Three public schools on St. Thomas will be subject to a last-minute change of plans, according to top officials at the Department of Education.
Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin held a news conference Tuesday morning on the steps of Charlotte Amalie High School to announce the changes, flanked by her top administrators.
New classroom arrangements for the start of school at CAHS and two adjacent schools were among changes for public schools across the territory.
As a result of structural deficiencies found in the main building at CAHS, officials said portions of school Building A and Building B will be placed off limits by the start of classes for the 2019-2020 school year.
As a result of the changes, classrooms for CAHS, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and Lockhart Elementary School will be shifted to compensate for the loss of approximately 35 classrooms.
Details about the circumstances that led to the change in classroom assignments were spelled out by St. Thomas-St. John Insular Superintendent Stefan Jurgens.
“A structural engineering report conducted on the CAHS campus identified several of the campus’ buildings that are in need of repairs. The report singled out Building B, which was partially shuttered under the previous administration, as the building in the worst condition,” Jurgens said.
“CAHS Building A was also recently found to have significant structural damage, making it unsafe to be occupied by students and staff in the 2019-2020 school year,” he said.
Education will gradually discontinue use of classrooms over a period of months, he said.
After the closure of the two buildings is completed, they will be fenced off. Signs will be posted declaring the area restricted, and students will be notified about the changes during orientation, which is a few days from now.
Officials are also considering the future of CAHS Building C, which was partially damaged in a June 2003 fire. According to former high school principal, Jeanette Smith-Barry, the damaged classroom was restored and Building C is in good condition.
“I don’t recall us ever being out of Building C for a whole year. Not at all. The commissioner is right when she said we can’t predict the structural issues,” Smith said.
The commissioner opened Tuesday’s press conference by asking for the public’s patience and trust as the changes are made. At the same time, the commissioned admitted that conditions brought on by the 2017 hurricanes exacerbated building problems at CAHS that predated the storms.
Additionally, modular classrooms at public schools, once deemed temporary, will be replaced eventually.
“The VIDE has expressed, for years, the need for adequate funding to maintain our aged facilities. The truth is that the Virgin Islands government does not have the level of funds required to maintain our aged schools and facilities,” Benjamin said.
Gov. Albert Bryan weighed in with a statement supporting the commissioner’s concerns and a pledge to increase school maintenance funds.
“We are prepared and committed to confronting these challenges. That is why we have, in our proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, set aside $2 million for school maintenance – a figure that is substantially more than has been allocated in recent years. I have full confidence that Commissioner Berry-Benjamin, and our District Insular Superintendents, along with DOE’s Operations team, our teachers and the rest of the DOE staff will ensure a safe and conducive school environment for our students this school year,” the governor said.
Contingency plans carried out by Education after the twin disasters of 2017 resulted in the relocation for Cancryn to the CAHS campus in modular classrooms. The elementary and high schools have been within walking distance of each other along Alton Adams Drive for several years.
Lockhart sustained water damage in the passage of Irma and Maria but remained structurally sound and served as an emergency shelter for displaced residents for several weeks afterwards. But Lockhart also received modular classrooms as the 2017-2018 school year began in late October.
After meeting with administrators for the three schools in what he called the K through 12 educational corridor, Jurgens introduced the classroom reconfiguration:
– Lockhart students attending K through third grade will report to classes in the colorful modular units on the southeastern campus.
– Cancryn Intermediate and Junior High School will join Lockhart students, attending fourth through sixth grades in the Lockhart School building and the modular classrooms on the CAHS tennis court.
– High school students attending classes in Buildings A and B will occupy the modular units located on the school’s athletic field.
– Portions of CAHS that remain in use under the plan include the auditorium, Career and Technical Education building, the modular gymnasium, Building N and the JROTC building.
– School uniform requirements remain the same for now, Jurgen said. Students attending classes in the Lockhart School building will continue wearing the blue on blue uniform for Lockhart, and the dark red and white uniform for Cancryn. Both Lockhart Elementary and CAHS students wear a medium blue top over dark blue skirt or jumper for girls, pants for boys.
St. Croix District Superintendent Carlos McGregor also announced the pending rollout of four new schools incorporating students from kindergarten through eighth grade; Arthur Richards, Pearl B. Larsen, Juanita Gardine and Eulalie Rivera.
Elementary school continuing with the kindergarten through sixth grade arrangement include Ricardo Richards, Claude O. Markoe, Alfredo Andrews and Lew Muckle. John H. Woodson will be the island’s one junior high school.
St. Croix’s three high schools, he said, remain the same; Central High School, St. Croix Educational Complex and Career and Technical Center, or CTech.
McGregor also announced staggered start times for the different school classifications.
“High schools begin the instructional day at 7:30 a.m.; junior high at 8 a.m. Our K-8 schools at 8:15 a.m. and our K-6 schools at 8:30 a.m.,” the superintendent said.
School breakfast times will also be staggered, starting half an hour prior to the start of classes, McGregor said.