The Committee on Education and Workforce Development, led by Senator Marise C. James convened in a meeting at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall.
In Block 1, The Committee received testimony from the Virgin Islands Department of the Education on the status of the Virgin Islands State Literacy Plan including details on schoolsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ literacy action plans, literacy coaches and literacy specialists and implementation of culturally responsive curriculum and instruction, family literacy initiatives, extended-day, summer, or weekend family institutes related to literacy and biliteracy, partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands, the safety and security of students. Schoolwide Prevention and Intervention Strategies, School-based bullying prevention programs, Cyberbullying prevention, and intervention programs; Staff Development to Prevent School Violence, Law Enforcement Partnerships; School-Based Links with Mental Health and Social Service Agencies; School, Family, and Community Involvement. An update on the status of libraries in the Virgin Islands was also received.
The Honorable Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education delivered testimony. Per Wells-HedringtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, the department has been working on its strategic plan that aligns schools, districts, and the state with a shared focus on student outcomes. Schools have finalized their school improvement plans and budgets. Each school will receive an initial budget of $250,000 to begin their work and moving forward, will have an allocated budget within the Consolidated Grant Application. Wells-Hedrington spoke of three main organizational challenges that existed at the Department. These included updating standard operational practices to create individual plans, focusing on early childhood education, expanding opportunities for students in career and technical education, and implementing site-based management. According to Wells-Hedrington, there were policies at the Department that had not been updated since the 1980s.
Wells-HedringtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s further indicated that based on data available, levels of growth were seen in some schools on the iReady diagnostic assessment which is aligned with the Smarter Balanced Assessment. However, certain schools were not seeing significant improvement. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are being redesigned at the department to align with the territoryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Labor Market demands, as well as to enhance CTC curriculum. Wells-Hedrington also spoke of the need to make sure that all early childhood teachers meet the required certifications as required by law. She mentioned that it was important that making sure that these children know how to read, stating that illiteracy was the pipeline to prison and poverty. There is a goal of making sure that PreK programs exist at all schools in the territory.
The VIDE Office of New Schools is currently planning and implementing new school construction and school modernization projects. The first of these new schools is the New Arthur Richards PreK-8 School, being built at the former Evelyn Williams Campus on St. Croix. This would be the first major output of the new Educational Facility Plan. Future highlights of the next tranche of projects include design builds solicitations for the New St. Croix Central High School, the New Charlotte Amalie High School and the modernized Bertha C. Boschulte Pre-K through 8, the demolition of buildings at the Guy H Benjamin Center, Design and CMR Construction Services for the New Julius E. Sprauve PK-12 and New Claude O Markoe PK-8 and design build of the New Alexander Henderson PK-8. The New Schools Construction Advisory Board is currently engaged with implementing the plan. Additional plans have added a swimming pool to the New Arthur Richards PreK-8 School. The Gladys Abraham campus is being modernized and will become the hub of the Career and Technical Education and Day Adult Education. The site is scheduled to open in August 2023.
School safety and security improvements are being made at several sites in St. Croix. A contractor has started work at Claude O. Markoe Elementary School, another contractor has been selected to upgrade the kitchen at Eulalie Rivera PK-8, and a contractor has been selected to upgrade the kitchens at St. Croix Central High School, John H. Woodson Junior High School, Juanita Gardine PK-8 School, Lew Muckle Elementary School, and Ricardo Richards Elementary School. The upgrades will improve health and hygiene in the kitchens, provide safe electrical and gas utilities, improve grease traps, and provide proper equipment drainage. The interior surfaces will also be refreshed to reduce porous surfaces, repair cracks, and seal openings to reduce the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. A design-build RFP is being prepared to build security fencing and perimeter walls at schools in the St. Thomas/St. John District. Approximately $331,200 has been spent in order to upgrade school monitor security equipment.
During the 2022-2023 school year, the Department maintained a staffing level of 2,230 employees. 2,028 are classified positions and 202 are exempt. As of March 2023, there were 187 vacancies. Sixty-five vacancies were in the St. Thomas-St. John District and 122 in the St. Croix District. Of the sixty-five in St. Thomas-St. John District 13 are teaching vacancies and of the 122 in St. Croix, thirty are teaching vacancies. As of August 31, 2022, to March 13, 2023, 75 employees left the department. Of this number, thirty-three were teachers. Twenty-seven international teachers from the J1 exchange program are scheduled to return to their home countries at the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
Honorable Jean-Pierre L. Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources delivered testimony. Oriol stated that currently, there are two library facilities that are open to the public. These are the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library in St. Thomas, and the Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Challenged in St. Croix. The Turnbull library is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30AM to 7:00PM, and Saturdays from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm; areas available to the public are the general circulation area and the childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s room; the classroom and the theater are available for use via reservations. On St. Croix, the Regional Library is open Monday thru Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Two libraries are currently under repair. These are the Elaine Ione Sprauve Library on St. John and the Florence Williams Library in St. Croix. Repairs to the Elaine Ione Sprauve Library are concluding and there will be doing a ribbon cutting for the opening of the facility on April 14, 2023. The repairs to the Florence Williams library will continue through June. It is the goal of DPNR to have the facility open in the summer to partner with summer programs for youth. The Athalie McFarland Petersen Library is not currently under construction, however, the solicitation process for repairs is underway. Repairs are anticipated to begin at Petersen in June 2023. The Turnbull Library will be closing for capital repairs in the next few months.
