Category: Education Editorials

What Next?

Because of the scope of the St. Croix Foundation’s work and the diverse partnerships we’ve built over the last 24 years, each year we gain greater clarity about how to effectively address our community’s needs. We sit on public safety committees and listen to the challenges and new initiatives to tackle them. We listen to our sister nonprofits discuss the social ills plaguing our Territory and the strategies they are employing to heal them, and we work closely with many public sector agencies seeking to support their efforts. What we have learned is that everyone is working tirelessly to institute reforms that will put our children and Territory on the path to prosperity. Yet despite our collective efforts and investments of time and money, we are still talking about the same problems after 20 or more years of trying.

In light of this, 10 years ago, our Board of Directors concluded that almost all roads surrounding our most pressing socio-economic problems lead back to education. Since then, we have invested over a million dollars and volunteered thousands of hours in service to our public schools, educators, and students. We have seen the inner workings of our system, interfacing with key policymakers and leadership teams from the very top of our educational system to working in the trenches with teachers and students.

Today, when we look at our community, we believe that we are in the midst of an urgent, unprecedented economic and social crisis. And the state of our children is particularly catastrophic. For years, the Foundation described the Territory’s children in terms of their academic failings. Now, we believe the situation is much graver. Our children are drowning. Even more chilling than that, our children are dying. In the USVI, in 2010, the death rate of children ages 15 to 19 was 145 per 100,000 teens, the highest level in a decade and three times that of the national rate.

While we recognize this is the result of a myriad of social failures, as a society we have all failed to act. We have failed to meet an urgent crisis with an urgent response. We have failed our children because, as we look out at them drowning, the life rafts we keep throwing at them are simply too small, too few, too tattered, and too outdated. We have spent years building strategic plans and engaging in discussions and debates about the problems and possible solutions, but we have simply not behaved like guardians witnessing their wards crying out for help.

As we stand in the middle of a raging storm, how can we be cautious and tentative in the strategies we employ to save our children? Here we are, in 2014, still weighing the viability of education reform strategies that have proven successful. And all the while, countries around the world that lagged behind the U.S. in every indicator are outpacing old frontrunners. And they’re doing so by being audacious in their response.

The Foundation believes that the real issue before all of us is not whether one strategy is more radical or risky than the other, but rather how do we begin releasing outdated strategies that no longer serve  us or our children and begin embracing innovation and change. This should be an exciting moment in the history of these islands. The possibilities are endless. The roads have been cut and paved for us, and there are now detailed roadmaps to help us chart our course.

As a community-based organization, we challenge ourselves to be courageous and resolute in our mission to serve and advocate for those things we believe will empower the least of us for the benefit of all of us. We do this at the risk of being unpopular or standing alone at times because we fundamentally believe that it is our civic obligation. Over the past 18 weeks, we have published editorials and advertisements to raise awareness on the importance of public education to our economy and social wellbeing; to provide information on a variety of reform models; to galvanize education stakeholders and policymakers to learn the system, analyze it, and reform it where necessary, and to encourage voters to demand that their candidates do so.

This November 4th is about finding the pathway to the progress we all need and desire. The chance to make rapid, deep inroads in our educational system and other social systems is profound. But the first step starts with real leadership. This November 4th we must select leaders with the vision and the courage to nurture greater tolerance within our community for sweeping, revolutionary reforms in the Territory. As we enter the voting booth, let us all be fierce, tireless advocates for our children’s success and social welfare! And when the election is over, let’s demand that it remains so. In reality, our children need every one of us. And we need them.

Vision 2015

In 2010, the state of Delaware won first place in the nation’s Race to the Top grant program and, in turn, was awarded over $119 million dollars in federal grant money for their public education reform efforts. In reality, Delaware’s success was spearheaded by a nonprofit organization called the Rodel Foundation. With a mission of improving student achievement across the state and ultimately for Delaware to rank number 1 in the nation, over the course of several years, Rodel strived to galvanize both education and business communities around the need to transform their entire education system. To build their strategic plan, they convened a 24 member steering committee that was carefully selected and comprised “senior leaders from each of the critical [education] sectors” – a noble yet naïve endeavor in the world of public education.

Through every stage of their consensus building efforts, tensions and challenges arose, but as Marty Linksky, Rodel’s lead steering committee facilitator pointed out, “In order to reach a much higher goal for the children of Delaware, each participant would have to agree to disappoint some portion of his or her own constituency… as participants committed to reaching an agreement on 85 percent of the resulting agenda, realizing each party might resist about 15 percent.”

