ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Senator Marise C. James convened in a meeting at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers received updates on the condition of school facilities throughout the territory, particularly the status of the John H. Woodson Junior High School and renovation of bathrooms at St. Croix Central High School and St. Croix Educational Complex High School. Additionally, updates were received concerning student achievement and actions to close the learning gaps and the effectiveness of the I-Ready Program and Intervention Blocks, and Parent Engagement in Schools, as well other matters concerning the Board of Education.
Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education, delivered testimony. Wells-Hedrington said school infrastructure has been showing signs of wear and tear. Wells-Hedrington stated these deteriorating conditions affect the comfort and safety of students and staff. Resources have been allocated to address infrastructure issues. Funding has been received from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Wells-Hedrington spoke of an extremely critical issue, the deterioration of modular units at schools, that were first covered by a five-year warranty upon installation. Detachment issues are being experienced in these modular units. This has led to air quality concerns, leading to a plan for roof repairs and replacement of HVAC systems.
Critical issues at the John H. Woodson Junior High School were identified. The school faced urgent challenges, such as mold, uncomfortable heat, and odors that affected students and staff. Air-quality testing was done and identified that mold remediation efforts were successful. Other improvements at the school include the replacement of the duct system in the main office, changing of floor tiles in classrooms, ceiling times, replacing exterior lighting in hallways, installing new AC units, and addressing minor repairs such as electrical and plumbing concerns, as well as pressure washing of hallways, exterior painting in the courtyard, and deep cleaning of the entire campus. Bathroom renovations have progressed at the St. Croix Central High School. There is a plan to renovate 14 restrooms. There are plans to address roof leaks in the cafeteria and walkways. Renovations of bathrooms at the St. Croix Educational Complex are expected to be done through a consolidated contract that include all restroom renovations in the St. Croix District.
The overall student population in the US Virgin Islands is declining. This has declined from 10,907 in the 2019-2020 school year to 10,312 in the 2023-2024 school year. The number of English Language Learners is increasing, particularly in the St. Thomas-St John District, from 903 in 2022-2023 to 1074 in 2023-2024. This number is slightly smaller in the St. Croix district, increasing from 237 to 270 in that same period. The population of Special Needs students has slightly decreased in both districts, from 403 to 394 in St. Croix and 317 to 210 in the St. Thomas-St. John District between 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. There are currently 14 funded teaching vacancies in the St. Croix District. This included four elementary, five secondary, and five special education teachers. In the St. Thomas St John District, this included two secondary teachers.
In the St. Croix District, most kindergarten students demonstrate impressive performance in Fine Motor and Pre-Writing Domains, with completion rates of about 97% and average scores of 86.00 and 84.00, respectively. Cognitive and Language domains also show high completion rates of over 96%, although the average score in Language is slightly lower at 68. The Personal/Social domain exhibits a lower completion rate of 79.4% but with an average score of 87, indicating overall strength in motor skills and prewriting. In the St. Thomas-St. John District, while most domains show average scores of 79 or above, Cognitive and Language domains have lower average scores of 68 and 63, respectively. Despite this, Fine motor and Pre-writing skills demonstrate strong development, with 80% and 85% of students showing proficiency. Personal/Social skills have a high average score of 84, although proficiency levels have varied.
The current enrollment in the St. Croix District is 5,117 students, with a slight majority of male students. Among them, 389 students receive Special Education Services, with 257 being English Language Learners, and 30 students receiving both Special Education and ESL Services. The 2022-2023 Summative Smarter Balanced Administration indicates room for improvement, with rates of 17% in ELA, 6% in Math, and 32% in science. In the St. Thomas-St John District, there are 5,262 students. 2,575 students are in elementary, 1,822 in high school and 775 in Junior High School. There are slightly more males in the district with 2,729 males. There are 2,533 females. 50 students have a 504 plan. 315 students received special education services. 1095 students are English Language Learners. The attendance rate in the district was 92.6%. Attendance has varied among grade levels. Kindergarten attendance rates have averaged 86%. Per the Smarter Balanced Assessments for the 2022-2023 School year, 17% of students were proficient in English Language Arts, which was a slight improvement from the previous school year’s 15.8%. Math experienced a minor decline with only 4.7% achieving proficiency.
The Department has focused on various things such as instruction enhancement, leadership coaching and professional development, and high dosage tutoring and targeted intervention. The implementation of Intervention Blocks has been important, allowing for targeted academic support. This has been used in the St. Croix District for personalized instruction in 45-60 minutes, and 20-25 minutes in the St. Thomas- St. John District. iReady programs have highlighted that 3rd Grade students in the St. Croix District showed an increase from 30% to 37% on or above grade level in Reading. 6th Graders increased from 16.4% to 25%. Students on average have increased by 18 points in reading and 13 points in math on second diagnostic, confirming efficacy. In the St. Thomas-St John District, students in one group have soared in reading efficiency from 19% to 90%. However, some groups declined, whereas one group declined from 67% to 6%. Another group regressed from 35% to 48% below grade level, indicating that more resources need to be invested. In Math, one group jumped from 76% to 95% proficiency, while one group dropped drastically from 81% to 19%.
Kyza Callwood, Chairperson of the Virgin Islands Board of Education delivered primary testimony. Callwood implored the Board to confront the challenges that exist at school facilities in the territory. The Board of Education School Plant & Facilities Committee conducted site visits to gain insight into the state of facilities in the territory. Concerns brought up during the visits included aging infrastructure, including deteriorating and leaking roofs, and electrical wiring, which could lead to further safety hazards and other inefficiencies. Deferred maintenance, because of budget constraints, could potentially lead to more damage over time. Inadequate security measures, such as insufficient lighting and nonfunctional cameras, compromise the safety of students and staff. Numerous health and environmental hazards such as mold, asbestos, lead paint or poor air quality can affect the health of occupants.
Additionally, testimony stated that basic sanitary needs such as toilet paper, paper towels, soap and hand sanitizers should always be available. Issues such as overcrowding of classrooms often reduces the quality of education and strains resources. Outdated technology often hinders students’ access to digital resources. Inadequate accessibility features such as lack of ramps, elevators or accessible restrooms are barriers to those with disabilities, and it compromises their abilities to fully participate in school activities and creates a risk for ADA noncompliance. Many schools also lack energy efficient and sustainable practices. Additionally, addressing the learning gaps is a major concern. The testimony stated that diagnostic assessments are important to identify areas of struggle or misunderstanding among students. These assessments are important to deliver tailored interventions to address individual needs.
Senators present at today’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, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.
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