Feb. 15, 2002 – The "alleged teacher shortages at the Charlotte Amalie High School will not jeopardize seniors with respect to graduation in June," a release issued by the Education Department at mid-day Friday stated in its opening paragraph.
The remaining six paragraphs of the release quoted Assistant Education Commissioner Noreen Michael as confirming that there are teacher shortages in the Virgin Islands, notably "in the areas of mathematics, foreign languages and the sciences," and criticizing, without naming, the senator who raised the graduation issue, for a lack of "professional courtesy."
There was no mention of how the Education Department planned to deal with seniors lacking courses in areas where there are teacher shortages. Michael issued the release as acting commissioner, with Commissioner Ruby Simmonds in Washington, D.C., attending a federal Department of Education orientation to a new federal reading program.
Vernelle DeLagarde, president of the St. Thomas-St. John teachers union, said Friday afternoon in response to the reports, "We know teacher shortages have existed for quite some time. I would just hope — and will put my trust in the department — that they would remedy the situation by having students take courses in their required fields before graduation."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wrote Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds on Thursday saying he had heard that CAHS seniors would be unable to graduate on schedule because a teacher shortage at the school has prevented them from completing required courses. On Friday morning, Michael told the Source she was investigating the allegations. (See "Claims seniors won't graduate being looked into".)
In the release, Michael said the department, "like many other education departments nationwide, has experienced problems with recruitment due to a lack of qualified numbers of persons to teach." However, she said, "The situation at CAHS … is improving daily. The areas of concern at this time are Spanish, French and math. We have been able to identify persons for several of these positions at the school and expect to have those persons in place by the middle of next week."
Michael then said she was "saddened to know we have elected officials that go into the schools, talk to students and some teachers, and offer no professional courtesy to the department officials regarding their findings, but take to the streets via the media before they obtain all the data necessary to make an appropriate assessment."
She said she wanted students and parents to know that "our focus is on providing students with the academic components necessary to make their educational experience equivalent to that obtainable at any high school under the U.S. flag."
Senator: A timeline, not promises, needed
Jn Baptiste's response to Michael's comments was that "if the department is moving to correct the situation, I'm happy to hear that. However, correcting the situation is my concern. There is no guarantee that between now and June they will have contained the problem. I would like to know what provisions will be placed for those who should fail to graduate."
Instead of "vague promises," he said, the department "should give us a timeline, something concrete we can hold onto, not pie-in-the-sky promises."
Jn Baptiste noted, as he has repeatedly, that the 24th Legislature has made numerous appropriations to address Education staffing needs. "The sum of $1.5 million was appropriated specifically for teacher recruitment training," he said.
Jn Baptiste also said he had tried to no avail on Thursday to talk with someone at the Education Department before making his concerns public. In remarks on WVWI Radio Friday morning, St. Thomas-St. John district Superintendent Rosalia Payne said, as Michael implied in her release, that the senator should have contacted the department before going public.
The senator and Education officials have clashed on numerous occasions, most recently over the withdrawal of accreditation for three of the territory's four public high schools.
Union head: Come up with a plan
DeLagarde, meanwhile, said she was disheartened but not surprised at the news of Jn Baptiste's charges and Payne's response when she heard them on the radio Friday morning.
She said she hoped guidance counselors, students, parents and the administration could get together to come up with a course of study to allow each student to graduate. "For example, say a student needed a particular science course – perhaps a course similar in nature would allow him to graduate," she said.
In the release, Michael said that teacher "recruitment is an ongoing process for us."
Jn Baptiste said he would like to see hiring within the Education Department, so as to dispense with the government's lengthy NOPA — notice of personnel action — process which can delay getting new hires on the payroll for months. School staffing "shouldn't have to go through the Department of Personnel, but they don't want to release their power," he said.
DeLagarde said while she had not been informed of the situation, "The truth exists that there are shortages. We can't get qualified people, whether it's salaries, working conditions, whatever it would take to attract teachers to the V.I. They are just not knocking on our door … We're not making excuses, but that's just the way it is."
She added, "In 1972 we had about 200 to 300 teachers coming from the College of the Virgin Islands and from abroad. Now, if we get as many as 50 …."
And, she added, there will be another mass exodus of teachers soon — those retiring from when she started teaching in the early '70s. "This was brought to light last year during the contract negotiations," she said. "We need to settle our priorities."


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