In 2006, Rodel publicly released their report entitled Vision 2015. And while today it is a comprehensive plan containing 45 specific recommendations for education reform, it took almost 3 years after its release for it to be endorsed by all senior members of every stakeholder group in the state of Delaware. After years of research and relationship building, Vision 2015 was fully and finally adopted by stakeholders in 2009 with the following objectives and recommendations:

  • Set high expectations for all students: make sure standards match those of the highest performing nations and; require state funding for 140 additional school hours per year.
  • Invest in early childhood education: mandate annual license renewals for all early childcare and education providers; build a data system to enable pre kindergarten and K-12 programs to share information seamlessly and track the educational progress of students.
  • Develop and support high quality teachers: treat teachers as professionals with increased pay and a new career path; strengthen higher education’s teacher preparation and professional development programs; establish professional development centers to allow teachers and  principals to share best practices and; create incentives and supports for schools to help new teachers succeed.
  • Empower principals: give skilled principals broader control of decision making related to people, resources, and time; create a statewide leadership academy to serve as a one- stop center for world class principal recruitment, retention, induction, and professional development.
  • Encourage innovation and require accountability: create a statewide Office of Innovation to disseminate best practices and new programs to schools and communities; create a pool of funds to strengthen school-community and school-business partnerships; define what it means to be a world-class school and; identify and provide funding to start and replicate best practice schools that work.
  • Establish a simple and equitable funding system: create a weighted student funding formula to provide different funding for students with different needs; distribute these funds directly to districts and schools, giving principals flexibility in how these funds are spent, along with accountability for results; engage in a careful analysis of how current education dollars could be spent more effectively or allocated differently.

While implementation of the plan was largely contingent upon funding by Race to the Top and building political will, today, Vision 2015 has become a national model for comprehensive, whole system reforms, and we believe that it is a blueprint that the Virgin Islands can use to develop our own Vision for the future.

Overall, the St. Croix Foundation found the story of Rodel compelling. It is a model of education reform that we believe has legitimacy because in order to change educational outcomes and to build a foundation for economic prosperity, communities like ours must first build consensus. But, to build consensus, our constituents, and more specifically our policymakers, must gain a deep understanding of our system. And then, we need to finally set aside the bickering, bipartisanship, and years of pointing of fingers so that we can collectively strive for one common goal: Putting our children first!

It’s time for all stakeholders to put down their swords, raise the white flags, and surrender entrenched positions so we can get serious about educating our children. As we near what many will agree is one of the most important elections in recent history here in the Virgin Islands, we challenge our political candidates and policymakers to make a commitment to creating a real Vision for our schools and to leading this Territory toward social progress and prosperity. It’s time!

Sources & Suggested Readings

Persistence and Agility: The Rodel Foundation of Delaware’s Efforts to Transform Delaware’s Education System: http://www.edfunders.org/sites/default/files/case_8_rodel.pdf

Vision 2015: Imagine: http://www.vision2015delaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Vision-Plan.pdf

There’s Nothing Common about Common Core

In 2009, Common Core State Standards were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association and adopted by the US DOE for the purpose of providing clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life. As defined by the Common Core State Standards [CCSS] Initiative the new standards “clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning. While the standards set grade-specific goals, they do not define how the standards should be taught or which materials should be used to support students.”

States were all given a choice to adopt both math and English/Language Arts standards. Most states (including the Virgin Islands) chose both standards while some states, like Minnesota, elected to adopt only one set of standards. Some chose to pass on them altogether. For Common Core states like Tennessee, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools concluded it was the right choice because “the world is not the same as it was in the 1950s, 60s, or even just a few years ago. Jobs are different, college is different and our schools must be different. We have to teach in a completely new way, focused on mastering skills and working through problems instead of rote memorization. Our standards have to be more rigorous and our expectations higher if our students are ever going to be able to compete in a global society.”

Of course, as is common with most revolutionary changes in education, the Common Core Standards have generated some raging debates about necessity and equity. According to Parents For Public Schools there are pros and cons to Common Core:

Some Pros

  • CCSSS focus on core concepts and procedures starting in the early grades, which gives teachers the time needed to teach them and gives students the time needed to master them.
  • The standards draw on the most important international models, as well as research and input from numerous sources, including educators from kindergarten through college, state departments of education, scholars, assessment developers, professional organizations, parents and students, and members of the public.
  • The multi-assessment feature of Common Core State Standards requires that students come up with their own answers and defend them, ensuring the development of high-level thinking skills.

Some Common Core Cons

  • It will take time for both students and teachers to adjust to the New Common Core State Standards, and the transition will require new ways of teaching and learning.
  • Because Common Core assessments will be on-line, school districts will be forced to spend more on technology and to be sure all students have access to these tools.
  • Common Core State Standards will lead to even more high-stakes testing, at a time when many parents are already fighting the over-use of testing and opting out their children.

