Government is working with the Recovery and Development Agency and two United States-based nonprofits to finalise designs for a rebuilt Elmore Stoutt High School, according to Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley.
In the meantime, however, it plans to construct “additional buildings” designed to accommodate both junior and senior students at the original ESHS campus by next spring, Dr. Wheatley said last Thursday in the House of Assembly in response to a question from Opposition Leader Marlon Penn.
These additional buildings will be used at first by ESHS students and later by the Virgin Islands School of Technical Studies after the entire ESHS campus is redeveloped under the larger project, according to the minister.
“Our government through my ministry has been working with the idea to build adequate classrooms to move the senior students from the old [Clarence Thomas Limited building in Pasea Estate] by at the latest April next year to ensure that they are provided more comfortable teaching and learning spaces,” Dr. Wheatley said.
The design and construction plan for those additional buildings has not been finalised, he added.
For the larger campus redevelopment, he said, the ministry is working with US nonprofit Construction for Change and its architectural partner Design 4 Others, which is providing conceptual design services, he said.
“The redevelopment plan will be executed in a phased approach,” Dr. Wheatley said. “Phase one will be the construction of the junior school with the capacity to house approximately 1,000 students in a two-storey
building, and an administrative wing. Phase two [is] a redevelopment of the entire campus, indicating the placement of future buildings, including the Virgin Islands School of Technical Studies, green spaces, gardens, access pathways and main entrances and exits.”
No firm timeline is in place for the larger ESHS redevelopment, he said, and he did not provide a cost estimate or say where the funding would be sourced.
“We are going through the design phase right now. And then we’ll move to procurement after the design phase,” Dr. Wheatley explained.
“Preliminary schematic designs have been completed for the campus redevelopment and the junior school based on a statement of requirement and a user requirement document.”
During May and June, the ministry held stakeholder meetings for faculty, staff and students with question-and-answer segments and invited them to further submit questions and comments over email, according to the minister.
Additional territory-wide public meetings are planned, he said, though he did not name a date or time.
The entire student body has not attended school on the original ESHS campus for nearly four years. After Hurricane Irma leveled much of their school in 2017, ESHS students were relocated to the former CTL building in Pasea Estate, where all students attended on a shift system until junior school students finally moved into the refurbished Lshaped building at their original campus at the start of the 2019- 2020 school year.
The junior school situation is a matter of urgency, the minister acknowledged, which is why the ministry has decided to move ahead and construct the “additional” classroom buildings before tackling the full ESHS reconstruction.
“We understand that the conditions at the CTL building are not ideal. And we are sorry that the teachers and students had to endure it for so long, but we are working diligently to ensure that this changes, by ensuring that when the junior school buildings spoken about above are completed, these classrooms will be able to be turned over to the technical school, allowing our senior students to be in one space,” he said.
The technical school would then be located on the same campus as ESHS, he said.
But Mr. Penn had further questions on the “additional buildings” that Dr. Wheatley said would be built by April.
“What is the cost of those buildings that are going to be built and how are they going to be built?” he asked.
Dr. Wheatley responded that the ministry had been meeting with the RDA and the Ministry of Finance “and we are in the stage of the process where we have requests for proposals.” He added, “So we expect shortly to be able to make a decision about how we’re moving forward in terms of the method of building and cost. After we have the request for proposals, we can go into the procurement stage.”
Mr. Penn pressed, “I’m trying to understand how you could put a timeline in terms of actually completing this if you haven’t really finished the request-for-proposal stage or finalised designs and even cost and budget, and how will it be funded?”
Dr. Wheatley replied that the RDA “has been engaged in these processes for a while now. They have a matrix in terms of how long the request-for-proposal stage takes, how long the procurement takes for the designs, how long the designs will take, how long the procurement
process will take in terms of awards, and how long the tender
process will take.”
He said it was the financeminister’s job to “identify the funds,” and he referred funding questions to Premier Andrew Fahie, who did not answer them during the sitting.
On Tuesday, the RDA announced via social media that 14 companies had submitted expressions of interest in constructing the planned classrooms. The release said the companies will now be shortlisted and the top sevenwill be asked to submit tenders.
In response to another question from the opposition leader, Dr. Wheatley disclosed that 13 students dropped out of school over the past 13 months, mostly on Virgin Gorda.
Two grade eight and two grade nine students from Bregado Flax Educational Centre Secondary Division dropped out.
Three additional students, one each from Grades 10, 11 and 12, also left school, for a total of seven VG dropouts.
On Tortola, Elmore Stoutt High School had four dropouts: one each from grades seven through 10, he added. Two grade 11 students dropped out of VISTS, for a total of six dropouts on Tortola, according to the minister.
He urged the education system not to “give up” on dropouts, adding that truancy officers and counselors are working on getting them back into the system.
“I call on our young people to come back to school and I will mandate that they be given the proper counselling to support their reintegration into our education system,” he said.
Mr. Penn went on to press the minister on how many students may have missed school in a year of mostly remote learning, given that some may not have easy access to the necessary equipment to log in. In response, the minister described a seven percent absentee rate across the territory’s public high schools after a year of mostly remote learning.
Attendance is recorded for every class, he explained, so each student should have five attendance entries at the end of each full week.
ESHS recorded 1,716,696 attendances and 128,588 absences, according to the minister. BFEC on VG had a total of 369,250 attendances and 33,502 absences, he said. VISTS had 105,922 attendances and 2,924 absences. Anegada’s CCEC had a total of 29,540 recorded attendances and 110 absences.
Dr. Wheatley added that grade seven had a seven percent absentee rate, grade eight an eight percent rate, grade nine an eight percent rate, grade 10 a six percent rate, grade 11 an eight percent rate, and grade 12 a seven percent rate.
In a follow-up question, Mr. Penn suggested that some of these absences may have been due to some students not having a suitable device or ready access to the internet for remote learning. “How are we handling those students who might have fallen by the wayside?” Mr. Penn asked.
Dr. Wheatley acknowledged that some students are disadvantaged in lacking access to the proper e-learning technology, but he said the ministry is aware of the situation and prepared to put other learning
measures in place if needed.
“If the children are not signing on, the truancy officers have to investigate,” he said. “Certainly, we have situations where you have persons with challenges with the online methodology, whether they
have poor internet, or whether they have another challenge that would
interrupt their ability to attend classes and we have put measures in place including bringing some of those students on campus to be able to receive face-to-face instruction,” he stated.