Two Schools Moved, One More to Go, Officials Tell Community

At a packed community meeting Thursday, Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin details the department’s plans to move three schools. (Source photo by James Gardner)
At a packed community meeting Thursday, Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin details the department’s plans to move three schools. (Source photo by James Gardner)

Following a news conference earlier this month that ended in uproar, Education officials held a second meeting late last week to discuss the reorganization of three public schools on St. Thomas after more structural deficiencies were found in the main building at Charlotte Amalie High School.

Without promising that the school year will start on Sept. 3 as planned, St. Thomas-St. John Insular Superintendent Stefan Jurgen said Education officials and each school’s staff are working around the clock to make sure there are no delays.

Last year, deficiencies cited in a structural report led to the closure of most of the classrooms in CAH’s Building B. THis summer, another report focused on Building A. Jurgen said the plan is to use Building C, which houses the high school’s ninth graders, for another semester, and have them out by the end of the school year. In the meantime, CAHS students displaced by the closure of the other two buildings will spend the upcoming year in the modular units on the school’s field and on the outskirts of the campus, while seventh and eighth grade students from Addelita Cancryn Junior High School will move from the modulars on the field to the modulars on the tennis courts and open classrooms at Lockhart Elementary School.

They will be joined by fourth through sixth grade students from Lockhart to form the Cancryn Intermediate and Junior High School. Lockhart will then transition to a kindergarten through third grade school.

While parents continued to voice their concerns at the meeting, which was held in CAH’s auditorium, Jurgen tried to remain positive when relating that both Cancryn and Lockhart have completed their moves, and CAHS’ has already begun.

“Is that plan perfect? No, it’s not perfect. However, it is the best plan we could come up with given the situation,” Jurgen said. “Remember, the alternative was to bus your children to the country and I know from my communications with you that this is not what parents wanted to do.”

Jurgen also said the department would look into the “entire educational landscape.” Population decreases after the hurricanes of 2017 mean fewer students in public school, leading to consolidations that Jurgen said has also helped Education fill some of its teaching gaps. The closing of Leonard Dober Elementary on St. Thomas, for example, allowed for the redistribution of 18 teachers to other schools around the island, and as new schools are built to replace those damaged by the storms, more consideration will be given to the structure of each and how much staff is required to run them, he said.

Stepping in throughout the night, Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin said it is important for parents to understand that typical federal dollars are used for curriculum and instruction, and it is only because of the hurricanes that the department is able to rebuild some of its aging structures.

Critical to the process is having parents’ support, she added.

“While we may want nice classrooms now, we don’t have that,” she said. “But our teachers are ready, and our children are ready. While we may want facilities like they once looked, like they once felt, unfortunately some of those facilities can’t be. We simply can’t restore our facilities to what they once were. But we have modular units, and let me tell you, our children are enjoying those facilities more than the traditional classrooms and that is important because we are in a transitional phase.”

Whatever the setting, learning is still happening, she said.

“It simply means we have to demonstrate resiliency once again,” Berry-Benjamin added.

After the meeting, most parents the Source spoe to said despite some concerns, they were “relieved” to hear a more concrete plan from the department.

“My biggest concern was with accreditation,” said CAHS parent Vivianne Newton, whose daughter is heading into her senior year. “They are condemning two buildings, possibly three, so where does that leave the kids? I feel somewhat comfortable because they have somewhat of a plan, but it’s new and it’s different, and that is where the problem comes in. With change comes resistance, and the unknown is what everybody is fearful of right now.”