Implementation

Yet another major challenge for school districts is just how to implement Common Core. And, from what we’ve seen thus far, implementation will be a particularly painstaking challenge for the Virgin Islands. Last school year, we actually sat through some of the tests which will be given to elementary students, and we didn’t score very well. So we have a keen understanding schools to prepare our children and our teachers.

At the Foundation, we believe that any new standards, curriculum, or program must be accompanied by support for teachers and principals. We have begun to do just this through our Sprint to Excellence Fund which has awarded close to $20,000 to local public schools to support Common Core, including pre-testing students and capacity building for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year.

So, can our students and teachers rise to the challenge of Common Core? Of course, and schools like the one we are supporting are proof of that. But, according to the Center for Education Policy, our schools’ success relies on informed state and district policymakers, because Common Core is putting pressure on governments to assess current policy and ensure funding is in place for new student materials and teacher professional development. Of greater import is the need for policymakers across the nation to study and truly understand how their public education systems are structured and organized in order to assess what strategies and policies best support implementation.

As we near Election Day, St. Croix Foundation encourages every policymaker and education stakeholder to read the standards which can be found here: http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/ and analyze our system itself so that they can hit the ground running to support our schools.

SOURCES & SUGGESTED READING

Common Core State Standards Initiative: http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/

Common Core State Standards Pros and Cons. Parents 4 Public Schools:  http://www.parents4publicschools.org/Documents/Common_core_chart_final.pdf

Center on Education Policy: Common Core State Standards in 2014: Districts’ Perceptions, Progress, and Challenges: http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=440

A Research Agenda for the Common Core State Standards: What Information Do Policymakers Need? http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=436

Do You Know the Stark Realities?

The economy, heath care, and public safety are hot topics across the nation, and the Virgin Islands is no different. Locally, the critical discussions generated around these issues will ultimately shape our future and will reflect to the world what we value as a community. At the Foundation, we believe that at the end of the day, a strong economy, excellent hospitals, and safe streets are all extensions of an educated populace, which is why we have been such staunch advocates for the remodeling of our struggling educational system.

Every year, when reports are released on how our children are faring, we immediately begin to assess the degree to which our community is paying attention and taking decisive actions to address those challenges facing our youth. What we often observe, beyond the valiant efforts of our key education stakeholders, is chronic apathy.

All the while with each passing year, the pressure increases- pressure on our families who must contend with a weak economy and higher crime rates; pressure on our education leaders to meet existing mandates and adopt new national standards like Common Core; and pressure on our public school teachers to implement those standards, which will likely challenge our students and educators beyond their current capacity.

So, today as we strive to mobilize our community to stand with us in a decisive push for revolutionary reforms in our public schools, we thought we would take a moment to restate some of the stark realities that motivate the Foundation to keep raising awareness and advocating for our children, for our teachers… for a brighter future for this Territory:

  • 70% of 11th graders on St. Croix cannot read at grade level (VI DOE 2012-13).
  • 59% of 11th graders on St. Thomas/St. John cannot read at grade level (VI DOE 2012-13).
  • 50% of incoming kindergartners did not have the language skills they needed to learn and express themselves at school (2013 Kids Count).
  • 34% of kindergartners did not have the basic cognitive skills for counting and using numbers and logic (2013 Kids Count).
  • 614 per 100,000 of our young people committed violent crimes in 2011. US national rate: 225/ 100,000 (2013 Kids Count).
  • 2 out every 3 children who drop out of school in the Virgin Islands are young men (2013 Kids Count).
  • Nearly 7% of Virgin Islands teens ages 15-17 were not enrolled in school in 2010, compared with 4% of teens nationwide (PRB Report: Children in the US Virgin Islands).
  • 88% of public school graduates enrolling in UVI are required to take remedial English (UVI).

Did you know that education equals a strong economy?

And, just a few reasons why we believe that education is the key:

  • In less than 10 years, more than 14 million new jobs will open or be created in the United States (Georgetown University). 2/3 of these jobs will require a high school diploma, and at least one year of college or vocational training will be required mechanical trades (Georgetown University).
  • Education reform can improve a nation’s GDP by 36% (Education First).

We know that all stakeholders are working tirelessly to improve our public education system. Our final conclusion, however, is that the pace and precision of educational reform here in the VI is far behind that of most states and industrialized countries around the world. With these harsh realities and the future of our Territory in our hands, we ask all our candidates who are touting economic development plans this question: “For whom are we developing our economy if our children are unprepared to participate?”

