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Senate, Delegate Candidates Talk Education Reform

While not quite on the same page about what kind of reform they favored, all candidates participating in forums hosted this week by the American Federation of Teachers agreed that the state of local public schools was hanging in the balance, leaving many students with little hope for the future.

No one knocked any particular schools or teachers, but rather said that the system as a whole is simply unable to catch every child and put them on the right academic path. While suggestions for reform included everything from more vocational education to after-school programs, much discussion centered on charter schools and whether they’re right for the territory.

Participating in the forums on St. Thomas were incumbents and aspirants in the district’s senatorial and at-large races, along with three out of four of the candidates vying for the delegate to Congress seat.

Speaking Thursday, the district’s AFT president ,Vernelle deLagarde, said the charter school debate is a hot button issue right now on the mainland and is causing "quite a stir" among the union’s membership.

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According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, charter schools are independent — free of religious or political affiliation — and non-traditional public schools. Sometimes set up as a "school within a school," these programs are often granted a charter, or "performance contract," that lays out the school’s mission, programs, goals, which students it’s going to serve and how it’s going to measure their success, among other things.

"The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for…accountability," the website states, explaining that a critical difference between charter and regular public schools is the creation of a local state or school board to whom administrators must answer.

Local boards were a key issue for debate during both Wednesday and Thursday night forums, along with concerns about funding and a lack of space in the territory for any new programs.

"We have to look at how much such an admissions board will control the curriculum, who they will let in and whether that will raise issues about discrimination," senatorial hopeful Tregenza Roach said during one of the forums. Roach said there was a contractor hired years ago to do a study on the benefits of bringing charter schools to the territory, but the following year, no one in the Education department could locate the document, which he said was about "six inches thick." Looking over that data and the various recommendations would have been helpful, he added.

The idea of certain students being favored for admission over others was a big sticking point for senatorial hopeful Clarence Payne.

"Privileged children attend charter schools," he said. "And there have been problems in the states with this, and lawsuits upon lawsuits because of the discriminatory practices of these institutions. If we set some up here, who is going to be attending? Children from Pearson Gardens, Bovoni housing or Ras Valley? No, that’s not the first choice. I don’t think the Virgin Islands needs to embrace this now without looking at all the parameters and problems with it."

Figuring out how to fund the schools — while still balancing a full Education budget — were the main concerns for Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe and newcomer Bishop Darryl Williams, a well-known face in the recent protests against Alpine Energy Group and their waste-to-energy proposal.

Saying that there’s no "one size fits all" approach to the issue, Dowe simply said that the success of any charter school will be as good as the resources the government puts behind it.

According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, the federal government has continued to push for funding for charter schools since 1995, to include millions of dollars in grants available under the U.S. Education Department. The situation is different here in the territory, Dowe said, since only a certain amount is appropriated for Education, and sometimes that’s not even enough.

"What I really believe is that we should get serious and give each school a budget, then hold the principals accountable for how the money is spent," he said. But if the idea of charter schools was something that AFT wanted to pursue, it’s better, Dowe said, if all stakeholders involved could get together, discuss it and submit a draft piece of legislation to the Senate, so as to prevent the issue from getting politically entangled.

While agreeing with Dowe on the funding, Williams also pointed out the need for more academic infrastructure in the territory — namely, buildings that could accommodate the charter schools.

"Really, they’re not that different from a private school — just that the classroom sizes are smaller, the school is smaller and the curriculum is based on what the board would have it to be," he said. "But with the space issues here, we would have to do more research before we can say for sure."

Two other senatorial candidates — Dwayne Callwood and Dolores Todman — also took the same approach, saying they would have to learn more about the pros and cons, and hear what the parents and teachers have to say, before offering a definite opinion. Callwood added, however, that shoring up the curriculum in any school so that it’s more relevant to the local population rather than "Eurocentric" might inspire more students to stay in school.

Meanwhile, two other senatorial candidates — Stephen "Smokey" Frett and at-large contender Alecia Wells — said charter schools could serve as a complement to the local public school system. Wells said that on St. John, it was often thought that students would matriculate upward from Julius Sprauve Elementary School to Guy Benjamin then on to Ivanna Eudora Kean High, where they could supposedly take part in a maritime program — one that appeared never to have gotten off the ground.

Maybe establishing a pilot program within one of the schools focused on a specific craft is the way to go, she added.

Or maybe the best option would be to blend the best aspects of charter schools into the local school system so there can be some more immediate improvements, Delegate Donna Christensen said during the second day of forums.

Frett added later, however, that any discussion on charter schools would also have to be accompanied by a serious sit-down on how to improve the public schools.

"We still need to change what we have now, because it’s not working," he said. "Our children are being left behind. As you can see, we’re still importing nurses, teachers, CEOs — our schools are supposed to be producing the needs of your community. So what is the system doing?"

Only one candidate, Police Lt. Joseph "Wojo" Gumbs, didn’t take a definitive stance, saying instead that the territory is already pouring millions of dollars into its public schools, only to get few results. The best thing to do is find a way to regain the students’ interest and teach them something they think is going to "actually help them in life."

The only two forum participants completely in favor of the idea were Vincent Danet and Guillaume Mimoun, who are both challenging Christensen for the delegate to Congress seat.

While Danet said setting up charter schools in the territory would help to raise the level of standards for all schools in the territory, whether public or private, through increased accountability, Mimoun — a product of the public school system — said they would really help to catch those students who are falling through the cracks and nurture them in a more hands-on and intimate setting.

Not all candidates participating in this week’s forum had a chance to answer the question on charter schools, since it was directed to only two participants the first half of Wednesday’s forum. However, all participants in the second half, along with all participants in Thursday’s forum — featuring the delegate candidates and senator at-large candidates — were given a chance to offer an opinion.

