A bill that would require educators teaching kindergarten through third grade to meet specific early childhood education requirements was approved by the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee Thursday and sent on to the full Senate.
The measure also would require the Board of Education to declare regulations for those minimum requirements, and allocate funding so educators can meet the requirements.
“We failed them, and we continue to fail them. We cannot continue to do this, now is the time for education reform,” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw, chairwoman of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.
Sarauw said she recently visited Julius E. Sprauve Elementary School and saw firsthand that third and fourth grade classes had no English language arts instructor. In the fifth grade, she said, students were divided into two classes, one class had all ESL students and the other class had all special education students, leaving regular students dispersed between those two groups.
During her visit to Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, Sarauw added, there was no science instructor for the seventh grade students.
Sarauw said she couldn’t sleep after her visits to the territory’s schools, asking herself, “What in the world are we doing to our students?”
“What are we doing to them when they leave third or fourth grade with no English language arts instructor. We cannot expect them to perform at grade level. We cannot expect them to enter junior high during that transitional period and function. That is where they are going to act out and in ninth grade that is where the dropouts begin,” Sarauw said.
She said it is no wonder the territory has an unskilled labor force. When students start behind, they lag behind throughout the rest of their educational experience, she said.
The bill was proposed by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, who said there has been much discussion surrounding the territory’s children from pre-kindergarten through third grade and whether they have the necessary resources, the most important resource being the professionals who stand in front of those students.
Frett-Gregory, formerly the commissioner of the Department of Education, said when she hears the argument that “we have a teacher shortage,” her rebuttal is, “We need to address the issues we have here in our educational system not only from the back end … but the front end or we will continue to have the conversations that we are having with regards to our young people.”
“We are down to about 10 to 11 public schools in the territory, so we have more than enough funding to support $180,000 annually for a period of three to four years to support the teachers who will benefit from such an important professional development,” Frett-Gregory said.
Some argue that if teachers are specifically trained to teach kindergarten through third grade, then schools will not be able to allow teachers from higher grades to teach early childhood students. But Frett-Gregory said that is the point.
“It is important to ensure that our teachers are trained in, willing, capable and able to stand in front of our students and give them the education that they deserve,” Frett-Gregory said.
Sarauw said that, just as a person doesn’t go to the veterinarian to get a cancer diagnose, so too a sixth grade teacher should not be pulled from middle school and be expected to teach kindergarten adequately.
“We cannot continue to place teachers who do not have that early childhood requirement on the lower grade levels,” Sarauw said.
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. supported the bill, saying it falls in line with his agenda of breaking the “school to prison pipeline.”
“There is always room for improvement,” Francis said. “There is really an opportunity here for us to craft the rules and regulations, to move forward and address this particular issue. Let’s invest the money on the front end.”
The bill passed the committee with six “yea” votes and will move to the full body for further consideration. Sens. Sarauw, Francis, Alicia Barnes, Kenneth Gittens, Myron Jackson and Steven Payne Sr. all were present for the vote. Sen. Javan James was absent for the vote.