Public School Models that Make a Difference

Over the past 10 years, St. Croix Foundation has developed partnerships with major education reform organizations like the International Center for Leadership in Education and Grantmakers for Education. Through organizations like these, we continue to learn about innovative, leading edge educational models and best practices that are truly making a difference in struggling school systems around the country. In light of the current state of our own public schools, we believe that some of these educational models could present pathways toward the rapid transformation of our own system. Here are some examples:

Robinson Elementary School
Last year, a local delegation sponsored by the Foundation visited Robinson Elementary, an Apollo 20 program in Houston, Texas. Launched in response to the threat of a state take-over of schools that were failing to make adequate yearly progress, the Houston Independent School District instituted radical changes to the curriculum and organizational structure of 20 public schools. Today, the success that they are achieving can be attributed to new guidelines developed in partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, which include the following:

  • A mandate from the Superintendent to revise the Administrator Preparatory Curriculum at local universities to focus on training “Turnaround Specialists” in order to build greater capacity in the District’s principal pool
  • An extended school day for all 4th beyond the 4th graders in response to data that shows that poor reading skills grade become increasingly difficult to remediate
  • Use of university math tutors for all 3rd graders
  • A culture of high expectations

At Robinson Elementary, principal and staff are carefully chosen and are given extensive, specialized training in the math and reading programs used in the school. Most impressive is a math program that provides one tutor per four students for 20 minutes each day. With a marked increase in test scores and a proven decline in its dropout rate, Houston is proving that large districts can indeed transform their systems successfully.

New American Academy
The New American Academy started as a pilot project developed and implemented through an unlikely partnership between the New York City teachers’ union and Department of Education and Harvard University. Located in Brooklyn, the New American Academy is a public school model designed from the perspective that student achievement is directly tied to teacher quality. Some key features of New American include:

  •  Teachers are in a four-step career ladder with a competitive pay scale. Promotion is based on a comprehensive review of competence and ability, not just test scores or seniority.
  • Classrooms have teams of four teachers who work with 60-65 students within a grade-level, reducing the teacher to student ratio to 15:1. In addition to a Master Teacher, each team includes licensed Special Education and English Second Language teachers.
  • Teacher Teams meet daily in 90 minute sessions to collaborate and engage in peer reviews.
  • New American students also ‘loop’ with their classmates and teaching team for five years, with a constant of at least one teacher repeating each year, which allows for the development of trust among students, parents, and teachers.

Harlem Children’s Zone

The Harlem Children’s Zone, founded back in 1970 by renowned educator Geoffrey Canada, has sought to provide a continuum of support services for children from cradle to college. With the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of poverty, HCZ features comprehensive wrap around social services for children and their families in a 100 block area of Harlem. In recent years, it has been lauded as a national model for its 95% college acceptance rate and for ensuring that 100% of their preschoolers test school-ready. The program consists of:

  • A Baby College for parents of children ages 0–3
  • All-day pre-kindergarten
  • Extended-day charter schools
  • Health clinics and community centers for children and adults during after-school, weekend and summer hours
  • Youth violence prevention programs
  • College admissions and retention support services

These models represent just a handful of 21st  Century educational models that the Foundation has toured. What we have learned is that there are no silver bullets! Most reform models are, in many instances, replete with as many challenges as successes. If the Virgin Islands is to finally get serious about the business of educational transformation, we need to determine what pieces of successful models will work for us and which ones won’t. But, in order to do that, we first need to gain an intimate understanding of our system- identifying our assets and liabilities as well as our values– so that we can begin to make informed decisions. This Election Season, we challenge all candidates running for public office to begin really “learning” our system so they can all be active, informed leaders in an educational revolution here in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sources

EDUCATION FIRST – Trust

Historically, whenever those responsible for our local education system (i.e. the Board of Education, Department of Education and teachers’ union) convene before the Senate, there has been a contentious and argumentative game of blame. In fact, in most struggling school districts one can often find a multitude of finger-pointing about the issues and challenges facing that educational system. While many believe that power-struggles and a lack of accountability are at the heart of these historic disagreements, St. Croix Foundation believes that another underlying factor to these conflicts is actually trust— or the lack thereof.

As one of the most active nonprofit education stakeholders in the Territory, the Foundation has grown keenly aware of the enormous role which trust plays in building and sustaining meaningful private-public partnerships. So much so that, despite our shared goals, fidelity, and $1,000,000-plus investment of scarce resources into our public education system, we have at times been exposed to some of the same rancor and discord displayed in past Senate hearings.

What has become abundantly clear to us is that both education leaders and community stakeholders must find middle ground in order to develop the necessary partnerships that produce meaningful outcomes for our students and our public schools. But for that to happen, all stakeholders must first come to recognize that so long as the success of our children is central to everyone’s agenda, then we are all on the same side.

