Florence Wilhelmina Thomas (1901-1996) of East End was the first native Virgin Islands qualified teacher, and legislator Howard R. Penn (1903-1994), of East End and Road Town, did much to advance the development of education in the territory.
So after we moved “full-steam ahead” during the recent Teachers’ Professional Day, let us pause to remember some of those on whose shoulders we stand.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, responsibility for education in the VI was, as it had been at emancipation, still a matter for the churches. Nothing had changed.
The Executive Council had, for the first time, advocated government financing and control of elementary education, but the commissioner’s response was that “it was utterly beyond the financial resources of the Virgin Islands.”
Church and gov’t
The Anglican clergy and the Methodist minister, with a deep sense of their responsibility to ensure at least literacy for their people, were prepared to continue to accept the major role in management of schools. However, the church suggested that since the parents were expected to pay school fees from which the teachers would be paid, government should increase its contribution and abolish school fees.
The commissioner thought that education was the business of the church and that the role of government was only to donate what and when it wished. To increase the grant would have put an additional £100 burden on the Treasury.
The hazzle between government and church continued. However, by 1920 grant-in-aid to education had reached 302 pounds sterling, 19 shillings, and eight pence. With a further grant the following year, the Methodists opened the first infant schools at Wesley Ville (Belle Vue) and Cane Garden Bay in 1922 and at Sea Cows Bay in 1923.
School attendance was low, as many of the parents could not afford the school fees, but instead of addressing the cause the commissioner introduced a rigid form of enforcing the Education Act. He increased fines and appointed an education district officer to bring faltering parents before the courts.
Teachers lacked qualifications. Training facilities were available to the islands at Spring Gardens College in Antigua for women and at Rawle Institute in Barbados for men. Leeward Islands scholarships were available, but the standard of work in the VI schools was such that admission to those institutions was hardly an aspiration. It was not until 1919 that the first Virgin Islander, Florence Wilhelmina Thomas of East End, gained admission to Spring Gardens.
Many of the head teachers had only the Seventh Standard Certificate, and even the expatriates from other West Indian islands were often little better prepared.
Of the four schools that were eligible for a “result grant” in 1923, East End and St. George’s schools attained the highest percentage. Anegada and Road Town schools were the other two.
However, almost four decades of experimenting with recommendations of commissions appointed to examine the educational problems produced failed policies and lagging standards. The system floundered.
Although a Board of Education with executive powers was formed under the Education Act of 1925, it was not until 1956 that a committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Penn was appointed to review the existing system of education and to make recommendations. The report of the review committee served as the basic education policy in the VI for many years, and recommended that at least ten primary schools be constructed to avoid the necessity of classes in churches.
In his own words, Mr. Penn said, “I extended my active concern to educational matters after becoming a member of the Board of Education, and pressed for the provision of secondary education and the high school, which have been achieved in the Virgin Islands.”
In light of the recent Teachers’ Professional Day, I therefore salute the achievements of Ms. Thomas (Fuertes) of East End and Mr. Penn of East End/Road Town.