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Education Supporters Greet Senators With Protest

Feb. 28, 2005 –– Waving signs that read "Yes, I will be insubordinate. The children are my concern" and the like, about two dozen Guy Benjamin School teachers and supporters Monday greeted senators and those attending the Senate Committee on Education, Culture and Youth hearing with a protest at the Legislature building.
After a half hour of picketing, they trooped into the building for the hearing. Some, as well as others in the community and from the Education Department, testified about difficult conditions at both Guy Benjamin and Julius E. Sprauve Elementary Schools.
The protest focused on the November 2004 transfer of special education teacher Jane Roskin from Guy Benjamin to Addelita Cancryn Junior High School on St. Thomas because students had not been certified as needing special education. She is now on medical leave.
"There are five parents that have six children," Roskin said of those at the school needing special education services.
Some of those parents testified at the hearing.
Laurie Odenbach said she finally took her eight-year-old son to New York for testing because she was told she would have wait a year on St. John. She said she's now in the mediation process with the Education Department, but the Education Department is dragging its feet. And, she's been told her son should attend special education classes at Julius E. Sprauve.
"I will not take him to Sprauve because he's already been moved four times in two years," Odenbach said.
She and others said their children were falling behind because they weren't getting the help they needed.
Lisa Penn, who's taught at Guy Benjamin for 14 years, told committee chairman Sen. Liston Davis and his colleagues that while the physical plant needs addressing, so does the emotional plant.
Teachers have complained that Guy Benjamin Principal Margaret Bowers manages by edict rather than discussion. Several weeks ago, most staged a two-day sickout because they couldn't cope with the situation any longer. They had tried to contact St. Thomas/St. John District superintendent William Frett, but a teacher said he did not respond.
Penn also noted that rumor continues to circulate that the Guy Benjamin School will be closed, possibly because of declining enrollment. She said when she first started teaching at the school, it had over 80 students. It now has 67.
She suggested that the decline may be because potential students are attending private schools.
"Lots of people lack faith in the public school system," she said.
She also suggested that the drop may be by design. Penn said some residents told her that they tried to register their children for Guy Benjamin School kindergarten, but were told the school was full. However, when school started in September 2004, it had only three kindergarten students. Two more arrived later, making a total of five.
Guy Benjamin teacher Jill Olesker outlined a nightmare situation that had her waiting for three months for her Notice of Personnel Action to be approved before she got paid. She moved to St. John from New York in November specifically to teach at Guy Benjamin.
"Meanwhile, I had nothing to live on," she said.
She said the Education Department initially promised to pay her at a full-time teacher rate for the entire period she's worked, but now have paid her the substitute rate for the time she waited for her NOPA to be processed.
And she's been unable to get her 17-year-old son covered on the health insurance plan because officials wouldn't give her a full list of the documents she needed to submit.
She said she was told over and over that her paperwork was in the system, but nobody could tell her exactly where in the system.
"This requires a careful look at what message this community is making in terms of its commitment," she said.
She told Sen. Louis P. Hill that she wouldn't have come had she known the hurdles ahead.
Jose Penn, president of the Julius E. Sprauve School Parent Teachers Organization, said he's been hearing about the NOPA problem his whole life.
"This cannot continue," he said.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael said that many of the physical problems at both Julius E. Sprauve and Guy Benjamin School come because the schools are old. Julius E. Sprauve School is about 50 years old and Guy Benjamin School, about 100.
She outlined a plan of repairs that extends until August 2005. They include a new roof for the Julius E. Sprauve School library, the installation of security cameras and other repairs.
Davis said that the time had come to move Julius E. Sprauve School out of congested and noisy Cruz Bay. Plans are in the works to trade Hassel Island land for V.I. National Park land on St. John. The property, located in Catherineberg, would be home to a centrally-located school for all grades kindergarten through 12.
In addition to Davis and Hill, committee member Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville and Sen. Craig Barshinger attended the meeting.
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