What we can all agree on is that we are not alone. There are districts around the nation and countries around the world that are contending with the very same challenge of building consensus and employing collaboration– of creating Trust. One country’s story of systemic education transformation that we keep referring back to is Finland, partly because it was long, it was arduous, and it worked! Not only did the process take many years, but it began with one central focus: TRUST.

To begin the process of system-wide educational transformation, Finland first developed a consensus on the importance and purpose of education. They clearly defined why the process of reform was even necessary. They determined, collectively, that learning had to be “sacrosanct” — revered by everyone in the country. Finns very shrewdly decided that at the core of their system would be exemplary teacher training, because they believed that if they could trust teachers in the classroom, first and foremost, they could create a system that didn’t require ‘inspectorates’ or evaluations throughout the system. Then, they professionalized their teacher training programs, educating their teachers like doctors. As a result, embedded in Finland’s system is a high degree of trust that teachers are doing their jobs and doing it at the highest standard. They firmly believe that a compliance-based system whereby people were checking up on teachers would result in a lack of focus on teaching.

In the end, it took 25 long years for education stakeholders in Finland to learn how to trust one another. But today, they have an international model of educational reform based primarily on trust, collaboration, and professionalism wherein the Ministry trusts municipalities and municipalities trust schools. Then, by virtue of the rigor of their teacher training, there is more rigor in the classroom and as a result schools implicitly trust teachers; and parents trust the whole system. While the system in not perfect and there are still areas in need of reform, Finland is one model of how to approach system-wide reform.

The Foundation believes there are some very specific ways that the Territory can start the process of fostering more trusting, high-impact partnerships among all stakeholders particularly between private and public sectors in support of high-quality education, including the following:

  • Nurture and sustain high levels of accountability, transparency and open lines of communication between all stakeholders
  • Educate the community on the system itself: how and why it works
  • Diversify brokers and invite the private sector to the table when important decisions need to be made, so that school and District leaders can marry strengths and overcome weaknesses—in turn, netting greater results for all.

It is universally understood that for schools to be successful, the entire community must support them. So this Election Season, let’s ask our candidates what policies they are willing to support that will engender collaboration and trust in our educational system. We believe two points of agreement we can begin with are that the interest of our children must always come first and that our teachers should be the most highly trained professionals in the region.

This election year let’s make education our priority.

Sources & Suggested Readings

In teachers they trusthttp://www.todayonline.com/commentary/teachers-they-trust

The school district’s big trust problemhttp://parentsunitedphila.com/2014/03/24/the-school-districts-big-trust-problem/

For Schools to Reform: Discipline and Structure First – Then Programs

The issue of discipline and structure is a highly sensitive one in our community given that few campuses in the Territory have been spared the ravages of violence and chronic disciplinary infractions. According to a USVI Department of Education’s St. Croix District Discipline Report issued in 2008, there were 1,232 discipline infractions among our junior high schools and 814 in our high schools during the 2007-2008 school year. Combine this with the total number of days junior high and high school students were suspended, 3187, and two things were very clear: 1) our teachers and administrators were being distracted from the business of teaching with a focus shifted from instruction to behavioral management; and 2) far too many of our students were spending too much time out of the classroom.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development confirms that programs and a rigorous curriculum alone won’t raise academic achievement, and in fact, classroom management cannot be removed from the equation when determining the effectiveness of a teacher. The data and the research show that before we can improve academics, we must first create an environment that is conducive to learning!

We learned this lesson first-hand back in 2005, at the inception of our partnership with several public schools. At first, we naively made the decision to focus our effort solely on academic-based supports. However, in light of our first tumultuous and violent year, which saw ongoing unrest and several school-wide riots at one school, we quickly recognized that not focusing on structure and student discipline was indeed shortsighted. This was reinforced by our primary stateside public school partner, Principal Truett Abbott. We were first introduced to Mr. Abbott by way of a CNN news segment about schools that were succeeding against all odds. In that interview he related how he led his students at Warren County Middle School (WCMS) in rural Georgia to staggering academic success. Mr. Abbott not only shared his successes but also spoke frankly about his challenges and the sheer will it took to turn his school around. During the first year of his reform efforts, he had to abort a comprehensive push to institute large-scale academic reforms in order to first focus on discipline and structure.

Mr. Abbott instituted policies that ensured teachers were always supervising and interacting with students beyond classroom instructional time, including before school, between classes, at lunchtime, and after school. He took aggressive steps to create a structured environment to ensure that everyone stayed on task all day, every day. Only after he had established the level of structure that he envisioned for his campus did he begin implementing comprehensive literacy-based programs. Nationally recognized success soon followed as students’ reading scores soared from the 23rd to the 88th in less than three years.

