June 26, 2005 – Many people on St. Croix want to do something to help children on the island receive a better education. Not many, however, are willing to go as far as Janie Koopman.
Eight years ago Koopman came to the island, following her husband, Rod, who got a call to be pastor at St. Croix Reformed Church. When she saw certain students were floundering and could not get the help they needed, she started Kings Hill School.
Actually, it was not immediately apparent she would be starting a school.
"A family had heard through the grapevine that my background was in learning disabilities," Koopman said. "They contacted me about working with their son, an eighth grader, who was dyslexic. Country Day School would not accept him as an eighth grader — they recommended sixth grade. After I worked with him that one year, he reapplied to CDS and they accepted him as a ninth grader. That was the beginning."
She says the first year was "definitely a home-school approach," where classes were held from just 8 a.m. till noon.
She says that jumping right into working with students was fun and also forced her to find her way around the island quickly.
As far as figuring out how to get things done on the island, she says that can be tough and that there are still times when the bureaucracy has her stymied. However, she says parents of students, who have been on the island "forever," helped in making contacts and doing what needed to be done.
Presently the school's enrollment is limited to 30 students. She explains the low number of students is due to space constraints and "wanting to be effective with those students we accept."
From the beginning, the school's growth has been slow but steady. "By the end of the first year, I had five students," she said. "They were all eighth graders, and all went on to other schools as ninth graders. It meant starting over the next year — with two. By the end of the second year I had seven, and then I began to expand."
In the school's third year, she hired two additional teachers and started the year with 12 students and finished with 17. The fourth year began with 25. And now she says the school has a waiting list.
Getting there has not been easy. One year, she and her husband had to put a lot of their own money into the school to meet payroll. She doesn't think that will work anymore, and she has become completely dependent on tuition and gifts from the community.
And the community, starting with the Reformed Church, has been generous. The last two years the church has not charged the school rent for the space it uses.
As the school was getting set up, Country Day School was also generous, offering use of textbooks and its library facilities.
She also wants to acknowledge companies like Kapok Management, the Prosser Foundation, V.I. Rum, IVAX Pharmaceuticals, and The March Group. Many other individuals have also contributed time and resources.
But perhaps the biggest contribution the school receives comes from the soft-spoken Koopman herself, who does not currently draw a salary.
"I want to be able to use that money for hiring well-qualified, experienced teachers," she says.
Right now the school has four full-time teachers and two part-time teachers. Koopman is currently a part-time teacher, as well as an administrator.
She says she agonizes about where the future should lead her. "If we were to grow, it means we need more facilities. The cost of going into our own building and maintenance … I'm not sure. I keep thinking of the expense and how to best manage what we've got."
But she also sees the human side to expansion. She says that expanding down to the elementary grades would make sense in that the school would be able to reach students before bad learning habits had a chance to set in. "My thought when I began at the junior high level was to catch them while there was still a chance of turning them around. Besides, junior and senior high school is where all my experience is."
She doesn't have to worry much about family support. Her mother was a teacher, and so are her brother and two sisters. Her daughter and son also keep up with developments at the school and were on the board when the school first incorporated. Everyone sends her newspaper clippings and Web site addresses they think might be useful.
The bell that she rings to signify time to change classes came from her great aunt who taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Iowa in the early 1900s.
When asked what her biggest reward is, Koopman's answer was not surprising: "When a student suddenly realizes he or she can learn [and] asks me to please tell his Mom how well he reads [or] asks me to please mark a big red 100 on his paper when he's gotten all the answers right. When parents say 'I can't believe she did that!' or say 'Your school saved my daughter's life.'"
But where there are rewards, there are also challenges.
She says, "The biggest challenge is money — to get the software programs and individual workbooks for students, update textbooks, more books for the library, to get a new copy machine, and field trips off island."
She also says it's challenging to find enough time to individualize learning for every student. She explains, "You would think that with only 30 students, we should be able to do that — and we are able to. It's just that we get greedy, I guess. I keep seeing more things, more ways we could go. Finding time to set up more transition classes with apprentice programs or entrepreneurial skill development."
Somehow she does it. She finds the time. Whenever a parent of a student has a question or a concern, she is quick to get back with an answer, and if needed, a plan to resolve the problem.
Even as busy as the school keeps her, she finds time to gently greet people and play the organ softly every Sunday at the Reformed Church. It is as if by taking on a big challenge she has found peace.
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