April 7, 2003 – About 10 years or so ago, Robyn Bitterwolf and Cindy Wortman were sitting around dreaming about what they would do when they had school-age kids. Now they know.
A one-room, old-fashioned school house on Water Island is the answer. The Virgin Valley Learning Center became a reality last October, with about 12 students, most of whom come over from St. Thomas to attend the unique school. Bitterwolf and Wortman are the teachers.
Wortman talks about the realized dream, as she tends to her two non-school-age children – Trajan, 3, and Wyatt, 15 months. She is somewhat worn out, having just finished a day-long school fund-raiser Sunday at the Sunset Cantina at East Gregory channel. However, she is immensely pleased at the event, where about 75 supporters wined and dined all day, raising about $2,000 for the school from the $20 tickets and raffles for a multitude of prizes.
"I really believe in one-room schoolhouses where the kids work with each other," Wortman says. "We're not trying to cover all bases with all the students; that's what institutionalized learning is all about."
Wortman, whose family moved to a remote area of Alaska when she was an infant, grew up largely on home-schooling; she knows firsthand whereof she speaks.
Teaching the small school is a big task, Wortman says. "When you become a home school, you take on a lot of responsibility. There are as many ways to do home-schooling as there are families that do it." Wortman holds a master's degree in education from the University of the Virgin Islands.
Though both women stress the flexibility in their curriculum, Wortman says she is "a stern believer in the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic."
She says you could call the school's curriculum "alternative" education. "I'm no proponent of any particular system," she says. "We don't use a packaged curriculum; we go for the 'teachable moment' doing multi-age classroom group work.
"Each morning, we start off with penmanship," she says, "It coordinates their day, and lets them see the progress they have made when they look back on their work." While tending the 15-month-old Wyatt, who is seriously making hand signals for something, Wortman takes an aside. "He wants to be fed," she says, which seems fairly apparent. "But," Wortman says, "he signs for the things he can't say." She explains that she has taught both her children to sign, and that soon she will be teaching a class in baby sign language at the public library. "It's wonderful for them to tell you what they want."
But for the older kids, the teachers hold different classes each day," Wortman says. "For instance, Tuesday is social studies, geography and current events; Wednesday we do field trips. It's themed teaching. For instance, one day we learned about the flag, which got us not only into the "Star Spangled Banner" and the Pledge of Allegiance, but to the first amendment and the Bill of Rights."
Bitterwolf's 11-year-old son, Stephan, wrote a piece about the flag, which is included in a display of the school's work. "The flag is happy and the flag is sad," Stephan wrote. "It is sad because a lot of people died for it, and it is happy because it is flying at the ferry dock. I am proud to be an American."
Wortman describes how the flexibility they use works. "One day we were talking about heroes and heroines, when one student questioned 'heroine'. He said he thought that was a drug, since the two words are pronounced almost the same way. So we talked for an hour about what drugs and alcohol are," she says.
Robyn Bitterwolf stresses the nurturing side of the schooling. She teaches arts and crafts on Wednesdays, Wortman's day off, and takes the kids on field trips. The two pool tables at the Sunset Cantina have been covered over with the student's schoolwork, fanciful drawings and jewelry, and pictures of field trips.
Bitterwolf got her feet wet, so to speak, when she and her family had the Malu in Trinidad a few years ago. "I started teaching there to the other boater families," she says, "We called it 'Under the Mango Tree'. I did that for about two years, and it was profitable and good for the kids." She pauses, "Nurturing and teaching are very much the same."
The Bitterwolfs have had their three children in a number of schools, from Germany to Sibilly Elementary School on St. Thomas, to a tiny school on Virgin Gorda, and Robyn has definite ideas about teaching. "Some schools give kindergartners homework. Can you imagine!"
On Wednesday mornings the Water Island school has a pre-school class starting from 4-year-olds. But no homework.
Another tool the school uses is "peer teaching," where the students help each other. If, say, one student is having trouble reading, Bitterwolf says, the others read with him and help him along, as opposed to having a student kept back.
Both women are tired at the end of the day. Along with helping her husband in the kitchen, Bitterwolf has been tending with tending her three children – Cassandra, 7, Stephan, 11, and Matthias, 13 – Wortman, along with her two children, has been running the raffles throughout the day.
Although both mothers are tired, that doesn't diminish their delight at the fundraiser's success.
Luz Wynne, who has been responsible for soliciting the donations and collecting tickets, comes to join them. "I'm not a mother," Wynne says, "But I believe in what they are doing."
The school is nonprofit, and charges modest fees, but it still needs financial support. Some of the day's receipts will go for software for their three computers, especially for the student's independent projects, Wortman says. "We are still building, still growing."
Wortman says parents are a very important part of the school. "We want them to be very involved. We get different levels of involvement." She explains: "You can't just send us your kid – it doesn't really work like that. We have one parent who is a teacher, and she comes on Thursdays to help out. We wanted to start as a cooperative, but people just don't have the energy for that."
Something wonderful happened Sunday, Wortman says. "This mother of a 16-month-old baby saw our ads for the fundraiser and she came and helped us all day. She, Jahleba Benjamin, is a teacher in the Beacon after-school program, and she is very interested in home-schooling her child."
"People are coming all the time to find out about us because we are so new," Wortman says. "And we do want to accept more students, but we need more parent's involvement – we can't do it alone."
The school runs from October, after hurricane season, until July. "Both of us live on boats, and we can't afford to start school and then have to sail away for safe cover," the teachers point out.
The school's number is 777-7713.

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