Since that time Mr. Abbott’s message has continued to ring true as structure has proven to be a critical factor in all successful reform efforts we have studied. Over the past 10 years, the Foundation has traveled with Virgin Islands stakeholders and policy makers to visit a number of model schools abroad like Robinson Elementary School in Houston and the Harlem Children’s Zone, where every aspect of the school day is consistently and uniformly structured. We’ve also witnessed structure like that right here at home when we worked with public school teachers and administrators to implement comprehensive Classroom Management Resource procedures. Watching our partner school transform from a chaotic environment with the most disciplinary infractions in the District to an organized institution of learning with the least discipline infractions was inspiring. Our Classroom Management Binder, built in concert with teachers, consisted of system-wide behavioral management policies and outlined procedures for every aspect of the school day—from how to walk between classrooms and assemble in the auditorium to how to turn in homework. It is available on the Foundation’s website for any educator or administrator.

For the Foundation, the bottom line is this: schools work best when rules are consistent from classroom to classroom as well as outside of class, such that students are not playing guessing games nor testing boundaries. Procedures have to be communicated, rehearsed, and reinforced from the very first day of school to the last, so that students know what to expect and what is expected of them—always. Dr. Harry Wong, America’s greatest guru on classroom management emphasizes in his nationally endorsed book, “First Days of School,” that teaching students procedures for even the simplest of request, like how to ask for a pencil in the middle of a class lecture, is not an insignificant detail since it typically requires many teachers to stop their lessons to deal with one student’s small request.

As the new school year begins, we encourage our policy makers and administrators to outline the specific policies they will support and enforce so that our educators and students, at every school and across classrooms, can get down to the business of teaching and learning.

Sources & Suggested Reading

 Behavior Management & Academic Performance

Teacher Resources & Models

Understanding Our Board and Commissioner of Education

From the inception of our work in public education, we have had many questions over the years when it comes to our schools like: Who’s really in charge? Who is responsible for making sure our schools are ready for teachers and students at the start of each school year? Are our schools really adequately funded? How and why are principals selected or transferred?

The St. Croix Foundation has deduced that our educational system can at times be extremely confusing as the maze of policies and governing bodies have often confounded us and been difficult to navigate. As stakeholders outside the system, we have also been surprised to note that the system has appeared to be confusing even for some inside the system. That’s why over a year ago St. Croix Foundation convened a steering committee comprising committed and engaged community stakeholders from each District to begin seriously researching ‘the system’ in order to better understand the policies that govern it.

One of the most interesting findings we have uncovered is that our local Board of Education functions very differently than boards in most states. Affirming this observation, a 2002 study by the University of the Virgin Islands concluded that the Virgin Islands Board of Education is more of an advisory board whereas many boards in the states, in addition to setting and evaluating policy, have the power and authority to actually hire and fire superintendents and select commissioners.

Surprisingly however, in the Bylaws that govern our Board of Education, the Board is defined as an independent agency that is “responsible for the general policy and direction of education in the Virgin Islands.” According to Title 17 of the V.I. Code, the Board is also responsible for promulgating rules and regulations for the certification of all elementary, secondary, and postsecondary educational institutions; doing anything necessary for the proper establishment, maintenance, management, and operation of the public schools of the Virgin Islands; cooperating with the Office of Education in the administration of all acts of congress relating to general education; providing for the proper administration of funds which may be appropriated by Congress; approving or disapproving the rules and regulations proposed by the Commissioner of Education.

By statute, our Board has a lot of responsibility which can be summed up this way: the Virgin Islands Board of Education is the leading entity for the governance and financial management of the Virgin Islands’ education system. The question remains, do they really exercise all their power, and if not, what are the impediments? Additionally, do they have the resources to do so? The University’s 2002 study reported that due to power struggles, communication issues, policy disconnects, and confusion about the Board’s role, the Board was unable to exercise their full power. So, how can we improve our system with that level of systemic dysfunction? And, do we need to change the structure and role of our Board, or are there policies in place that should be examined and modified to empower and elevate its role?

What we have found, however, is that among some of the highest performing states there are completely different organizational structures for each state’s educational system. In some, the board is elected while in other states the board is appointed by the governor. And some states don’t even have a ‘board of education’ at all. According to the National Association on State School Boards, 23 states choose to have their board of education hire their commissioner. But in some cases, states elect their commissioner and in others the choice of a commissioner is a gubernatorial appointment. The common thread among high achieving states, based on our research, is a high level of collaboration among all the key stakeholders and policymakers.

