. The overarching goal is to offer students a secure and enriching learning environment. Noteworthy projects encompass ventilation inspections, electrical and plumbing overhauls, classroom revamps, and overall safety and aesthetic upgrades on school premises throughout the territory.

However, there are hurdles still to overcome. The School Maintenance and Construction Bureau is awaiting the appointment of its executive director. Meanwhile, collaboration continues with FEMA to secure funding for new schools. There’s a spotlight on the Charlotte Amalie High School and the Arthur Richards preK-8 school. These developments are backed by local funding, encompassing the dismantling of existing structures like the Evelyn Williams and old Arthur Richards schools.

The department is also prioritizing post-pandemic readiness. Kitchen facilities at various St. Croix schools are set to undergo renovations for safe post-Covid operations. Students will need to wait a while before they can utilize these new facilities. But Dr. Wells-Hedrington assures the community, “Our contractors are mobilized and ready.” For the St. Thomas/St. John District, the kitchen revamp process is in its preliminary planning stages.

In a discussion with Senator Franklin Johnson, the commissioner highlighted the expected completion date for these projects by the close of 2024. The road to completion is paved with challenges, from difficulties in securing contract bidders to unforeseen electrical and plumbing complexities.

However, the most pressing issue is the awaited health readiness report from the Department of Health, due just a week before the recommencement of classes. This document’s delay further complicates the department’s preparations for the upcoming school year.

St. Thomas-St. John District’s Superintendent, Dr. Stefan Jürgen, also shared updates regarding the district’s restructuring, indicating revamped venues, school amalgamations, student attendance pattern shifts, and the introduction of special education provisions in select schools.

In summary, while the USVI Department of Education is pushing forward with its preparations for the upcoming academic year, it does so amidst a landscape of challenges, highlighting the resilience of the educational community in these trying times.

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The Denis Sullivan Schooner: A Beacon of Learning Returns to Christiansted Harbor for Its 18th Season



The historic schooner Denis Sullivan is set to make its grand return to Christiansted Harbor this Sunday, marking the 18th season of World Ocean School’s enriching educational programs in St. Croix. Eden Leonard, President and Executive Director of World Ocean School, expressed her enthusiasm for the upcoming season, emphasizing the strong community support in St. Croix and the exciting opportunities awaiting the students.

St. Croix has been a vital part of World Ocean School’s history, a relationship that spans 18 years, initially with the Schooner Roseway. While the Roseway, a revered National Historic Landmark, undergoes extensive preservation in Mystic, CT, the Denis Sullivan has seamlessly stepped in. In 2022, the Denis Sullivan successfully hosted over 230 students in immersive multi-day educational programs and delighted over 1500 passengers with sunset and harbor sails.

This season, the Denis Sullivan aims to replicate its previous success, focusing on engaging St. Croix’s public school students. The onboard programs blend practical maritime skills, such as ship maintenance and sail raising, with teamwork and applied learning. The vessel’s crew, known as Deckhand Educators, are ready to embark on this season’s journey, offering hands-on lessons during the voyages. Ms. Leonard expressed her anticipation for the community’s engagement, recalling the warm reception the schooner received last year.

To celebrate its return, the Denis Sullivan will offer welcome sails to the public on November 30 and December 1, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., in Christiansted Harbor. Additionally, sunset sails will be available through March. Proceeds from ticket sales on the World Ocean School’s website will support the educational initiatives on the island. In a gesture of gratitude, past and present students and their families are invited to enjoy these sails at no cost, as announced by the organization’s officials.

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St. Croix Students Voice Concerns Over Poor Bathroom Facilities in Schools



In a recent meeting with the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development, students from St. Croix raised serious concerns about the state of their school bathrooms, affecting their daily school life. Alina Poyah, an eighth-grader from Central High School, voiced her distress over the unsanitary conditions, citing dysfunctional toilets and a lack of adequate cleaning staff. She admitted to avoiding the use of these facilities due to their dire state.

Makayla Walcott, another student from John H. Woodson, echoed similar sentiments. She pointed out the lack of basic amenities like paper towels and soap, along with the presence of offensive graffiti, making the environment uncomfortable and unhygienic. Both students highlighted the challenge of finding a usable bathroom on campus, a situation that has led to a boycott of these facilities.

Sophomore Ace Boyer from St. Croix Educational Complex expressed concerns about the suitability of the school as a hurricane shelter, given the poor condition of the washrooms. He detailed issues like broken urinals, lack of lighting, and insufficient sanitary supplies, leading him to avoid using the bathrooms altogether.

The committee chair, Senator Marise James, expressed shock and concern about the health implications of these conditions on students. Following inquiries from Senator Carla Joseph, education officials revealed plans for bathroom repairs at Central High School. However, Territorial Facilities Manager Davidson Charlemagne indicated that the project’s completion would not be immediate. The department’s Acting Insular Superintendent for St. Croix, Dr. Ericilda Ottley Herman, aimed for a 90-day completion target, but the timeline extended to May 2024.

Senator James emphasized the importance of maintenance, drawing comparisons to older historical buildings. Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington addressed the issue in a separate discussion, committing to distribute supplies and restore restroom functionality. She also urged students to discourage vandalism to ensure the longevity of the repairs.

This testimony sheds light on a critical issue affecting the learning environment in St. Croix schools, highlighting the need for prompt and effective action to ensure safe and sanitary conditions for students.

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Exploring Solutions to Rising School Violence in the Virgin Islands: Education Officials Weigh Options



The escalating issue of violence in the Virgin Islands’ schools has reached a critical point, as highlighted by Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington during a Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development hearing. The committee, led by Senate President Novelle Francis Jr., delved into various challenges plaguing the public school system, with a specific focus on the increasing incidents of aggression and violence.

Education leaders, including Dr. Ericilda Ottley Herman, the acting insular superintendent for the St. Croix district, acknowledged a distinct rise in aggressive behavior among students. To address this, the Department of Education is exploring various behavioral intervention strategies, including alternatives to traditional suspension methods. Ottley Herman emphasized the importance of integrating behavioral intervention or anger management courses for suspended students and actively involving parents in these efforts.

Addressing mental health issues in students is a key priority, according to Superintendent Ottley Herman. The recognition that many aggressive behaviors stem from underlying trauma has led to a concerted effort to provide comprehensive behavioral support services, in collaboration with the Department of Health. School principals are also being encouraged to develop effective conflict resolution strategies.

In a direct response to the problem, the Education Department is considering regulating the use of cellphones in schools, which, though initially intended as educational tools, have become instrumental in amplifying conflicts. Wells-Hedrington indicated that this shift in policy is aimed at reducing distractions and hazards associated with cellphone misuse.

Enhancing school safety is another critical area of focus. Initiatives include recruiting additional school monitors, especially at the St. Croix Educational Complex, and equipping them with appropriate safety gear. This move comes in response to increasing physical interventions by monitors during violent incidents.

Sen. Diane Capehart praised the proactive steps taken by the Department of Education, while Sen. Kenneth Gittens urged a broader community and familial approach to curbing school violence. Gittens, drawing on his experience as a former police officer, highlighted the need for parental responsibility and control at home as a fundamental step towards ensuring a safer school environment.

The issue of student safety extends beyond physical altercations. Alina Poyah, a student at John H Woodson Junior High School, raised concerns about a February 2023 incident involving a pellet gun, stressing the need for accountability and heightened security measures to prevent such occurrences.

Overall, the Virgin Islands’ educational authorities are actively seeking multifaceted solutions to combat the worrying trend of school violence, recognizing the need for a holistic approach that includes mental health support, parental involvement, and stricter school policies.

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