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State of Alternative School Anything But 'Positive'

June 8, 2006 — Positive Connections Alternative School overcame one hurdle with the Board of Education's recent decision to support the existing curriculum. However, school personnel, as well as board members, agree the facility needs a lot of attention before it can fully attend to the needs of its at-risk students.
"I'm glad the board voted for us to remain a school," said school director Ophelia Jackson on Wednesday. Sitting behind her overflowing desk, Jackson, who is completing her first school year as director, said attention now needs to be directed to the needs of the school and the students.
At the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year, the Department of Education replaced the school principal with a program director — one of the first steps toward restructuring the school. The move was met with resistance from concerned teachers, staff, students and parents.
The Board of Education responded to the complaints by calling a public hearing in January. At that time the board said they were not convinced there was sufficient cause to restructure the school.
At the most recent Education Board meeting on Saturday, the Policies, Rules and Regulations Committee recommended the school remain open as a school and not be converted into a program.
In its written report, the committee said the Education Department, school administrators and the Board of Education needs to "engage in dialogue" to develop a strategy to identify the needs and seek funding to provide the resources to improve alternative education.
In her testimony before the board in January, Education Commissioner Noreen Michael said the department wanted to change the school's curriculum to mirror the Edith Williams Alternative Academy in St. Thomas.
The difference between an alternative program and an alternative school is that students at the school are graded on their work and stay in the environment longer, while Edith Williams is a "pull-out" program, where students spend several weeks receiving counseling and intervention without academic credit. Additionally, federal funds are available for alternative programs, while schools are funded by the V.I. government.
Jackson said the school needs "dramatic improvement," citing a lack of counselors, vocational education teachers and support staff. She added that there are no security cameras, and classrooms are not equipped with intercoms.
"The teachers have to use their cell phones to call the office if there is a problem," Jackson said.
"We are a hand-me-down school," Jackson said, noting that much of the equipment and furniture were brought from other schools.
Continuing to list the deficiencies at the school, Jackson said the lunchroom is a converted classroom, and if a teacher does not come to school there is no substitute pool to draw from. "I have to take over the class," she said.
As an example of the Education Department's neglect, Jackson pointed to the method in which staff, students and visitors are forced to access the school: "We enter through the back of abandoned buildings," Jackson said. "Your first impression is a lasting impression."
Positive Connections is located in Estate Richmond behind the old Juanita Gardine Elementary school location. When Elena Christian Junior High School was built more than 10 years ago, the Gardine School moved into that location, leaving its former halls of learning to fall victim to disrepair and vandalism.
The campus is accessed through a red wrought-iron gate. A blue-and-white sign with the school's motto, "Helping Students to Make Positive Connections," swings slightly in the wind. Littered with graffiti, the abandoned buildings of the former Gardine School– its window louvers, some torn out and others bent by vandals — overshadow the sign's motivational welcome message.
A narrow path, hewed by the traffic of staff and visitors' vehicles, leads through and under a now-unused student walkway. A few more feet and the neat, small campus emerges into view.
The school, according to Michael's January report, has fifteen staff members, including the director, one support staff, eight teachers, one counselor, two monitors, a custodian and a kitchen worker. Michael reported at that time there were 59 students enrolled – 14 females and 45 males.
Home Economics teacher Joanne Murphy said the teachers are frustrated. Murphy, who is also the union representative, said since the school came under the management of the current director "there has been a negative impact on the children."
Debra Watlington, co-chair of the Policies, Rules and Regulations Committee, said the board hopes to meet with Michael "within 30 days" to hammer out improvements to the school. (Frustrated by Michael's failure to attend Saturday's board meeting, board members have subpoenaed Michael to testify at the next scheduled board meeting.)
"There is a lot to be improved," Watlington said. "We need to provide the services the kids need and provide a truly alternative school setting."
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