But, whether appointed, elected (like our Board of Education), or hired and whether a commissioner or a state superintendent, we believe that it is vital that we analyze how we select our education leaders and the policies that govern their roles and responsibilities.

As we move into the height of this election season, we want to challenge policymakers and all community stakeholders to consider these questions: Should our Governor continue to appoint our Commissioner of Education? Should our Commissioner be elected by the voters or hired by the Board of Education? And, who should the Commissioner of Education be responsible to, the Governor/political party in power, the Board of Education, or the people whom he/she serves?

This election season, let’s ask our political candidates how committed they are to reforming our education system to ensure we put our children first.

For more information on the Foundation’s Education First series, please call 773.9898.

Suggested Readings & Sources

Report on the Administrative Efficiency of the V.I. Department of Education. (May 5, 2002). University of the Virgin Islands. St. Croix Source http://stcroixsource.com/content/community/data/2002/05/25/uvi-study-education-department-efficiency-0

National Association of State School Boards

• State Education Governance Models (2014): http://www.nasbe.org/wp-content/uploads/Governance-Models-Chart-July-2014.pdf

Virgin Islands Board of Education

•  http://www.myviboe.com/pdf/board_of_education_bylaws.pdf

The Real Deal about Infrastructure and Resources

Over the last 24 years, St. Croix Foundation has learned some important lessons about effective philanthropy and how to best serve our community. More than just a grantmaker, we have grown skillful at identifying resources and building private-public partnerships to address the root causes to the problems we face. Today, in this era of fewer resources, we are also acutely aware of the need to prioritize investments and leverage scarce resources particularly for our struggling public schools. As our public sector reaches out to the private sector to fill funding gaps, with policies like mandatory EDC education “donations”, we believe that fidelity and accountability for the use of these funds is critical.

Our first lesson brokering partnerships between donors and our schools came many years ago when a generous EDC firm agreed to adopt one of our local high schools. We spent hours touring the campus and meeting with administrators to identify the most urgent needs. When all was said and done, the school pleaded and the donor conceded to repair bathrooms! Despite the vast academic needs of students and teachers at the school, we agreed to use those precious donor dollars to gut and retrofit one bathroom, to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to repair and paint 13 other bathrooms.

We expended more than $25,000 that we believed could have been leveraged several times over and in turn relieved the government of its obligatory responsibility to address basic infrastructure needs in our schools. While we were pleased to learn that the project had resolved the issue of handicap accessibility, which contributed to the school’s full accreditation, the experience taught the Foundation some profound lessons that have since informed how we guide and advise donors who are interested in providing resources and other supports to our public schools.

In fact, we may be one of a few non-profits in the Territory that consistently steers donors away from projects which we believe will not have lasting impact or the level of accountability necessary for success. We feel too strongly about the urgency of the most critical, instructional-based needs in our public schools and the importance of synergy in how private sector resources are used to address them.

What’s been interesting to us is that oftentimes when people in our community discuss our public schools, the conversation usually centers around the poor physical condition of our schools instead of focusing on reading scores or professional development for teachers. But, little of our research or our experiences point to infrastructure as a significant inhibitor to student achievement. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s 2008 report, How Does the United States Stack Up?, “In some of the countries that are now surpassing the U.S. in academic performance, students don’t have even a fraction of the basic resources and amenities we take for granted!”

Following our “bathroom” experience, we launched our Model School Initiative (MSI) fully expecting to find significant infrastructure and resource deficiencies at our pilot school. Instead, what we found was quite to the contrary. Not only were there computers and white boards, along with a host of other technological resources, but we also found many of the same academic programs that were in use at some of the highest-performing stateside schools we had researched. In direct refutation of what we’d heard “on the street,” we learned that the Department of Education had indeed been equipping teachers and administrators with high-quality instructional resources and had dedicated significant funding toward teacher training in the utility of these programs. But there was a catch: while some proven resources had been procured for our schools, we found examples of poor follow-through in ensuring that those resources were actually being effectively implemented, institutionalized and evaluated.

We actually experienced this first-hand during the course of our MSI. After realizing that the scattered computer resources at our pilot school made it impossible to test an entire class, we reached out to Hovensa. They responded in a big way, donating a state of the art technology center, with 30 flat screen computers, desks, commercial air conditioning, and new room enclosures at a cost of over $125,000. The Foundation donated a new security system and paid for monitoring to protect Hovensa’s costly investment. Our partnership with Hovensa was a perfect example of our strategy: brokering strategic private-public partnerships, leveraging scarce funding in order to provide students with the high-quality educational resources they need to be globally competitive.

