Oct. 23, 2003 – Emotions ran high Wednesday night as the Senate Education and Youth Committee took testimony on plans to close Edith L. Williams Elementary School at the end of the current school year and convert the facility into an alternative school for at-risk junior and senior high school students next fall.
But Sen. Ronald Russell, who chairs the panel, and Sen. Roosevelt David warned that the Legislature lacks the authority to overturn school officials' decision to close the St. Thomas elementary school next June.
Parents, teachers, Edith Williams Principal Carolyn Archer and district schools Superintendent William Frett presented their views at the hearing.
Word of plans to close the school on Weymouth-Rhymer Highway surfaced early last May. (See "Conflicting reports on Williams School closing".) At the end of May, Russell called off a scheduled committee hearing on the matter, saying that the Education Department had "delayed any action related to the closure." He said at the time that he felt "very relieved that, at least for the time being, the students and teachers will not be relocated for the coming school year."
While "this situation is not resolved," he said then, "delaying the closing allows the administration and all concerned parties — parents, teachers and students — time to work out a solution that will be best for all involved."
On Wednesday night, Samantha Bryan, a Williams School parent, said: "Having this school closed will deny myself and other parents in this district the option of sending their children to a small school environment." She accused Frett of not having taken into consideration the drastic effect that this would have on her daughter.
Archer said many parents have chosen to enroll their children at Edith Williams so that the youngsters' particular needs can be met in the small-classroom setting. "At ELW, each student's individual needs are addressed," she said, and a pupil is "not just a number." And, she said, that specialized attention "has proven to be the foundation of the ladder of success for our students."
Earline Edward, Williams PTA president, said "funds have been allocated" for the alternative school program, but finding a place to house it has been a problem. However, she said, "the solution is not to close ELW as an elementary school. There are other locations, such as the J. Antonio Jarvis Annex," that could be utilized. She noted that the Jarvis annex "will be available once the Conrad Building has been refurbished."
Bryan suggested setting up a Job Corps program in the territory to give students the opportunity to learn a skill, take a GED course or attend college with scholarship aid, instead of using Edith Williams as an alternative school.
According to Bryan, Frett met with five parents on May 14 at a march on the Curriculum Center protesting the planned closing. She said he told them the school was being closed because of low enrollment, lack of adequate funds for transporting pupils to and from school, and plans to use the facility as an alternative school in order to get federal funds.
Frett said on Wednesday night that the Edith Williams mid-island location is desirable for the alternative school. The physical plant would need minimum modifications, and the school grounds can easily be monitored, he said.
The planned alternative school is to serve junior and senior high school students who are:
– Identified as potential school dropouts.
– Youth Rehabilitation Center clients below the age of 16.
– Chronically disruptive.
– Chronically absent and academically deficient.
Frett said information is still being gathered about how many students would attend the alternative school. Sen. Usie Richards then asked how it was possible to know that the site was appropriate without knowing the number of students who would need to be served.
After doing some calculations, Richards said Edith Williams could accommodate 200 alternative school students based on 25 in each of the eight classrooms.
Currently 112 elementary pupils attend the school.
"We can no longer cheat the children in this process," Sen. Lorraine Berry said.
She and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said the Senate can do more to keep the elementary school open. "We can mandate that the Edith Williams not be closed," Berry said.
"The Legislature is the first branch of government, and we can do what we deem necessary," Jn Baptiste said.
Richards said he hopes the Senate "won't have to go the route of enacting legislation" in order for Edith Williams to remain an elementary school. He faulted the Board of Education for the situation, saying: "They are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and I am not going to set quietly by and tolerate it."
"If those children are doing well, I don't think we should disrupt them," Sen. Carlton Dowe said.
All seven committee members were present for the hearing: Sens. David, Louis Hill, Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee, Richards and Russell. Also present were Sens. Berry and Dowe, who are not members of the committee.
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