Trouble at Gifft Hill School? Not So, According to Head Master Biddle

Teachers are quitting at Gifft Hill School left and right. Students are spending hours a day in study hall due to a lack of instructors. Parents are pulling their kids out of school. The school has a tremendous amount of debt.

These are just some of the many rumors regarding GHS that have run rampant across St. John for nearly a month.

Some of the rumors are true, and some are not, but the school is not in a state of gloom like some people might believe, according to GHS head Ben Biddle.

Head Master Benjamin Biddle

“What is going on here is positive,” he said. “There is nothing that people can’t pick up the phone and call me personally and ask. I want this place to feel open to the island.”

Island’s Transient Nature
In an effort to keep the happenings at the school open to the public, Biddle invites St. John residents to email him at [email protected] to receive the weekly updates he sends out to the student’s parents.

“Sitting where I do, I can only smile,” said Biddle. “We continue to try to work on what is a young school. So much of what is said is not accurate.”

While it is true that teachers and students have come and gone, this is a reflection of the transient nature of St. John, Biddle explained.

“It’s a natural fact of island life,” he said. “You have families that come and go. We specialize in welcoming new kids and helping kids transfer back to their old school by default.”

The coming and going of students has not resulted in a drop in enrollment this school year, according to Biddle.

“The enrollment now is pretty much where it was in September,” he said. “It’s consistent year to year that we see kids who come and go more than other schools. The transient element here is what the school needs to accommodate.”

Teacher Departures
The transient nature of St. John affects the school’s teacher population as well, Biddle explained.

“We had a couple come down from Maryland last year to teach,” he said. “You always worry about the elements that make it hard to transition to St. John. In the first weeks of the school year, the couple indicated serious doubts as to whether their move would work.”

Although Biddle tried to encourage the couple to stay, they returned to the states during the school’s 2006 Christmas break after just one semester on island.

The couple’s departure forced the school to transition quickly, Biddle explained.

“It made for more work in getting positions filled,” he said. “Other than the bump and the jolt, the net result is not so bad.”

All Teacher Positions Filled
One GHS student complained about having to spend hours a day in study hall with no homework to do because there was no one teaching class.

“There have been more instances lately where we’ve had to sub, but that’s just the normal course of a transition,” said Biddle.
GHS students and parents were understanding during the transition, according to Biddle.

“I’m very confident in the parents and the students,” he said. “Nobody put that on the school. It was a family moving away from St. John.”

“It is what it is, and it will happen again,” Biddle added.

For the time being, all of the school’s teaching positions are filled, according to the GHS head.

Some parents do pull their students out for reasons other than leaving island, as one parent explained.

Teachers Not Motivational
“Last semester, my daughter got Fs, a D and a C-, and the school doesn’t even seem to care,” said the parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “If it was a public school, they would be doing something about it — hold her back or insist on special ed or some kind of helpful courses — or, in the case of a private school like Antilles, they’d put her on academic probation or tell her if she doesn’t shape up she’s gone. The lack of concern for students, I think, is the bottom line.”

The girl’s teachers do not motivate her or have a gift for teaching, according to the parent, who acknowledged that a small labor pool may be to blame.

“My daughter’s complaints were that the teachers just stand up there and talk and don’t really pay attention to what they’re saying,” said the GHS parent. “They don’t have an inspirational teaching gift. We’re down here at the end of the supply chain.”

“I think there is a situation where they don’t have qualified teachers, so they lose students, and then they lose teachers because they can’t pay them,” the parent added.

Students Depart for Other Options
Students do sometimes choose to leave GHS for other options such as home schooling or boarding school, Biddle explained.

“At the end of the semester, sometimes there are kids who are struggling, even outside of school, and often there are good options like boarding school,” he said. “There are plenty of instances where a parent approaches us and says they would like more structure than island life provides. It would be vain to imagine this is perfect for everyone.”

The problem of debt is an obvious one for a school that has grown as quickly as GHS, explained Biddle.

“Yes, in the process of growing as fast as the school has, it’s well understood that we operate with a tight budget, and that includes taking care of debts we accrued while getting everything built,” he said. “That’s not news to anyone. It’s the nature of an institution that’s grown quickly.”

The school’s debt is manageable, according to Biddle.

Debts a ‘Big Focus’
“It isn’t going to go away right this moment, but we do have resources,” he said. “It’s a big focus for myself and the board to make the debts go down. We’re thinking it through and communicating with those who helped us build.”

GHS board member Sarah Close echoed Biddle’s sentiments.

“Does the school need financial help?” said Close. “Absolutely, yes, the school needs money to support itself. It grew up very rapidly, but as far as I know, all the teachers are being paid.”

Some teachers and students have even returned to GHS after leaving to see what else is out there, according to Close.

“We’ve had some great teachers return that left for more personal reasons last year,” she said. “They are very excited to teach again. There are a lot of kids who have left and gone to Antilles, or home school, or the states and come back.”

Close likened the rumors going around to the telephone game.

Email Can Quell Rumors
“You have the coconut telegraph going on, which is like playing the telephone game,” she said. “By the time it gets back to you,  it’s a whole different story. I personally think everyone is doing a great job and doing everything they can to meet the needs of all the students they have.”

Subscribing to Biddle’s weekly internal email is a good way to quell rumors, according to the GHS head.

“Anything that’s been spun out of control can quickly be assured by tuning in to my weekly email,” said Biddle. “I think the school is about the community building it together. The school feels very good to me right now.”