A new school semester is starting in an exciting way for students at Elmore Stoutt High School as they become the first to attend class at newly opened buildings on campus.
Community members had the opportunity to explore the facility after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and time capsule dedication on Jan. 3.
With its bright yellow walls, towering shutters letting in a fresh breeze, and views overlooking Road Town, the buildings stand as a significant step in recovery from the 2017 hurricanes. Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro said at the ceremony that this is the first time since the storms that all ESHS students have been united on the same campus for full-day learning.
“The gratitude that I feel is simply unexplainable,” Ms. de Castro said at the ceremony. “Now, perhaps more than ever, an excellent education is vital to individual prosperity, the health of our democracy, and the strength of our territory.”
Community leaders including the school’s namesake, Mr. Stoutt, joined in the celebration. The project designs were first unveiled last January, and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley previously anticipated the project would be completed last September. Although the opening was delayed a semester due largely to shipping issues, leaders said they were glad to open the doors.
Ms. de Castro recalled how the storms devastated the ESHS campus, displacing students and faculty.
“What should have been a temporary location at the [former Clarence Thomas Limited] building seemed to have become a permanent one,” she said, adding, “Justifiable complaints about the sufficiency and safety of the space echoed loudly. Though not as immediately as expected, action was taken.”
The minister thanked the contractors she said worked hard to make the project happen, including Quality Construction, Autland Heavy Equipment Ltd., Metro Construction, Northam and SunLeaf Construction, and No Limit Construction.
Now, the largest secondary school in the territory is in a position to facilitate learning for over 1,400 students taught by about 150 educators in grades seven through 12, she said.
“The completion of this project signifies a major investment in the infrastructure of education in the Virgin Islands,” Ms. de Castro added.
VI Recovery and Development Agency Board of Directors Chairman Ronnie Skelton said it was a tight timeline to finish the buildings before the end of the year, but the RDA — which oversaw the build — was proud to have done it with the help of all the project contractors.
The four buildings comprising the facility total 24,904 square feet, and they were built with a nearly $15 million budget, he said. The project was by far the RDA’s largest yet, and Mr. Skelton encouraged the premier to make full use of the agency on other recovery projects, taking a comprehensive look at what the territory still needs.
He also called on students to make the most of the facility and not take it for granted.
Educators including Briana Henley also spoke, noting the challenges students and teachers have faced over the past five years.
“High school was a far cry from what our students had become accustomed to and deserved,” she said of the post-Irma landscape.
As the pandemic spread, students were forced to adapt and sometimes grow up faster as they were tasked with balancing schedules or even becoming caretakers for younger siblings.
While some students enjoyed the flexibility of learning from home, others fell behind academically: Some assessments of learning gaps showed students were, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading, she said.
“They have been at risk of finishing school without the skills, behaviours and mindsets to succeed in college or the workforce,” Ms. Henley added.
She also noted the stress educators faced in recent years as they adapted to new ways of teaching.
“These last few years have not been what any of us planned for,” she said. “They have challenged us and offered us new opportunities every single day. Together, we have responded to the best of our ability and in the best interest of our students. Now, finally, since 2017, ready or not, we will be returning fully to classrooms.”
Tours, time capsule
Following the ceremonial ribbon cutting, students led guided tours of the new school while the ESHS band welcomed visitors.
Students showcased spacious classrooms, faculty rooms, and textile labs where fellow students demonstrated how some of the new machinery will be used.
But before all that, a few leaders made their contributions to a time capsule, including letters and a copy of the upcoming budget from the premier. The capsule will be opened in January 2043.