Have you ever noticed you could increase your vocabulary while driving past Charlotte Amalie High School (CAHS)?
A glance at a prominent yellow-and-blue roadside sign on the campus reveals the school’s word of the day, for instance, "monolithic" meaning massive, solid, uniform. Now, there’s something you could throw into your conversation to impress your peers and better express yourself.
"Every day a new word is listed, taught and discussed across the campus," says CAHS principal Carmen Howell. It’s part of the school’s ongoing literacy campaign.
This one seemingly small thing instituted by Howell, is part of the larger picture she pursues in her ongoing campaign to help her 1,580 students excel.
And excel they do.
The perfectly poised and immaculately groomed Howell sits behind a desk bordered by a PC on the one side, a laptop pulled up in front, and a huge floral bouquet on the other.
"My birthday," she allows, "from my husband." However, that’s it for personal asides.
Howell is still glowing from a recent visit by the prestigious Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, where she says the school emerged with an "outstanding and very impressive" review. The school is up for re-accreditation in 2012.
Howell says, "It was a huge effort, almost a year in the making. In fact, tomorrow I’m having an assembly to thank everybody — the stakeholders from the community, the students and the parents. Everybody pulled together. We all understand the importance of being accredited."
Charlotte Amalie High School and Bertha C. Boschulte were the only upper schools in the territory to meet adequate yearly progress standards (AYP) this year. Howell proudly points out on a wall filled with award certificates and other emblems of success, a photo of the student body holding AYP signs aloft.
Born on nearby Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Howell found her inspiration early on. "I decided I wanted to be just like my third-grade teacher, Inez Brathwaite. I knew then what I would do."
She graduated from high school with top honors, earning a full scholarship from the B.V.I. government to attend the University of the West Indies in Barbados, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and mathematics.
Howell returned to teach on Tortola, then moved to St. Thomas in 1977 to teach at Wayne Aspinall Junior High School (now Addelita Cancryn), becoming assistant principal from 1983 to 1995.
She moved to CAHS as assistant principal for seniors until in 2008, she assumed her current mantle, after principal Jeanette Smith Barry left to become St. Thomas-St. John District superintendent.
Passing by the Wall of Fame on a brief tour of the campus, Howell notes the school’s prestigious alumni, including including former Gov. Charles Turnbull, Dr. Alfred O. Heath, educator Ruth E. Thomas and Ambassador Terence Todman.
"These people will provide role models for the students to emulate," she says.
For their part, CAHS students today do their school proud. All six V.I. high school students receiving AP Scholar awards this July were from CAHS.
"We now have 69 AP (advanced placement) courses," Howell says. "The students passed three or more of the courses, which is a good piece of their college right there. I’m thrilled by their progress."
While touring the sparkling new science labs, paid for with federal stimulus funds, Howell said one program has a firm place in her heart: the Ninth-grade Academy.
"It’s in a separate building," she says. "The school is such huge place. It can be overwhelming for new students. The ninth grade is critical to their development, so we have created a nurturing environment. If a student does well in ninth grade, they will usually graduate."
Implicit in Howell’s pride in the material improvements — including new energy-efficient lighting installed over the summer – is her passion for her students.
"They live here," she says. "They are comfortable. They come in after school, on weekends. They know someone will be here to help them, like Shirley Blyden, our guidance counselor. We’re really a family."
But, like any family, the school has problems. Howell says her biggest challenge is staffing. "I have a number of retired teachers who have come back to help, our band director, English teachers, our physical education."
She says, "It’s a big issue. I’m going to need permanent replacements. We have a subcommittee making sure classes are covered in the first semester."
With her characteristic confidence, she says, "I’m certain things will work out. It’s difficult; people just aren’t entering the profession the way they used to."
Along the way, Howell and her husband, Alford, have raised two sons – Jevaun, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, now a web page designer in New York; and Jevere, a doctor at Homestead Hospital in Florida.
Howell had been planning to retire from her 30-year-plus teaching career at the end of the 2010 school year, but she says, "I couldn’t do that with the Middle States review coming up."
With a smile, she concludes, "I’ll know when the time is right."