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Education Officials Face Tough Questions on State of V.I. Schools

Education officials sat down with Senate committee members Wednesday for a session billed as a chance to give lawmakers an overview of issues facing the territory’s schools.

Sen. Janette Millin-Young, who chairs the Committee on Education, Youth and Culture, opened the meeting at 10 a.m. in the Earl B. Ottley Building by assuring the testifiers that "this isn’t a ‘gotcha session.’" But there were still plenty of hard questions for Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry, Board of Education chairperson Winona Hendricks and the other education officials in attendance.

Terry opened the session by reading a report answering questions on a wide range of topics, from vocational education, building maintenance and athletic facilities to the dropout rate, campus safety, and much more. Hendricks then gave an overview of the board’s role in shaping education in the territory.

The department drew kudos from the senators for "a really remarkable improvement" in the handling of funds, especially federal grant funds. In past years the territory has had to return millions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Education because it wasn’t able to use the money in the time allotted. In the 2006 fiscal year, for example, the department had to return $10.9 million to the feds. Four years later, at the end of FY 2010, that number had been reduced to $500,000 according to Assistant Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.

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Despite progress made, there were still many areas of concern for senators.

"I’m a little bit perturbed at some of the testimony," Sen. Sammuel Sanes said, addressing the dropout rate. Terry said the department was developing a plan to identify potential dropouts much earlier than they are now.

"I have heard this over and over again, ‘We’re developing a plan,’" he said. "I graduated from Central High School in 1982 and we had a dropout problem then … We cannot continue developing and or researching. We have to stop developing programs and rectify the matter. It is time now to find solutions, to implement solutions."

Terry reassured the senator that there are programs in place to help deter dropouts. But those programs kick in when the student reaches high school, she said. The department is looking at ways to identify and work with students much earlier, perhaps as early as fifth or sixth grade.

Many questions centered on the career and technical education programs. The department is taking the existing programs and creating "academies" in specific career areas, including the hospitality industry, marine industries, construction, information technology, finance, nursing and many more.

Sen. Louis Hill expressed concern that the academies were only just now being implemented.

"It’s not ‘has been implemented,’ it’s always ‘will be implemented," he said.

Eduardo Corneiro, the director of adult education, countered that some of the academies are already up and running, and that in the meantime, it’s not as if the department is not running the career and technical programs. The academy concept is designed to bring a program together in a more career-oriented way, he said, but in the meantime the current programs are still helping students.

There are also problems in maintaining programs because of personnel, he said. The construction academy, for example, hasn’t been able to hire a teacher in masonry because most qualified instructors can make more money actually doing that job in private industry than they can teaching.

A similar problem exists in keeping a nurse assigned to every school in the territory, Terry added. Nurses can usually make more working in one of the area hospitals than they can working for the school district.

The questions and answers continued throughout the day, with Millin-Young finally gaveling the session to a close at about 5:30 p.m. But she promised there would be another, because education is vital to the future of the territory.

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Education officials sat down with Senate committee members Wednesday for a session billed as a chance to give lawmakers an overview of issues facing the territory's schools.

Sen. Janette Millin-Young, who chairs the Committee on Education, Youth and Culture, opened the meeting at 10 a.m. in the Earl B. Ottley Building by assuring the testifiers that "this isn't a 'gotcha session.'" But there were still plenty of hard questions for Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry, Board of Education chairperson Winona Hendricks and the other education officials in attendance.

Terry opened the session by reading a report answering questions on a wide range of topics, from vocational education, building maintenance and athletic facilities to the dropout rate, campus safety, and much more. Hendricks then gave an overview of the board's role in shaping education in the territory.

The department drew kudos from the senators for "a really remarkable improvement" in the handling of funds, especially federal grant funds. In past years the territory has had to return millions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Education because it wasn't able to use the money in the time allotted. In the 2006 fiscal year, for example, the department had to return $10.9 million to the feds. Four years later, at the end of FY 2010, that number had been reduced to $500,000 according to Assistant Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.

Despite progress made, there were still many areas of concern for senators.

"I'm a little bit perturbed at some of the testimony," Sen. Sammuel Sanes said, addressing the dropout rate. Terry said the department was developing a plan to identify potential dropouts much earlier than they are now.

"I have heard this over and over again, 'We're developing a plan,'" he said. "I graduated from Central High School in 1982 and we had a dropout problem then ... We cannot continue developing and or researching. We have to stop developing programs and rectify the matter. It is time now to find solutions, to implement solutions."

Terry reassured the senator that there are programs in place to help deter dropouts. But those programs kick in when the student reaches high school, she said. The department is looking at ways to identify and work with students much earlier, perhaps as early as fifth or sixth grade.

Many questions centered on the career and technical education programs. The department is taking the existing programs and creating "academies" in specific career areas, including the hospitality industry, marine industries, construction, information technology, finance, nursing and many more.

Sen. Louis Hill expressed concern that the academies were only just now being implemented.

"It's not 'has been implemented,' it's always 'will be implemented," he said.

Eduardo Corneiro, the director of adult education, countered that some of the academies are already up and running, and that in the meantime, it's not as if the department is not running the career and technical programs. The academy concept is designed to bring a program together in a more career-oriented way, he said, but in the meantime the current programs are still helping students.

There are also problems in maintaining programs because of personnel, he said. The construction academy, for example, hasn't been able to hire a teacher in masonry because most qualified instructors can make more money actually doing that job in private industry than they can teaching.

A similar problem exists in keeping a nurse assigned to every school in the territory, Terry added. Nurses can usually make more working in one of the area hospitals than they can working for the school district.

The questions and answers continued throughout the day, with Millin-Young finally gaveling the session to a close at about 5:30 p.m. But she promised there would be another, because education is vital to the future of the territory.