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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 22, 2024
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Education Officials Fear Teacher Shortage

Education Department Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington told the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development of difficulties within the public school system. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

Low and declining test scores, student absenteeism, and a potential teacher shortage were among the concerns education officials told senators about Monday.

Nearly 14 percent of the territory’s public school teachers are eligible for retirement Sept. 1, Education Department Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington told the Committee on Education and Workforce Development. It could mean calamity if all the eligible retirees or even a large number of them left at the beginning of the school year.

“That is alarming as we would never have 126 teachers to replace them,” Wells-Hedrington said. “Members of the leadership team are conducting interviews with both U.S. and internationally qualified professional applicants, with job offers expected to be issued within the next week for the upcoming school year. However, it is important to note that our once-desirable sun, sand, and sea are no longer the primary attraction for many. As we compete with numerous school districts nationwide, our local economy has become a significant deterrent, complicating our ongoing recruitment efforts.”

In all, 332 of the public school system’s 2,230 would be eligible for retirement Sept. 1, she said. The St. Croix School district had 111 vacant positions to fill, and the St. Thomas-St. John district had 106 vacancies ranging from math and music teachers to accountants to custodial workers. The problem was not unique to the Virgin Islands, Wells-Hedrington said, but something the entire country was grappling with.

A potential teacher shortage has broader effects, said Kyza Callwood, chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Education. Without a disciplinary incentive, some teachers may fall behind on required certification and trainings, knowing they can’t be easily replaced.

Of the territory’s 907 teachers, 541 lacked proper certification, Wells-Hedrington said. More than half of the school system’s 116 administrators also lacked required certifications.

“Our certification data remains very alarming. During our principal presentations last school year, principals reported high percentages of our educators and some administrators not being up to date with their certification,” she said. “Certification fosters professional accountability, encouraging continuous learning and development through ongoing professional education and adherence to ethical standards.”

Teacher certification was fundamental to maintaining integrity and an effective educational system benefiting students, schools, and the broader community,” she said. In February, the Education Department sent letters to all employees lacking needed certification.

“This initiative aimed to raise awareness among the professionals and their leadership, thus, ensuring that everyone involved understood the certification status and could take the necessary steps needed to update their status,” Wells-Hedrington said.

While graduation rates rose in the most recent data reported — from just 62.6 percent in 2018-2019 to 78 percent in 2022-2023 — chronic absenteeism remained troublingly high, she said.

“For the 2024-2025 school year, all students with chronic absenteeism will be referred to the Department of Human Services to intervene, especially if contact is made with parents and no improvements are made. If necessary, the VIDE will also seek assistance from the Family Division of the Virgin Islands Superior Court for chronic absenteeism,” Wells-Hedrington warned. “There is a strong correlation between attendance and academic performance. Students who attend school regularly are more likely to perform better academically.”

Educators were using detailed data analytics to structure lessons to best reach students who may struggle in one area but excel in another, she said.

“Schools are focusing and channeling resources towards the early childhood years with intentionally targeted training for this upcoming school year on the science of reading and explicit math instruction. We understand as a territory that we must guarantee that our children have a strong foundation and are reading at grade level by the end of third grade,” she said.

Math was a particularly tough subject for many Virgin Islands students. Simply put equations were easily solved, she said, but students struggled with word problems or multi-step computations.

“This difficulty often stems from their ability to understand what the questions are asking. Fundamental reading skills are at the core of our performance challenges in both English Language Art and math,” Wells-Hedrington said.

English Language Art proficiencies took a dip during the pandemic years, falling to 20.8 percent territory-wide in 2022-2021 and 17.5 percent in 2021-2022. The trend continued in 2022-2023, with just 16.9 percent of students gaining proficiency.

“The decline observed during the pandemic period emphasizes the need for targeted interventions to address learning losses and improve educational outcomes in these districts. Academic recovery action steps are included in each individual school improvement plans and we anticipate that their will continue to be growth across the territory as we work to improve our instructional strategies and utilize interventions to close those gaps,” she said.

Callwood said some of the data may be misrepresenting students’ true proficiency, reflecting more poor test-taking skills than a lack of subject mastery.

“When those test come they show a poor reflection on you as a student who is exceptional at what you do but you can’t do so well on the test,” Callwood said.

He also suggested some students don’t find the assessment tests important knowing they don’t change their letter grade in a class.

“I’m still going to be top of my class. It don’t have nothing to do with the test,” Callwood said.

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