Construction will begin soon on a new Head Start center in Frederiksted that will replace old, dilapidated classrooms scattered around the island’s west end, according to Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch.
The almost $3 million project will provide 11,500 square feet of space in 10 classrooms, a kitchen, offices and a conference room that can be used for community meetings, Finch said in a phone interview Thursday. About two-thirds of the funds for the project are being provided by the federal government.
The new facility is to be built on the back of the property housing Claude O. Markoe Elementary School. And that, some Markoe parents say, is the problem.
On Wednesday parents met with St. Croix District Superintendent Gary Molloy and others from the Department of Education to voice concern about construction going on while classes are under way.
Parents’ concerns included health and safety, noise, dust and the potential loss of some recreation space. In a statement issued Thursday morning, acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory assured parents that health and safety are top priorities for both the Education and Human Services departments.
"Our teams have played an active role in looking at every option possible for mitigating any and all risks or disruptions," she said. "We have discussed fencing around the site, working with other schools to share facilities and watering the grounds regularly to keep dust to a minimum, among other things."
Finch said the construction would take place in roughly the back third of the school property, emphasizing that was an estimate. The school’s track will be relocated, he added, and every step that can be made to mitigate the construction will be taken.
Finch said the project was developed after a tour of Head Start facilities in the territory by federal officials. In the Frederiksted area, Head Start services are offered in a variety of classroom and offices scattered around the community, all of which the visiting feds said needed work to be adequate.
In assessing the work required to retrofit the facilities, the agents suggested that building one new facility would be less expensive and would allow better access to expanded services. The federal government is providing about $2 million for the project.
"We are really certain that once this project is completed it is going to be a very, very valuable asset for the Frederiksted area for years to come," Finch said.
Finch said they had originally hoped to begin construction by June, but the first round of bids all came back higher than the proposed budget. He said the summer was spent adjusting resources to increase the local funds. A second round of bids came back and A T Construction of Puerto Rico was the winning bidder. The company’s most recent St. Croix project was construction of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park building.
The project will include 10 classrooms, each 700 square feet, a federal requirement. Each classroom will have two bathrooms. There will also be offices, a kitchen and conference room. Finch said the hope is that it will be ready to open before the beginning of the 2014 school year.
Frett-Gregory said the new facility will be a boon to youngsters getting ready to begin school.
"One of the goals of this administration has been to boost the quality and access to early childhood education programs within the territory, and we see this as an opportunity to make this valuable resource available to students on St. Croix," she said.
"Building this facility, however, will not come at our students’ expense – and both departments are committed to that promise as well,” she said. “We will continually monitor this project, address all challenges as they arise, do what we can to mitigate any impact the construction may bring and, above all, keep the parents updated on the status of the project."
"Countless studies have shown the benefits of early childhood education and what continual interaction with children from birth to age 5 does to improve cognition and motor skills. Children involved in such programs are also better prepared when entering our kindergarten classes, and show more success throughout elementary school and beyond," Frett-Gregory said.