Aug. 2, 2004 – The Education and Youth Committee chair, Sen. Ronald Russell, was quick to give his opinion on the "status of education" at a public hearing Monday on St. Croix.
"I believe we are in a crisis in our education system," he said in his opening remarks.
Russell then cited statistics he said are alarming. Out of 65,000 people in the Virgin Islands over the age of 25, he said, 12,000 don't have a 9th grade education and another 12,000 did not graduate from high school.
"I am alarmed that we as leaders have allowed this to develop right before our eyes," he added.
Russell tied poor education to poverty and then delivered more statistics. He said 45 percent of the children in the Virgin Islands are living in poverty.
The other senators on the committee appeared to share his concerns as they covered topics ranging from test scores to unusable restrooms to school security and even the proper attire of students.
Sen. Louis Hill called for someone to accept responsibility. "There have to be changes in the Department of Education, fundamental changes," he said.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael did not help her reception any by arriving an hour late.
Hill told her: "I have been to several meetings like this, and you are always late and have the excuse it was beyond your control. It doesn't satisfy me. We expect you to respect this body."
He also told Michael that "we are rapidly becoming an uneducated community" and said much of the responsibility for that fell on her.
However, Hill admitted that her "lengthy report was well documented and well written."
Accreditation, Federal Compliance, Maintenance Updates
Michael took nearly an hour to present the 20-page report to the committee. In it she addressed three areas:
– Reaccreditation efforts and progress for the high schools.
– Adherence to the federal compliance agreement.
– Summer repairs to schools.
With respect to reaccreditation, she reported that the department submitted a strategic plan last September to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency for the territory. The plan included action plans for 11 areas, she said, and since then, monthly meetings have been held to check on the progress in initiating action in those 11 areas.
The department has been working on a system to collect student and school data. Training has been conducted for high school principals and other support staff in financial management. A plan outlining other areas for ongoing training has been developed.
To help with the development and implementation of an initiative for standards, assessment and accountability, the department is working with the Education Alliance at Brown University.
Although most of Michael's report was about the Education Department in general, it was geared Monday toward the specific situation on St. Croix.
Similar hearings are planned Wednesday on St. Thomas and Thursday on St. John.
On St. Croix, Michael said, "Both senior high schools have met the various deadlines required by Middle States."
Educational Complex High School will receive an evaluation team from Middle States in November, and Central High School will do so in March.
Michael said the department has completed almost two years of the three-year compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. That agreement requires "the V.I. government to improve education for the students of the territory through the development of integrated and systemic solutions in managing federal education funds and programs."
Toward that end, according to Michael, all schools submitted their improvement plans in February. And, she said, "Reading comprehension, vocabulary, and mathematics problem-solving are common priorities in all plans for the 2004-2005 school year."
In April, both districts came up with school improvement plans based on a collaborative effort of educators and community members. Michael said it is anticipated that this process will be completed by early September in order to submit an on-time federal application for funding.
As part of the standards, assessment and accountability project, Michael said, she expects the department to develop an accountability system that meets the No Child Left Behind Act.
Sen. Usie Richards asked whether implementing the No Child Left Behind Act is an unfunded mandate.
Michael responded that it is hard to determine that because of how funds often are mixed together. She said some areas apparently received increased funds because of the act, but there are areas mandated for which no funding has come.
Maintenance Work Began July 7
As for the summer repair and maintenance of schools, Michael said work began on July 7, with in-house staff doing much of the work. Also, she said, the department is using summer workers hired through the Labor Department, from the Bureau of Corrections and from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission.
After several questions from senators about specific maintenance progress, she deferred to Louis Hughes, territorial maintenance director. He admitted that probably not all projects would be done before school restarts on Aug. 25.
It also is not yet clear if the department will have all the teachers needed by the first day of school.
Michael reported: "To date, in the St. Croix district, we have had a total of 100 separations; this represents the retirement of 43 professional staff, the resignation of 21 professional staff, the retirement of 23 support staff, the resignation of four support staff, and six other types of separations."
Most of the positions have been filled, she said, but there are still vacancies for four mathematics teachers and four physical education personnel at the secondary level, eight elementary positions and two school nurses.
The substitute teacher pool is strong this year, with 66 persons, according to Alscess Lewis-Brown, Education human resources director. She added that the pool will ensure that all classrooms are covered on the first day of school.
Senators had many questions about school security and vocational education, and the hearing continued until about 4 p.m. Russell said questions not answered on Monday could be addressed in the meetings on St. Thomas and St. John.
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