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UVI Staff Seek $1.3 Million from Senate Amid Rising Turnover Concerns

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In a meticulously penned letter on September 4, the leadership of the University of the Virgin Islands’ arm of the American Association of University Professors (UVI-AAUP) formally approached the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance. Their primary goal? To echo UVI President David Hall’s request for an augmentation of $1.3 million to the FY2024 budget, specifically for enhancing faculty salaries.

Sources from the Consortium in the previous month highlighted President Hall’s primary grievance: UVI’s incapacity to furnish academic experts with salaries that can compete on the market. Shockingly, this deficit in compensation has cascaded into a daunting 50% faculty turnover in the preceding half-decade. UVI-AAUP’s letter deepens the narrative, revealing how this wage gap hasn’t merely led to empty faculty chairs but has also, in some cases, obligated the institution to settle for less qualified educators. This, naturally, places the UVI’s educational standards in jeopardy.

A pressing issue pinpointed by UVI-AAUP is the perceived inequity in the government’s financial behavior towards UVI’s employees. The letter showcases Governor Bryan’s notable allocation of $18 million, set aside in his FY 2024 budget, to ensure a 3% salary increment for the entire governmental workforce. The striking omission here? UVI wasn’t on the list of beneficiaries. This exclusion feels particularly sharp, considering the 8% wage reduction that UVI faculty weathered in 2011, alongside their governmental peers—though they were rightfully compensated for this deduction in 2021.

Peering further back, the UVI-AAUP underscores a lingering problem: UVI faculty wages have been battling the rising tide of inflation since 2004. That year, the merit-based pay scale, once cherished by educators, was disassembled by UVI’s Board of Trustees. A gleam of hope appeared in 2020 with the negotiation of a Collective Bargaining Agreement. This pact aimed to anchor UVI salaries at a minimum, placing the institution in the 40th percentile of US higher education salary brackets. However, the glow was short-lived, as this agreement reached its end in August 2022. The aftermath? Faculty now operate without the assurance of a union contract, hamstrung by negotiation deadlocks.

To circumnavigate this persistent issue, UVI-AAUP doesn’t merely raise concerns; they propose a solution. Addressed to the Finance Committee, their proposition is straightforward yet potentially revolutionary: annually allocate to UVI a share, proportionate to the institution’s entire salary outlay and fine-tuned for core inflation. This portion would be exclusively reserved for employee wage enhancements. Implementing this, UVI-AAUP argues, could be the panacea for the university’s dwindling faculty wages, challenges in hiring and retaining top-tier talent, and the consequent slide in UVI’s educational standards.

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Education

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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Addressing Attendance Challenges in Territory Schools: A Unified Approach Needed

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The Department of Education’s insular superintendents for St. Thomas/St. John, Stefan Jürgen, and for St. Croix, Ericilda Ottley-Herman, have raised concerns about the persistently low attendance rates in schools across the territory. During their recent testimonies before the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development, they highlighted the direct link between regular attendance and student achievement. In particular, Jürgen pointed out that seven schools within the St. Thomas/St. John district are particularly in need of improving their attendance figures, emphasizing ongoing dialogues with school principals to address this critical issue.

Jürgen identified a pattern of tardiness among a consistent group of parents, suggesting targeted interventions by the district’s truancy officers and attendance counselors, including home or workplace visits to promote the importance of education. He also reminded the community of the fines parents could face for neglecting their children’s education, although he acknowledged that current strategies to boost attendance have yet to yield the desired results.

In a similar vein, Ottley-Herman reported a troubling decline in attendance among kindergarten students on St. Croix, with figures falling to 86%, in contrast to a more robust 93% attendance rate among high schoolers. She assured that efforts are underway to bridge the achievement gap, with schools forming attendance teams to work closely with the families of absent students and, in extreme cases, involving external agencies.

The revelation of these challenges prompted questions from Committee chair Senator Marise James about the Department of Education’s strategy to combat parental negligence in ensuring their children’s school attendance. Ottley-Herman shared insights into the logistical difficulties faced by parents, particularly concerning school start times, and reported a positive outcome from adjusting the start time at Eulalie Rivera School to 7:30 a.m., which significantly improved attendance rates. A forthcoming parent survey aims to further understand the impact of school start times on attendance patterns.

Both superintendents and lawmakers engaged in a candid discussion about the broader implications of these attendance issues, drawing parallels with current workplace attendance trends and emphasizing the critical role of parental responsibility in shaping a culture of punctuality and reliability. Jürgen highlighted the need for holistic support systems for children, indicating that absenteeism might be symptomatic of more complex social and familial issues.

Senator Carla Joseph and Ms. James called for a more integrated approach to identifying and addressing the root causes of absenteeism, suggesting a collective effort beyond immediate educational circles to include broader community and governmental support. The dialogue underscored the urgency of fostering a more accountable, supportive, and engaged community to ensure every child receives the education they deserve.

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Coral Reef Academy: A New Chapter in Specialized Education Opens in St. Thomas

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August will mark a significant milestone in the educational landscape of St. Thomas with the inauguration of Coral Reef Academy (CRA). This innovative institution is dedicated to offering customized educational experiences for students from kindergarten to fourth grade who have been diagnosed with autism.

Coral Reef Academy’s curriculum is meticulously crafted to promote comprehensive growth. The school emphasizes individualized academic progress, the enhancement of social skills, and the cultivation of independence in its students, as outlined in a recent press release.

Under the visionary leadership of Dr. Jody Miller, CRA is committed to fostering an inclusive and nurturing educational environment. The academy is staffed by a team of experienced educators and professionals who are adept in applying evidence-based practices tailored to the distinctive needs of each student. The curriculum at CRA is both adaptive and stimulating, ensuring that each child benefits from personalized attention and support.

Beyond the academic realm, CRA places a strong emphasis on collaboration between educators, families, and the broader community. This synergistic approach is designed to establish a robust support network that enriches the educational experience of each student, while also encouraging community engagement.

Since its inception in St. Croix in 2018, Coral Reef Academy has been at the forefront of specialized education in the Virgin Islands. The school has provided exceptional educational opportunities for students with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other developmental disabilities. Its expansion to St. Thomas signifies a major advancement in making quality education accessible to a broader spectrum of students with special needs.

Coral Reef Academy is currently accepting enrollments for the upcoming academic year, offering families the opportunity to join this groundbreaking educational endeavor.

For more details or to register, interested parties are welcome to reach out to Dr. Miller via email at [email protected] or by phone at (340) 719-7722.

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