Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro recently stood in the House of Assembly and delivered a badly needed wake-up call that should shock the entire territory into action.
Virgin Islands schools, she said, are struggling with “extreme misconduct.” Her words bear repeating.
“I can regrettably confirm that some of our students are threatening the lives of their peers, teachers, administrators and security officers and are threatening to destroy school property,” Ms. de Castro said. “Additionally, our schools have found students in possession of marijuana and marijuana products, as well as e-cigarettes and alcohol. Brass knuckles with knives attached are being confiscated from students far too frequently. Schools have also reported a significant issue with students bringing oversized splat-ball or pellet guns and using them to shoot at others after school.”
Needless to say, this situation is totally unacceptable. Ms. de Castro deserves kudos for publicly airing an honest assessment of the troubles facing the schools she oversees.
But talking about the problem won’t solve it. Ms. de Castro is the latest in a string of education ministers to air major concerns without ever receiving the funds to adequately address them.
Indeed, successive governments have treated education as an afterthought for decades, and the current situation is doubtlessly a direct result of this neglect.
The minister noted that government is planning a crackdown to address the disciplinary issues she described. This step is well and good, but it must also be accompanied by systemic reforms that address longstanding problems.
Infrastructure is one of the most glaring, particularly after Hurricane Irma battered facilities around the territory. In this regard, the new Elmore Stoutt High School buildings were a big step in the right direction, but much more work is needed at schools around the territory — including rebuilding the territory’s largest public primary school, Althea Scatliffe.
Teacher salaries are another egregious problem. Here again, Ms. de Castro painted a troubling picture: VI teachers, who are paid far less than many of their counterparts abroad, have been resigning in large numbers, and government is struggling to replace them.
Here, the ongoing public service salary review is a step in the right direction, but extra consideration should go to teachers, who have an exceedingly difficult and important job that has long been very poorly rewarded in the VI.
Infrastructure work and salary increases, then, are urgently needed. But they must also be accompanied by many other measures: new early-childhood options; a restoration and expansion of youth and sports programmes that have been cut back in recent years; better support for non-profit organisations like the Youth Empowerment Project in East End; and much more.
The responsibility for such reforms, of course, doesn’t rest with the government alone. The entire community also must come on board. Parents play an indispensable role, as do churches, non-profit organisations, and businesses.
For far too long, successive governments have put education on the backburner while much of the community looked the other way. Today, students are suffering.
In fact, Ms. de Castro’s assessment suggests that many of them are in danger every time they show up for class.