Residents, parents, teachers and students packed the St. John Legislature on Monday evening, October 1, to discuss everything from a lack of faculty to building a new school with acting Education Commissioner Dr. Lynn Spampinato at the first St. John “Let’s Talk” forum.
The acting commissioner promised to listen and reminded residents she may not have solutions for every problem.
“I’m here to listen,” said Spampinato. “I don’t have all the answers, but I can find them.”
Julius E. Sprauve School Parent Teacher Association Treasurer Alice Krall, whose daughter is in fourth grade at the school, asked Spampinato why there are no certified teachers to teach the fourth and fifth grade.
“We’re dealing with this at more places than Sprauve,” said Spampinato. “My goal is to to have a certified teacher in every classroom. This is a complex problem that every state is dealing with.”
Teachers who were supposed to come to the V.I. from Jamaica to partially relieve the shortage changed their mind after Hurricane Dean struck the island nation — not because the V.I. Department of Education would not pay their plane fare, according to Spampinato.
Base Salary Too Low
The V.I. has a hard time recruiting teachers due to the low salaries offered by the DOE, the acting commissioner explained.
“We must raise the base salary for teachers,” said Spampinato. “Who can have a salary of $28,000 and live on St. John? We’re going to do a salary audit and compare our salaries to the states.”
Elvis Sprauve, whose daughter is a fourth grader at JESS, questioned the transfer of teachers from the school without replacements.
“I’ve seen the curriculum and it’s excellent — if it was taught,” said Sprauve. “I don’t think you should transfer a teacher if there are no replacements, and I want to know how that happened. I have to teach my daughter like I’m a teacher when she gets home from school.”
Building a new school is a priority for Spampinato, who has walked the proposed 10-acre site for the education complex at Estate Catherineberg.
“I’ve walked that land, went into Miss Bishop’s house, and it was fascinating,” said Spampinato. “Could you ask for a better place to have an outward bound experience at your school? We need to get moving.”
Students Face Violence
The need for a new school is pressing because St. John teenagers fear going to school on St. Thomas, explained mother of six Abigail Hendricks.
“Our kids are gentle, and it’s like throwing them in a jungle,” said Hendricks. “It’s a shame when boys say they don’t want to go to school because they don’t feel like fighting. Our kids don’t come from that, and they’re being thrust into it over there.”
Violence in the schools needs to be controlled, replied Spampinato.
“Do the children control us or do we control the situation?” said the acting commissioner. “We need a really strong safety plan and we need to keep our eyes open.”
Coral Bay’s GBS Supported
The newly-elected Guy Benjamin School Parent Teacher Organization president spoke against the closing of the Coral Bay elementary school when a new St. John school facility is completed.
“Guy Benjamin School must be retained,” said GBS parent Tom Oat. “It represents a unique aspect of education in this territory. The discussion of the new facility shouldn’t include the closing of Guy Benjamin.”
The V.I. National Park and the DOE need to work together toward providing a new educational facility to the island’s children, explained One Campus member Lorelei Monsanto.
“We have the VINP all around us — that’s science in its best form,” said Monsanto. “We have to do the tango. We can no longer be distant.”
VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove vowed to work together with the community toward the establishment of a new school, and proposed a new educational idea.
No Full-time Nurse
“I plan to be a great partner,” said Hardgrove. “I’d like to introduce the idea of a job force center, which will be funded by the Department of Labor, to educate people who drop out of school. I need a work force.”
Parent Ronnie Jones expressed his concern that the discussion of a new school would take away from the maintenance of GBS and JESS.
“Our schools have been so neglected,” said Jones. “We need to be involved in keeping the school up. We need to shore up what we have.”
Several parents complained about the lack of a full-time nurse at GBS, citing a recent incident where four asthmatic students fell ill on the same day. The nurse was not in, and there were no certified EMTs at the Coral Bay Fire Station next door.
“We have so many students, so we only get so many resources,” said Spampinato, who vowed to help GBS teachers get certified in CPR.
The St. John community has plenty of resources Spampinato can pull from, explained Elvis Sprauve.
“We have nurses who are willing to volunteer, and St. John Rescue could train the teachers,” he said. “We have the resources right here on island.”
Hold Spampinato Accountable
“I’m glad you said that, because we need to get creative,” replied Spampinato.
The acting education commissioner urged the community to ensure she does her job, and to work with her to achieve the island’s goals.
“Don’t ever excuse me — hold me accountable,” said Spampinato. “This work is not easy. I’m working as hard and long as I can, and the community has to rally because I can’t do this alone.”
The next Let’s Talk forum is scheduled for Friday, October 19, at 5:30 p.m. at the Legislature. The topic is libraries.