Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum told a Senate committee hearing Wednesday that placing modular classroom for Addelita Cancryn Junior High School on Charlotte Amalie High School field was a controversial decision.
Critics at the meeting of the V.I. Senate Committee on Education, Youth and Recreation had other words for that decision.
Ruby Simmonds-Esannason, former commissioner and senator, called the proposal “flawed” and “ridiculous.”
“Clearly, the plan as proposed, destroys the field and the sports and physical education programs that have, in the past, produced nationally recognized professionals who had their beginnings on the courts and fields of our schools,” she said.
Carmen Howell, former Charlotte Amalie High School principal, called it an “ungodly plan.”
“How then can we expect our students to walk the path blazed by athletes – alumni of CAHS such as Jabari Blash, Akil Morris, Renaldo Turnbull and Sen. Janelle Sarauw who earned scholarships to attend college, and/or even later played professionally? Our students deserve these opportunities and they must not be denied.”
“This calculated scheme undermines the future of the young athletes,” said Glenn Davis, another former educator and signer of a letter protesting the move.
Sen. Jean Forde, chairman of the committee, said he shared the concerns of the protesters who testified at the hearing before the education officials testified.
The protesters gave four reasons why they thought the proposal was ill advised. They said the field often flooded; the elimination of physical education classes would jeopardize the school’s certification, the field was where students had to go in an emergency evacuation of the high school and, by taking away sports programs, it would take away the only “lifeline” some students had with the school.
But those reasons appeared not to stand a chance against McCollum’s main argument, if the modular classroom did not go in as planned split sessions could not be eliminated when schools open next month. Supports are already in the ground at the field for the modular classrooms and cement has been poured.
“It was the only viable option that lessened the impact of the disaster on all stakeholders,” McCollum said.
Considerable drainage and gut work has been done to keep the field from flooding, said Anthony Thomas, the department chief of staff. As for the field being the evacuation point, the department responded to that in a document stating, “There are evacuation points to the east and west of the high school and junior high school campuses. This is coordinated with V.I. Fire Department and VITEMA.”
Howell said the accreditation conferred on the high after a 2011-2012 school year visit recommended improvement in the schools physical education classes and the destroying of the sports field would be setting those programs back. McCollum responded that the middle school had extended its accreditation of the schools from 2019 to 2020 and educators were already working on plans to keep the accreditation.
Sen. Tregenza Roach appeared to go along with the education department’s decision but remained skeptical.
“These concerns are from people with vast experience in education. I hope the issues raised will not be an even bigger problem later,” Roach said.
He also said the department might have been too “dismissive” of protesters’ concerns.
Sen Kurt Vialet called the group who signed a letter criticizing the plan “a Who’s Who of Virgin Island educators.”
The main subject of the hearing was how prepared the schools were to open for the school year. At the commencement of the hearing, Forde said, “We know that the beginning of the school year is rapidly approaching. Therefore, we want enlightenment on the conditions of the schools and to find solutions if necessary.”
McCollum expressed confidence.
“We are ahead of schedule,” she said.
However, Senate employees had taken videos of many of the schools last week which could cause a viewer to question that confidence. The video showed much debris on school campuses.
Members from the Virgin Islands Board of Education also testified at the hearing. However, they would not make any statement concerning the readiness of the schools to open. It was indicated that the board did not have information from the department to make an assessment.
Senators did not appear to be happy about that.
“Never before has the testimony of the board of education been this bad,” he said.
The official enrollment for V.I. Public schools this year is 10,868 students: 5,301 in the St. Croix District and 5,567 in the St. Thomas-St. John District. The official count last year was 13,194.
Six school campuses on St. Croix District are receiving temporary facilities. They are Arthur Richards, John H. Woodson, Eulalie Rivera, Lew Muckle, Pearl B. Larsen,and Central High School.
The seven school campuses in the St. Thomas-St. John District receiving temporary facilities are Julius Sprauve, Charlotte Amalie, Addelita Cancryn, Lockhart, Joseph Gomez, Wheatley Skill Center and Ivanna Kean High School.
Education officials said 203 of the modular buildings are already on island and 80 more units are expected to arrive Sunday.