Dr. Karen Harris Brown, Dean and Professor of the School of Education at the University of the Virgin Islands delivered testimony. Dr. BrownÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony highlighted that simply knowing how to read does not automatically qualify a person to teach reading well. Teacher training, preparation and education is essential for effective literacy instruction in the classroom setting. Brown stated that it is imperative for students to be taught foundational reading to successfully develop literacy skills. The University of the Virgin Islands School of Education offers courses in literacy instruction for early care and education providers, preservice teachers, and in-service teachers. The Virgin Islands Department of Education has partnered with the School of Education to develop and offer programs to cohorts. Per BrownÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, the early childhood years are an extremely critical period for language and literacy development. Learning to read and write is incredibly critical to a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s success in school and later in life. The early childhood years, from birth to eight years old, is the most critical period for literacy development. Brown also mentioned that is incredibly important that secondary teachers are knowledgeable of and demonstrate self-efficacy with the reading process.
Senator Marise James voiced concern over learning loss with students in the US Virgin Islands, due to the hurricanes of September 2017, as well as the recent pandemic stating that a child who was in school at that time probably has only had two years of in person school learning. Commissioner Wells-Hedrington spoke of the need to close gaps and the need to individualize plans to each learner in order to analyze where students were in terms of their learning.
In Block 2, Lawmakers also considered Bill No. 35-0055, an act amending Title 17 of the Virgin Islands Code pertaining to school curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. The measure was proposed by Senator Franklin D. Johnson.
Dr. Kyza A. Callwood, Chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Education delivered testimony. According to testimony delivered by Callwood, the Board maintains its position that while it is imperative that local and regional history is taught, emphasis must be placed on the recurring need for additional resources and qualified history teachers. Additionally, adjustment to class schedules would be necessary given the limited amount of instruction hours required. Callwood stated that there is not enough time in the school day for all the course and subjects mandated by the Legislature to be included as a stand-alone course for all students. VI History is a stand-alone course and a graduation requirement for every student on the Senior High level, it is taught within the context of the social studies curriculum on the primary level.
The Board of Education reviewed the Department of Education VI standards of Achievement (VISA) which holds the Department Accountable for higher education and academic goals from 2022 through 2024. In August 2022, the board approved the standards for social studies, which includes VI history. The board requested that the Department revise the VISA to include context and materials to be used for VI and Caribbean History as well, and to make available to all schools, including additional resources by local and Caribbean authors and historians. Callwood stated that the Board of Education supported the amendment in Section 1 (b) of Bill 35-0055 regarding family life, drug prevention and sex education.
Victor Somme III, the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Education delivered testimony. In testimony delivered by Somme, the Department of Education has not taken a position on the bill, pending a meeting with Senator Franklin D. Johnson, scheduled for March 27, 2023. Somme stated that the Department of Education is tremendously grateful to Senator Johnson and the Committee on Education on Workforce Development to share work and to advance standards, curriculum, and the teaching of Virgin Islands History, and Virgin Islands Centric Civics. New standards for Social Studies within the Virgin Islands were developed, the Virgin Islands Standards of Achievement for Social Studies (VISA-SS). VISA-SS was presented to the Virgin Islands Board of Education for review and approval on June 30, 2022, with a follow up presentation on July 9, 2022.
Testimony delivered reiterated that Virgin Islands History is not taught in isolation, but in context of the wider world to give the students perspective on the world around them and the opportunity to compare, contrast, and analyze the social, physical, and economic favors that have impacted the US Virgin Islands. The development of a Virgin Islands Centric civics course has been more recent as required by Act No. 7934, proposed by Senator Novelle E. Francis Jr. Discussions evolved to infuse Virgin Islands content into an existing civics textbook or to pursue a stand-alone resource. The desire to imbed the local Virgin Islands context into existing civics texts was preferred. Virgin Islands History K-8 Workbooks are already imbedded with a Virgin Islands Centric Civics component.
Senator Franklin D. Johnson voiced frustration at the fact that many notable Virgin Islanders were unknown to most of the Virgin Islands community, stating that these individuals should be more widely known. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably and will be sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.
Senators present at todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Committee meeting included Marise C. James, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Dwane M. Degraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.