COMMITTEE RECEIVES STATUS UPDATE FROM DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND BOARD OF EDUCATION, VETS SCHOOL SUSPENSION LIMITS BILL

Published: Jul 31, 2023

ST. CROIX – Members of the 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ Committee on Education and Workforce Development, led by Senator Marise C. James met at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. Lawmakers received a status update from the Virgin Islands Department of Education and the Virgin Islands Board of Education. Additionally, the Committee considered a bill limiting the expulsion and suspension of students in kindergarten through third grade.

In block one, the Committee received a status update from the Virgin Islands Department of Education and the Virgin Islands Board of Education.

Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education delivered testimony. Per Wells-Hedrington’s testimony, The Department of Education is undergoing a transformation. These included digitizing processes, updating standard operating procedures, and improving teaching and learning. The VIDE has spent the last year looking closely at data to make informed decisions resulting in improved outcomes. The 2023-2024 School Year is set to begin on August 7, 2023. Digitization of processes will benefit the department tremendously. This allows the Department to streamline workflows, save time and money, ensure compliance and monitoring, and accelerated growth and efficiency. Some steps taken include online registration, where parents can fill out required applications and upload documentation online to register children into the public school system. Personnel request forms have been digitized, and the per diem process is being worked on. A one stop shop for the existing PowerSchool platform is being created, where employees can access their grade book, human resource files, professional development modules, and evaluate system. A cash management system is being established that allows parents to access their child account to pay fees and all other costs related to school activities and fund raisers. This system is expected to be functional by the end of the current calendar year. Schools will be evaluated individually based on their academic performance for the first time. Star ratings for each school will be based on how they perform on four indicators. These include achievement, growth/graduation, EL proficiency, and absenteeism rates. Low scoring schools, one- and two-star schools will require comprehensive support and intervention.

The Department also provided enrichment programs in Summer 2023. Over 1100 students participated in these programs. The pathways to Success Summer Programs are designed to help students’ academic skills and access support so that they were better prepared for the next grade level. The kinder camp program introduced students to Pre-K and Kindergarten curriculum. 116 students participated in programs housed at the Lockhart and Joseph Gomez Elementary School.

The Elementary STEAM Camp targeted students in Grades 2-5. Students were engaged daily in problem-solving, hands-on application and experimental activities with a focus on science, mathematics, and engineering. CTE Summer Explorers Academy is in its third year of operation. The program provides exploratory experiences in CTE fields for students in Drafting, Carpentry, Hospitality, Financial Literacy, Life Skills, Barbering, & Hair braiding, and Human Ecology. The 60 student participants rotated through each module. Programs were housed at the Bertha C. Boschulte and the Julius E. Sprauve Campuses. The Summer Bridge Program is a four-week program designed to help students transition from elementary (6th to 7th) to middle/junior high and from 8th to 9th grade (middle/junior high to high school). There were 27 participants, all of which successfully completed the program. After school programs were also provided by the district. During the 2022-2023 school year, over 700 students were enrolled in afterschool programs at 11 school sites. 516 students attended consistently.

The department has 2,143 employees, 1049 in the St. Thomas-St. John District, and 1094 in the St. Croix District. 272 are eligible to retire. From May 26, 2023, to July 21, 2023, 30 separation letters from the St. Croix district were received. 17 were resignations, and 13 were retirements. In the St. Thomas-St. John district, 35 separations were received. 14 were resignations, and 21 were retires. 57 teachers have been lost territory wide. This includes 26 international teachers, 10 paraprofessionals, 3 administrators, two school nurses, 2 counselors, 1 librarian, and 16 support staff. The department was successful in filing 103 vacant teaching positions, 53 in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 50 in the St. Croix District. 32 were local teachers, of which 9 were paraprofessionals who were promoted to teaching positions. The department anticipates the hiring of 71 international teachers between July and September. 35 teachers will be in the St. Thomas- St. John District and 36 will be in the St. Croix district. The teachers were hired through the J1 visa exchange program with the Department of State. The department was also successful in hiring two school nurses and one librarian. The department also manages 13 federal grants from the US Department of Education. These grants are Special Education (IDEA), Consolidated Grants, Striving Readers, Adult Education, Education Stabilization Fund (ESF), American Rescue Plan (ARP), and Stronger Connections. There are 7 grants set to expire on September 30, 2023. To date, VIDE has obligated and expended over 71% ($68,343,626.44) in funds and is on track to obligate the remaining balance of $20,758,481.37 by the obligation deadline.

Emanuella Perez-Cassius, the Vice Chair of the Virgin Islands Board of Education delivered testimony. In testimony delivered by Perez-Cassius, prior to the passage of act 8717, which established the Bureau of School Construction within the Virgin Islands Education, Title 17 V.I.C. §24 School Management Accountability mandated that the Board, in consultation with the Commissioner of Education must conduct annual assessment and evaluation of all public school facilities as well as develop and adopt standards and guidelines for annual inspection, certification, and safety before the commencing of every school year. Based on assessments made under this section’s professions, the board generates the SMAR (School Management Accountability Report), no later than June 15 after each academic year’s close.

