Photo courtesy of St. John Youth Coalition.
Look out for power dips and surges over the next couple of days as thousands of students within the St. Thomas-St. John School District fire up their irons to press the wrinkles out of school uniforms left untouched in closets all summer.
Public School students return to classes on Tuesday, September 6, and the schools are ready to welcome them, according to District Superintendent Dionne Wells-Hedrington.
Wells-Hedrington has been working all summer to make sure qualified teachers are in place in every classroom. After greeting 87 new teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff at an orientation session last week, Wells-Hedrington said she was still looking to fill 62 teaching vacancies. “The hardest areas for me to recruit are Spanish, art, English Language Learners, and some elementary positions.
“We’ve lost people to retirement; some have resigned and gone to the Mainland for better money. With our starting salaries of $34,000, it’s hard to compete with districts that start at $45,000 or $50,000,” she said.
The most critical shortage she faces involves school nurses. “We have five fulltime nurses when we should have 14,” said Wells-Hedrington. The district is looking into hiring nurses on a per diem basis, she said.
In spite of some problems, the Julius E. Sprauve School (JESS) is in good shape for the start of the school year. “The only vacancy at Sprauve is Spanish—and we had one last-minute elementary resignation,” said Wells-Hedrington.
There’s a new but familiar face at the helm of JESS this year: Marion Essanason (who had been Wells-Hedrington’s supervising principal when the superintendent had taught on St. John) will be the new principal. Essanason had been at the Leonard Dober School on St. Thomas for the past several years. She will be assisted by Lisa Penn.
Guidance counselor Dariel Bastian has retired, and Monique Matthias is transferring from Ivanna Eudora Kean high School to take her place.
Wells-Hedrington said a new teacher, Ms. Dephinadae, will be teaching English Language Learners at JESS, and a new applicant for a vacancy as a music teacher has been identified. A second school monitor has also been hired.
One staff member who has left her classroom at JESS but will be returning to lead professional development sessions is Jeuné Provost. The territory’s 2015 teacher of the year, Provost is now serving as the district’s K-12 instructional coach.
“One of our goals this year is improving classroom instruction,” said Wells-Hedrington. “We plan to get into the classrooms more and offer support to teachers.” New teachers will be meeting together on a monthly basis, and Provost will visit classrooms and work with all teachers during their preparation periods, the superintendent said.
“This year we’re pushing literacy. If we can get kids reading at grade level by third grade, that will reduce problems later on,” she added.
In terms of infrastructure, the school is in the process of constructing a little playground for primary school students near their classrooms. “It’s on the way,” said the superintendent.
Also on the way are new air conditioning units for the cafeteria and the main office. “Dr. Cool is in the cafeteria now,” she said. “The St. John community is awesome. It’s a blessing.”
Although things seem pretty cool at JESS, Wells-Hedrington said she was still struggling to fill art and vocational education positions at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. “The art program is almost non-existent,” she said.
The district is planning to replace the trailers that have been housing vocational programs, such as marine studies and auto repair, and build permanent classrooms for the 2017-2018 year.
Wells-Hedrington said Principal Stefan Jurgen, now in his second year at IEKHS, has her full support as he starts the year with a roster of experienced assistant principals: Alicia Leerdam, Desha Powell, Terrence Corbett, and Sally Petty (who was on leave with the National Guard last year).
Each principal will be assigned to a particular grade level to handle discipline problems, and monitors will be assigned to supervise students who have violated rules and are serving in-school suspensions. Students who commit more serious infractions, including assault and weapon possession, will be assigned to the Edith Williams Alternative Academy for a period of time on a case-by-case basis.
Wells-Hedrington said the Department of Education is trying to provide more counseling services—individual, group, and family—to meet the needs of all students. “They’re victims of their circumstances. I see it, she said.” A native St. Johnian, Wells-Hedrington said she is more aware of the problems now that she splits her time living on St. Thomas. “We have to do whatever we can to save our children.”