We hope that the lessons we’ve learned serve to guide stakeholders in building effective, high- impact partnerships that create bridges to success for our schools and our students. We also hope that our elected officials and policy makers will promote private-public partnerships that are based on substantiated need, a fully articulated plan of action, accountability and transparency.

This editorial is part of the Foundation’s Education First series. For more information, call 773.9898.

Charter Schools… A Viable Option?

In 2009, Bill Gates released his first Annual Letter to update the nation on his foundation’s work in education. At the time, we were concluding our work in several public schools and analyzing the data we had compiled. There were many commonalities between Gates’ findings and ours, and his conclusions were not only instructive for the St. Croix Foundation but should be enlightening for our entire community.

Having spent over 2 billion dollars in nine years to raise college-ready graduation rates in public schools, Bill Gates acknowledged that the Gates Foundation did not achieve the results they wanted. In his words:

  1. Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve student achievement in any significant way. These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture such as allowing the principal to pick their team of teachers or change the curriculum.
  2. We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.
  3. …a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. Almost all of these schools were charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.

Today, after almost ten years of work in our public schools, our conclusions about how to achieve public education excellence are closely aligned with Gates’ and others who are pushing for reform from outside the system. But, Gates’ reference to charters was the single piece of data that struck us as interesting because, up to that point, the Foundation had not dedicated any attention to the issue of charter schools as a viable pathway for rapid educational reform. Instead, we maintained our commitment to our Department of Education and the potential we firmly believe it has to successfully close the achievement gap for our students.

For those who do not fully understand what charter schools are, the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences defines them as: “Public schools that operate with freedom from many of the local and state regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Charter schools allow parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and others the flexibility to innovate and provide students with increased educational options within the public school system. Charter schools are sponsored by local, state, or other organizations that monitor their quality while holding them accountable for academic results and responsible fiscal practices.”

Historically, charter schools have been vehicles for creating innovative educational opportunities for parents and students, which is why many proponents believe so strongly in them. They have also afforded educators opportunities to bypass governmental bureaucracies that stifle innovation.

Still, there is no guarantee that charters will offer students anything better than conventional public schools do as many have reported worse results—a real dilemma for parents and community leaders. However, there is a growing number of charter schools that are producing rapid and extraordinary results that we believe demand our consideration. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the USDOE, summed the issue up like this, “I do not support charter schools. I support good charters.” We would add, we support great schools, whatever form they take.

Today, despite the fact that charters are independently run public schools and are popping up all over the country, there is great controversy that surrounds the word “charter,” primarily because at the core of the matter is money. As dollars that have been dedicated to failing schools are being re-directed to charters, political firestorms are becoming commonplace in underperforming school districts across the country.

As it stands, the Virgin Islands joins only 8 other states that have not passed charter legislation. And, while there is a charter school bill before the VI Legislature, the Foundation agrees with two key positions held by the National Alliance for Charter Schools: 1) charter schools are most successful when there is strong legislation governing their creation and operation and; 2) charter schools are just one of many components of successful 21st Additionally, with the U.S. pledging billions of dollars to support innovative public school models, including charters, we believe the Territory would be remiss to not examine every reform strategy that could avail the VI of much needed educational funding to support our reform efforts. Century educational systems.

We recommend that all education stakeholders (particularly parents and policy makers) review model legislation as well as our pending legislation at http://usvisenate.org/policy-initiatives/charter-schools/ to broaden their understanding of charter schools. We also urge policy makers to research successful charters and great schools like the New American Academy, KIPP, the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy and the Success Academies. This election season, let’s ask our candidates how they recommend providing more choices for parents, opportunities for students, and the flexibility to innovate for principals and teachers.

This editorial is part of the St. Croix Foundation’s Education First Campaign. For more information, call 773.9898.

SOURCES:

Bill Gates Education Reform Findings
Annual Letter 2009, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, pages 10-13:
http://www.gatesfoundation.org/who-we-are/resources-and-media/annual-letters-list/annual-
letter-2009

Charter School Definition
US Department of Education:
http://www2.ed.gov/parents/schools/choice/definitions.html

States with Charter School Legislation

The Center for Education Reform:
“The eight remaining states who have not passed charter legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.”
http://www.edreform.com/issues/choice-charter-schools/laws-legislation/

General Information
U.S Virgin Islands Charter Legislation: http://usvisenate.org/policy-initiatives/charter-schools/

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: http://www.publiccharters.org/get-the-facts/

New American Academy: http://www.thenewamericanacademy.org/

KIPP – The Knowledge is Power Program: http://www.kipp.org/

Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy: http://hcz.org/our-programs/promise-academy-charter-schools/

Harlem Children Zone’s Success Academy: http://successacademies.org/