The SMAR includes findings of administrative deficiencies, recommendations for addressing the deficiencies, strengths, and weaknesses of each school, including achievement and standardized test scores, statistics for dropouts’ attendance and college entrance. The 2023 SMAR was submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, the Department of Education and partnering agencies previously identified. The Board’s evaluation covered the academic years 2020-2023. The focus of the SMAR relates explicitly to the Board’s school walkthrough inspection and easement information derived from the ancillary agencies.

According to Perez-Cassius, the board has been concerned about several things. The Board of Education is desperately in need of an At-large board member. Act 8717 can only be implemented by an Executive Director of the Bureau of School Construction and Maintenance. The board requests that the Governor appoint an executive director in accordance with the law. The timely distribution of funds to assist schools in addressing fundamental, instructional and maintenance resolutions in critical. According to Perez-Cassius, the money is theoretically there on paper, but not expendable.

Perez-Cassius also mentioned the shortage of critical personnel needed at schools, which was worsened by the pandemic. There was a lack of certified teachers at each school. The overall number of certified professionals working in VI public schools during the 2022-2023 school year was 228 while the number of non-certified professionals is 610. According to Smarter Balance tests from the 2021- 2022 school year, 46% of high school students tested below standard in English Language Arts and 81% of high school students tested below standard in math. The assessment scores have suggested that students are 2-3 grade levels below proficiency level. There is also no formal territorial mental health or trauma alert concerning students who need assistance with monumental issues. It has been suggested that direct communication should be had with the necessary agencies, such as the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, the Board of Education, as well as other organizations concerning mental health issues, and provide training for guidance counselors, monitors and other personnel.
Chairperson Marise C James voiced concern over the lack of collaboration and coordination with agencies. Commissioner Wells-Hedrington stated that coordination meetings were held with various agencies, such as the Department of Property and Procurement, the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Sports, Sparks and Recreation.

In block two, the committee considered Bill No. 35-0082, “An Act amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 9, Subchapter I, section 91 to limit the expulsion and suspension of students in pre-kindergarten through third grade and amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 11, by adding a section to make a course in mitigating behavioral issues and misconduct in the classroom for school-based professionals a requirement.” The measure was proposed by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education delivered testimony. According to Wells-Hedrington, there is little doubt that every parent, educator, and educational leader supports those students in grades Pre-K through Third should not be suspended or expelled. The Board of Education has been working on revisions to the Virgin Islands Student Disciple Policy, and the department has and will continue to encourage to seek alternatives to suspension for students in Pre-K through third grade. The current student discipline policy does not allow for the expulsion of primary and intermediate students, (K through 6).
The proposed legislation is different from that of the Board of Education’s current position as defined for Level IV infractions. Level IV infractions are major infractions that include but are not limited to “serious disruptions of the “orderly conduct of school, threats to the health, safety, and property of self or others and acts.” These infractions are considered to be the most serious acts of misconduct, and students who commit them are subject to a mandatory 10-day suspension with a consideration of a recommendation for expulsion except for students in the elementary grades. (Grades K-6).

Wells-Hedrington suggested that the proposed legislation be amended, stating that Section E, Subsection 2(e), should be amended to reflect that expulsion due to weapons use and/or possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance, or behavior that endangers the safety of others be limited to a 60- day period with a mental health review/evaluation to determine a child’s readmission to school. Readmission is subject to the decision of the school’s Basic Child Study Team. Additionally, Section E, Subsection 2(f), should be amended to reflect those decisions on the expulsion of students in grades PreK-third “must be made as part of the school’s Basic Child Study Team to include a mental or behavioral health specialist, such as a school counselor, therapist or social worker.” Through the office of the Assistant Commissioner, all deans of Students, the department as well as the Board of Education Committee on Policy, Rules, Regulations and Revisions has been working on Revisions and update to the Virgin Islands Student Discipline Policy, which was originally approved on May 14, 1998. The department has developed and will implement a multitiered system of Behavioral Supports (MTSBS) from the 2023-2024 school year. The MTSBS calls for restorative justice in lieu of suspension. The department does not see any economic impact caused by the approval or disapproval of the proposed measure.

Justa E. Encarnacion, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Health delivered testimony. According to Encarnacion, some disruptive behaviors have been attributed to Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACEs. Some of these ACEs can be traumatic events that occur in childhood. They can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance abuse problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. They are also linked to chronic health problems, mental health issues, and substance misuse in adulthood. According to Encarnacion’s testimony, 61% of adults have had at least one ACE and 16% have had four or more. Women and other ethnic minority groups are at greater risk for experiencing four or more ACEs. Communities can improve access to high quality childcare by expanding eligibility and expanding activities offered. According to testimony, almost 70% of children who have a diagnosable mental health disorder become involved with the juvenile justice system. Poor mental health can impact grades, decision making and overall health. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably unanimously and will be sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Senators present at today’s committee meeting included Marise C. James, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carrion, Dwane M. Degraff, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.

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