By Senator Louis Patrick Hill – Special to St. John Tradewinds
During four full days of testimony at the meeting of the Committee on Education at which each school principal described their view of the state of education in our territory, the question, “Is the territory suffering an academic crisis?” remained unanswered. Despite conflicting answers as to why efforts to strengthen public education have not increased student achievement, several themes became apparent as to the problems plaguing our Virgin Islands schools.
First, children enter kindergarten unprepared and several have been identified as “at risk.” The children have an inadequate vocabulary. They lack the necessary social skills. There are situations of undiagnosed family illiteracy.
The ultimate consequence is that as unprepared children enter kindergarten, they start behind and remain behind. The solution is for the government to decide on how best to identify at-risk students and intervene, by offering additional opportunities for preschool programs in order to prepare three to four years olds so they may be ready and able to begin kindergarten.
Secondly, our curriculum is not uniform. We are teaching different courses to the same grade in different schools; we use different criteria on different islands; priorities vary from school to school for the same grade. As a result, it is impossible to gage or identify any uniform measurement on what each student is achieving. For a school system which has been in place for more than 70 years, 57 years of those with vocational education, and with annual resources of $173,537,000 million in local funds, $30 million in federal funds, plus additional funds for capital expenditures, our not having a uniform curriculum is appalling.
Someone needs to be held accountable. I want to urge Department of Education officials and those responsible for the development of curriculum to treat this as what it is — a crisis. Schools should use specific grade-by-grade standards and a challenging curriculum aligned with those standards.
Thirdly, a need exists for exit exams. All principals stood very firm in their objections to social promotion. Without a tool to create reliable measures of achievement, and to determine the readiness of our students for advancement, we will continue the practice of social promotion where students are promoted to a higher grade where they are incapable of performing. Promoting a student to prevent social embarrassment cheats students of their education. It sends the message to other students that they need not work hard while putting additional strain on teachers. Equally as important, it gives parents a false sense of their child’s progress.
We must insist that the Department of Education and the Board of Education design a strategy to address the issue of student preparation by administering exit exams at key transition points in the students’ schooling, such as fourth grade, seventh grade, and 12th grade. Fourth grade reading level requires that a student interpret fiction, poetry, and literary elements. In addition, each fourth grade student must have a solid foundation in math; they must be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, measure, and understand basic geometry.
These proficiency benchmarks, and benchmarks at all transition points, must be mandated and students must be prepared to meet them. This strategy would guarantee an accurate indication of academic performance to prevent at-risk students from falling behind and being promoted while under-prepared. Once a student fails to meet the established standards, immediate and effective help could be given through tutoring programs and summer school, allowing them to be promoted.
Fourth, our schools have dismal parental involvement. It appears that most parents of our children who attend public school are not involved in their child’s education. They do not attend PTA meetings, educational competitions, student club functions, or sports games and practices. Our parents do not reinforce at home what the disciplinary requirements of the school are.
Our parents seem visionless to the fact that students do not take their education seriously but more as a social “raison d’etre.” Principals feel that many parents are using the school system as a babysitting service. Many in the community feel that the political leadership and some teachers do not fully perpetuate the fact that education is the most important tool necessary for a successful life.
Fifth, the Department of Education will likely lose close to $30 million in federal funds between fiscal years 2004 and 2005 due to the fact that they are incapable of spending the money. This money could have been used for teachers’ salaries, after-school programs, to purchase computer equipment, laptops, and “Smart Boards,” to name a few. Because of incompetence on the part of the people who manage the program and our archaic financial systems, we will lose the money. Imagine what could have been done with $30 million dollars within our educational system!
The issue of lack of school maintenance and repair still prevails despite enormous amounts of money provided each year, followed by a long list of capital projects that never seem to come to fruition.
Four days of senate hearings proved that our priorities are completely misguided. There needs to be an immediate and radical shift in the mentality of our people toward the importance of education in the lives of our children. We must embrace education with the same enthusiasm and vigor with which we embrace our cultural festivities and we must instill a hunger for learning and a love for information within our children.
In his book, “The Reawakening of the African Mind,” Dr. Asa Hillard stated that attempts to prevent the sharing of information and thereby the empowerment of a people were a genocidal practice. In his estimation, the lack of public outcry to this practice was due to deliberate attempts to keep people ignorant of the situation. Our ignorance of the crisis in Virgin Islands education is no longer an excuse we can use. The information is there to be had and it is our responsibility to react.
Education is the complete development of a person, providing the ability to interpret information and transform it into something useful. Once learned, a child achieves a sense of purpose with their learned skills and becomes socially adept. Until we recognize the crisis, and chose to elevate educational development and academic achievement to the top of our list of priorities, our children will continue to lag behind in this world and struggle to navigate a course in their daily life.