Calling it an investment in the children of the territory, Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter and other administrators revealed Tuesday the details of a summer pilot program that is focused on getting students to read at grade level.
“This is a serious mission that is expected to take our youngsters to another level and give them opportunity,” Potter said at a press conference on St. Thomas. “And this is about opportunity.”
Potter said 125 students – 50 each for St. Thomas and St. Croix, along with 25 from St. John – will be part of the pilot, which kicks off June 25 at five school sites across the territory. Working under the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools Program, the students will be involved for six weeks in a customized curriculum centered on reading that officials said Tuesday will help “bridge the learning gap” that kindergarten through third-graders experience over the summer months.
“The statistics have come to us from every direction, and they indicate that if a student is not reading by third grade, that is an indicator that they may potentially be incarcerated or have some kind of contact with the law,” Potter said. “The statistics are not in their favor and so our position is that if we can spend a lot of money to incarcerate our young people and take care of them on the back end, why can’t we do it this way and invest in them up front?”
The Freedom Schools program will be overseen in the territory by Executive Director Lisa Hassell-Forde, principal at Addelita Cancryn Junior High, and a staff that she described Tuesday as “hand-picked” for their energy and teaching style.
Under Hassell-Forde, there are two program directors, five site coordinators, instructors and interns, and by the time the pilot kicks off at the end of June, all would have completed a national training by the organization.
Hassell-Forde said Tuesday that the makeup of the instructors will also vary from what students see throughout the school year. Two veteran teachers and two college students will be at each site throughout the summer, while the students will be a mix of all different reading levels.
“We’re going to have our low functioning students, our mid-level students and our high functioning students, and we’re going to have all of them at each site and we’re going to make them love the written word,” she said.
To make the program a success, Potter said the key was being able to establish a public-private partnership involving his office, the Education Department, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and key donors that have put up the funds for the pilot.
After seeing how it works, Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum said Tuesday that it is expected to continue as an afterschool program in the fall to give students some continuity and support during the year.
“We know that there is no more valuable gift you can give a child than reading,” she added. “They can travel the world, master any occupation or hobby. Anything they choose can be brought forward through reading. We’re starting small now but as the years go forward, the numbers will increase and we are certainly looking forward to the success of our children.”
On the financial side, CFVI has come in as the fiscal administrator over donations that are given by local companies or individuals to cover the cost of the program. Potter said that any funds that come in for the pilot will not go into the General Fund of the government but will instead go directly to CFVI and be used, according to president Dee Baecher-Brown, “exclusively” for Freedom School.
CFVI has focused on early childhood education programs and initiatives for the past eight to 10 years and Baecher-Brown said Tuesday that the summer pilot will also pair students with a number of other initiatives, such as the Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge and the Education’s Departments Kinder Camp, that will support what they are learning through the Freedom Schools program.
Potter and other speakers encouraged other donors interested in supporting the program to learn more about how they can get involved or become a sponsor. Freedom School sites include Ulla F. Muller and Lockhart elementary schools on St. Thomas, Julius Sprauve School on St. John, and Juanita Gardine and Claude O. Markoe elementary schools on St. Croix.