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Crucians with a stake in public education have an opportunity to influence how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money is spent repairing and replacing Virgin Islands schools.
St. Croix residents – parents, students, educators, employers – are urged to attend V.I. Department of Education (V.I.D.O.E.) meetings this week. The workshops are meant to shine light on the lengthy process of recovery from tens of millions of dollars in storm-damaged schools and facilities. During the process, Virgin Islands schools are expected to reach, or exceed, national school facilities standards long met in the states.
This week’s public meetings on St. Croix will be held:
“We want the community to come out and to be a part of the process,” said V.I.D.O.E. Chief Operating Officer Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington.
Ms. Wells-Hedrington, the department’s operational-side expert, and Chaneel Callwood-Daniels, who leads the V.I.D.O.E. schools’ architecture project – sat down with the VI Consortium to lay out an ambitious plan that, if successful, would see virtually every school in the territory rebuilt, better than ever, in the coming years.
“Our desire is to build new schools,” said Ms. Wells-Hedrington. “When we are asked how many schools do we want to replace: all … That is our position going forward,” she said. “Every one,” added Ms. Callwood-Daniels.
And how likely is that? “Will we get all? We are not sure,” Ms. Wells-Hedrington said.
In March 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to announce a round of disaster recovery grants that should include school construction funding. As FEMA goes about work, the V.I.D.O.E. “… has been working on getting us ready and prepared for what FEMA says to us,” Ms. Wells-Hedrington said.
By the summer, demolition, critical repairs and modernization of some existing buildings could begin, based on FEMA’s edicts, with the input of a local School Construction Advisory Board.
The Board, which has 20 members in the St. Croix District and another 20 members in the St. Thomas-St. John District, is taking public feedback from St. Croix tomorrow and Wednesday. “We are doing this in tandem along with FEMA,” Ms. Wells-Hedrington said.
New construction would have to meet or exceed school construction standards found stateside. “… Not just up to (the VI) Code, but providing our students with really rich, nourishing learning environments,” Ms. Wells-Hedrington said. Schools like Arthur Richards Junior High School in Frederiksted or Addelita Cancryn Junior High on St. Thomas would never look the same.
Community and Flexible-Learning Spaces
New construction would be “ … comparable to what is built through the United States today. That means there will be community space, flexible-learning spaces, distributed dining so that students don’t have to rush through their lunches in the cafeteria. They will be able to grab and go with their lunch and eat at difference places around the campus.
“The classrooms will look different. The classrooms will have collapsible walls between some of them, and glass walls between them and the hallways. The hallways will not be open breezeways outside anymore because our students need to be able to traverse between classes, between rooms, go see counselors, go to the library, etc. even when its raining,” Ms. Callwood-Daniels said.
A Smaller Footprint
The V.I.D.O.E. has 45 facilities territory-wide. The department would like to have fewer.
“We have too many sites,” Ms. Wells-Hedrington said. “That is part of our problem. We are trying to reduce our sites into something that is really manageable, and best suits the needs of our children.”
And other doors may open. School maintenance, deferred for years before 2017’s Irma and Maria, may suddenly become eligible for federal monies, the school officials said.
Even so, it may be 2021 – four years after the storms – before any new construction begins. School modernization and critical repairs under the plan could begin could begin as early as next summer.
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