Mar. 28, 2004 It was the last thing Dan Stavis thought he would be doing when he left chilly Pennsylvania four months ago, headed for the blue waters and warm weather of St. Thomas, far from the halls of academe. At the time perhaps he was thinking of doing some sailing.
However, this Sunday Stavis was taking tickets at the second annual fund-raiser for the Virgin Valley Learning Center, a one-room, old-fashioned schoolhouse on Water Island, where he has been teaching for the past three months.
The school was started in started in October 2002 by Robyn Bitterwolf and Cindy Wortman, who were its first and only teachers. (See "New learning center opens on Water Island".)
"I was running the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Kids Club when I met Robyn," Stavis says, "and the next thing I knew, I was teaching." Bitterwolf leaves most of the teaching to Stavis and a math tutor, while she earns an income at Magic Moments Tours, which is next to the hotel's aquatic center.
Bitterwolf works there to make ends meet, while volunteering at the school one day a week.
"We're so lucky to have Dan," Bitterwolf says. "We spoke a little, and when I saw his spirit, just watching him, I though how good he would be." Although Wortman has branched off into another field, she was busily helping with the Sunday event.
Stavis is obviously pleased with his change of career. "I've never done anything like this. I take the Water Island ferry over in the morning, walk up the trail through the woods, and there's the school no walls." He says when he left the states, he wanted to do "something different" before entering graduate school. And he has.
The school is unique. The highly structured curriculum of regular schools is absent, and the classes are often conducted outdoors.
"I have to stay on my toes," Stavis says. "You have to be flexible, it's a different way of teaching. We have 13 students eight full time and five part time. They are between five and 15 years old, and we teach everything. We are like a family; it wouldn't work with a regular classroom of 30 kids."
"There's a lot of interaction between the students and nature, and between themselves. One minute you're teaching them teamwork, like how to climb over a rope that's about three feet high. It can be done with teamwork. You have to be ready for anything."
Stavis continues: "We have a math tutor, and I teach everything else. But I have a great teaching assistant, Tisha Bastien, who is learning before she goes back to college."
Bitterwolf, who's delighted to have Bastien, says, "she's great, and she is getting to learn, too."
The Sunday event at Lechon King Grille at Gregerie East was lively, despite an early rain shower. Timmy Gee played guitar and sang for the crowd of about 75, who were gobbling up the lavish spread: eggs benedict, smoked salmon, enormous chocolate chip cookies, and all manner of salads, sweets and fruits. Gee was spelled intermittently by eight-year-old Cassandra Bitterwolf on the microphone, testing out her skills as a chanteuse. While her abilities were decidedly limited, the good-natured crowd applauded nonetheless.
The school currently has three computers donated by computer expert Kevin Patrick, who donates his time to maintain them. In fact, on Sunday a laptop was running a constant slide show of the school: youngsters gathered around a table studying, running on the beach, climbing trees, sitting at the computers, playing games or swimming.
Bitterwolf loves the school. Children are her passion. "We have amazing children," she says, "they are so bright, they are going to be leaders. I think the regular education system is trying to raise followers."
"You need to teach the fundamentals, " she says, "and then if you are interested, if you trigger their interest, they'll figure it out, and learn themselves. We have a self-directed approach to give them an opportunity to learn. They want to know everything!"
"We had a great summer school last year," Bitterwolf says. "We certified 15 students in scuba diving. I think it's so important that kids learn the marine industry. And they can earn a good living. The two captains at Magic Moments are both West Indians, and they make up to $70,000 a year, and they work with people and make a difference. They show people the beauty of our environment."
Bitterwolf says that in the relatively brief time that the center has existed, the facility has served more than 40 families. "And we get the occasional sailing families. They enroll their children for a few weeks while they are getting their boats hauled. They learn about us through word-of-mouth," she adds.
Bitterwolf describes the school as "an enrichment center for cooperative home schoolers."
Bitterwolf and her husband, Jurgen, a prominent local chef and caterer, live on their boat with their three children, Cassandra, Stephan and Matthias.
The school subsists on modest tuition fees, membership fees and donations. "We have had some wonderful people helping," Bitterwolf says. "I asked Craig and Sally's restaurant for a donation of food, and Craig gave me much more than that he gave an extremely generous donation. Others have helped, too, like Marina Market."
Bitterwolf says she is working on getting a grant, but it's a long process still in the works. Sunday's event brought in about $2,800, at $25 a ticket.
"If we didn't have this roomful of friends, we wouldn't be able to do it," Bitterwolf smiles gratefully.
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