New SJSOGH Head Ben Biddle Envisions “Tourist Trap,” Organic Marketplace

Ben Biddle

Less than a week after the St. John School on Gifft Hill announced Ben Biddle will take over as head of the school, Biddle revealed his future plans for the school at a Tuesday, April 25, parent meeting.

Biddle’s plan calls for “education incorporated with and funded via an organic marketplace operated by students,” he said. The school will become a “tourist trap,” offering a myriad of services and products made by students, in an effort to become more financially stable, according to Biddle.

“Educational funding is difficult to achieve by traditional means,” Biddle said. “Students need vocational skills relevant to the Caribbean and college prep. They need a hands-on education that will give them something more than an identity on paper.”

Focused on College Prep
College prep will remain a focus at the school, according to Biddle.

“That’s in place,” he said. “We’ve got college prep down.”

Biddle’s plan will help to solve several problems for the school and for St. John, he explained.

These problems include the lack of a safe and healthy after-school destination; overpriced products and services; lack of skill-building employment for students that is easy to manage with schoolwork; and a lack of healthy, character-building summer opportunities, Biddle added.

“My heart is in this, because it’s an educational, revolutionary idea,” said Biddle. “It also happens to make money for the school.”

The idea was born when Biddle tried to think from the perspective of a businessman looking to make money on St. John, he explained.

The school has faced financial growing pains since it opened in 2000 as the Coral Bay School.

“The school will produce and sell services as an integral part of its curriculum,” he said. “It’s a complete educational vision.”

With Biddle’s vision, the upper school will remain the same, and will be a tourist-free, educational instruction building.

Botany Taught at Nursery
Outside the building, a plant nursery will take shape.

“Botany will be taught, plants will be grown and sold, and maybe a final exam would be to name every plant,” said Biddle.

Other money-making ventures will include a woodshop, where students will produce affordable furniture.

“Students would also learn woodworking and tend to campus projects,” said Biddle.

A mandatory culinary program would be the basis of a restaurant on the property.

“If you go to Harvard, you will go as a good cook,” said Biddle. “Students here would serve lunch to tourists in the garden.”

The new plan also calls for a vegetable garden, where produce will be grown and then sold roadside, and to island businesses.

Shop Teaches Economics
A school shop will sell items such as paper towels, coffee, and pet food. The operations of the shop will be incorporated into an economics class.

“It will be a great launching pad,” said Biddle. “By February, we’ll probably start seeing pottery and furniture for sale. It’s a very appealing thing, and it will help the community.”

The school’s flea market will be expanded into a Saturday morning Caribbean market.

Donation boxes will be placed throughout the campus.

“This vision is big, and it’s utterly dependent on parents and community members,” said Biddle. “It’s going to add up very, very quickly.”

The lower school will interact with the upper school through mentoring and apprentice days.

Students at the lower school will participate in growing vegetables, and will create a line of spices and bottled juices.

“It’s very simple, and very satisfying to the kids,” said Biddle.

Cinema, Boarding School Planned
Other ideas presented at Tuesday’s meeting include a recreation center; a horse stable; a kennel; an open air cinema; a waterfront group retreat center with tents and a ropes course; boarding school, which would be “a great option for Crucians and East Enders,” a day care center; pottery and glass blowing; adult classes; summer camps; and a “very polished” math and science museum, said Biddle.

“This museum needs to become the de facto island visitor center,” he said. “There would be a permanent Caribbean history exhibit, marine wonders, and it will be interactive.”

Children need to step out of the classroom, and the well-rounded education the school will provide is appealing to college admissions counselors, according to Biddle.

“We’ve got to have something like this, because it’s going to do them well,” said Biddle. “We want to give them options that are relevant locally. College admissions counselors are going to drool.”

“A graduate from our school will be able to name plants like mad, will cook delectably, will be businesses savvy, will have a way with animals, and will be a Renaissance individual,” he added. “They’re not coming out of here with just an SAT score and a GPA.”

The organic nature of the plan derived from Biddle’s own interest in gardening.

“I got into gardening when I came to St. John, and it’s made me a happier person,” he said. “I wish I’d been taught it in high school.”

Slow Implementation
The idea will be slowly implemented, according to Biddle. Next year, woodworking, landscaping and gardening will be offered each semester, and some of the businesses, including the Caribbean history center, Saturday morning Caribbean market, nursery, garden, kennel, school store, game room and cinema will begin to take shape, he explained.

The plan will help fund the school in many different ways, the administrator added.

“In 10 years, the school will be wealthy,” said Biddle. “The high visibility of a student-run park encourages benefactors who would put their name on a building. The irony is, we will need less fundraising, yet fundraising will be easier.”

“Philanthropy loves an original story,” he added.

Most parents approved of Biddle’s plan.

“It’s mind boggling, huge and very exciting,” said one parent.

One parent questioned whether the kids would be as enthusiastic about the plan.

“The kids in the upper grades are hard to deal with,” said Steve Simonsen, a teacher at the school, and parent of a student. “There’s a tremendous amount of need for the faculty to teach, and almost police the kids.”

“I have a lot of faith, because this group has a certain charm and innocence,” said Biddle. “The kids’ attitudes are on my shoulders.”

Students Make Decisions
Students would be involved in the decision-making process, allowing them to take more pride in their work, said SJSOGH board President Fred Trayser.

“They will have ownership of what they’re doing,” he said. “They’ll feel like they are truly integral to this process. At their age, not many things happen that way.”

Fundraising will be easier at the school now that a definite plan is in place, said Biddle.

“It’s a lot easier to get money when you know what’s coming,” he said. “You know why you’re giving it. Once the ball is rolling, it’s going to snowball.”