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While not quite on the same page about what kind of reform they favored, all candidates participating in forums hosted this week by the American Federation of Teachers agreed that the state of local public schools was hanging in the balance, leaving many students with little hope for the future.

No one knocked any particular schools or teachers, but rather said that the system as a whole is simply unable to catch every child and put them on the right academic path. While suggestions for reform included everything from more vocational education to after-school programs, much discussion centered on charter schools and whether they're right for the territory.

Participating in the forums on St. Thomas were incumbents and aspirants in the district's senatorial and at-large races, along with three out of four of the candidates vying for the delegate to Congress seat.

Speaking Thursday, the district's AFT president ,Vernelle deLagarde, said the charter school debate is a hot button issue right now on the mainland and is causing "quite a stir" among the union's membership.

According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, charter schools are independent -- free of religious or political affiliation -- and non-traditional public schools. Sometimes set up as a "school within a school," these programs are often granted a charter, or "performance contract," that lays out the school's mission, programs, goals, which students it's going to serve and how it's going to measure their success, among other things.

"The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for…accountability," the website states, explaining that a critical difference between charter and regular public schools is the creation of a local state or school board to whom administrators must answer.

Local boards were a key issue for debate during both Wednesday and Thursday night forums, along with concerns about funding and a lack of space in the territory for any new programs.

"We have to look at how much such an admissions board will control the curriculum, who they will let in and whether that will raise issues about discrimination," senatorial hopeful Tregenza Roach said during one of the forums. Roach said there was a contractor hired years ago to do a study on the benefits of bringing charter schools to the territory, but the following year, no one in the Education department could locate the document, which he said was about "six inches thick." Looking over that data and the various recommendations would have been helpful, he added.

The idea of certain students being favored for admission over others was a big sticking point for senatorial hopeful Clarence Payne.

"Privileged children attend charter schools," he said. "And there have been problems in the states with this, and lawsuits upon lawsuits because of the discriminatory practices of these institutions. If we set some up here, who is going to be attending? Children from Pearson Gardens, Bovoni housing or Ras Valley? No, that's not the first choice. I don't think the Virgin Islands needs to embrace this now without looking at all the parameters and problems with it."

Figuring out how to fund the schools -- while still balancing a full Education budget -- were the main concerns for Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe and newcomer Bishop Darryl Williams, a well-known face in the recent protests against Alpine Energy Group and their waste-to-energy proposal.

Saying that there's no "one size fits all" approach to the issue, Dowe simply said that the success of any charter school will be as good as the resources the government puts behind it.

According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, the federal government has continued to push for funding for charter schools since 1995, to include millions of dollars in grants available under the U.S. Education Department. The situation is different here in the territory, Dowe said, since only a certain amount is appropriated for Education, and sometimes that's not even enough.

"What I really believe is that we should get serious and give each school a budget, then hold the principals accountable for how the money is spent," he said. But if the idea of charter schools was something that AFT wanted to pursue, it's better, Dowe said, if all stakeholders involved could get together, discuss it and submit a draft piece of legislation to the Senate, so as to prevent the issue from getting politically entangled.

While agreeing with Dowe on the funding, Williams also pointed out the need for more academic infrastructure in the territory -- namely, buildings that could accommodate the charter schools.

"Really, they're not that different from a private school -- just that the classroom sizes are smaller, the school is smaller and the curriculum is based on what the board would have it to be," he said. "But with the space issues here, we would have to do more research before we can say for sure."

Two other senatorial candidates -- Dwayne Callwood and Dolores Todman -- also took the same approach, saying they would have to learn more about the pros and cons, and hear what the parents and teachers have to say, before offering a definite opinion. Callwood added, however, that shoring up the curriculum in any school so that it's more relevant to the local population rather than "Eurocentric" might inspire more students to stay in school.

Meanwhile, two other senatorial candidates -- Stephen "Smokey" Frett and at-large contender Alecia Wells -- said charter schools could serve as a complement to the local public school system. Wells said that on St. John, it was often thought that students would matriculate upward from Julius Sprauve Elementary School to Guy Benjamin then on to Ivanna Eudora Kean High, where they could supposedly take part in a maritime program -- one that appeared never to have gotten off the ground.

Maybe establishing a pilot program within one of the schools focused on a specific craft is the way to go, she added.

Or maybe the best option would be to blend the best aspects of charter schools into the local school system so there can be some more immediate improvements, Delegate Donna Christensen said during the second day of forums.

Frett added later, however, that any discussion on charter schools would also have to be accompanied by a serious sit-down on how to improve the public schools.

"We still need to change what we have now, because it's not working," he said. "Our children are being left behind. As you can see, we're still importing nurses, teachers, CEOs -- our schools are supposed to be producing the needs of your community. So what is the system doing?"

Only one candidate, Police Lt. Joseph "Wojo" Gumbs, didn't take a definitive stance, saying instead that the territory is already pouring millions of dollars into its public schools, only to get few results. The best thing to do is find a way to regain the students' interest and teach them something they think is going to "actually help them in life."

The only two forum participants completely in favor of the idea were Vincent Danet and Guillaume Mimoun, who are both challenging Christensen for the delegate to Congress seat.

While Danet said setting up charter schools in the territory would help to raise the level of standards for all schools in the territory, whether public or private, through increased accountability, Mimoun -- a product of the public school system -- said they would really help to catch those students who are falling through the cracks and nurture them in a more hands-on and intimate setting.

Not all candidates participating in this week's forum had a chance to answer the question on charter schools, since it was directed to only two participants the first half of Wednesday's forum. However, all participants in the second half, along with all participants in Thursday's forum -- featuring the delegate candidates and senator at-large candidates -- were given a chance to offer an opinion.