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HomeNewsLocal newsEducator and Activist Addresses Historians Society Meeting

Educator and Activist Addresses Historians Society Meeting

Jessica S. Samuel, M.Ed., Ph.D. (Submitted photo)
Samuel was one of two guest speakers at the annual meeting of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians. (Submitted photo)

A Virgin Islands scholar offered her thoughts on the controversial creation of a K-12 public school for the island of St. John. Remarks by scholar and educator Jessica Samuel recently were heard at the annual meeting of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians.

The speaker called the decades-long effort to effect the land swap an example of conservation colonialism. The concept of separating indigenous and local populations from their natural habitat in the name of preserving biodiversity — known as fortress or colonial conservation — has been around worldwide since the early 20th century.

The sentiments of residents of St. John attending public meetings on the way to reaching an agreement to trade land in Estate Catherineberg for Whistling Cay have been roughly split. Some say the park service should donate land instead of trading; others say the trade is needed to add high school classrooms to a St. John public educational complex.

Samuel, founder of the Radical Education & Advocacy League (REAL), was one of two speakers addressing the group on the subject of education. She called her presentation an American dilemma.

“St. John’s lack of a comprehensive school system is framed by its status as a park island in a U.S. territory,” Samuel said. As long as decision makers valued tourism and saw St. John as a popular tourist destination, she said, quality of life decisions like building schools will slip down the priority scale.

The Virgin Islands National Park was established in the late 1950s, but generations of high school-aged children on St. John traveled to St. Thomas to attend high school; many of them lived in the homes of relatives during the week. It took Gifft Hill School — a private school founded in 1978 as Pine Peace School — several years to offer their students education through grade 12.

During a question-and-answer session that followed the Jan. 20 address, Samuel was asked how many St. John students commute to St. Thomas to go to school. About 200, she said, counting those who attend public, private, and parochial schools.

Samuel, who was born on St. Croix, moved to St. John in her early years, attended and graduated from Gifft Hill. Audience member William Cleveland asked if sending more St. John students to the available private school would solve the dilemma.

“While I see the benefit of having options, I push back on those who promote privatizing education as an option,” she said.

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