Conference urges V.I. teachers to 'reclaim the promise of public education'

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Dozens of teachers and educational support staff will be playing the role of student today as the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers holds its annual professional development "Together Educating America's Children" conference.

Schools in the St. Thomas-St. John district will be closed today for the full day of training during the 34th year of the conference in the territory and the union's 45th year locally.

St. Thomas AFT Education Committee Chairperson Avery Lewis is the TEACH organizer and said there will be something for everyone to take away from the conference that they can bring into the classroom to help them reach more students.

He said the conference will be from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with registration at 7:30 a.m. at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School.

The district's theme is "Shaping the Future Through the Power of Public Education," and the guest speaker will be AFT National Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence.

Union members on St. Croix conducted their conference on Friday and kept in tune with the district theme of "Aligning The Curriculum While Elevating the Education Profession."

During the general assembly of the conference Friday at Educational Complex's auditorium, union President Rosa Soto-Thomas encouraged the educators to recharge and realign their tools through ongoing and sound professional development tailored to meet the needs of their students and themselves.

She said the past decade has been turbulent for unions, with the plummeting economy that gave rise to reduced or frozen salaries and increasing cost of living. She said they still struggle with staffing needs and a need for books and supplies and must still remain committed to the students.

"This year's conference comes at a critical time for our schools and communities, when teachers, parents, students and the community are facing unprecedented attacks on their public schools, jobs and civil rights," she said.

Soto-Thomas also spoke against charter schools and outlawing corporal punishment in local schools, revisiting the testimony she gave before the Senate last week, saying that the discussion lawmakers should have with the unions is what can be done to fix the schools.

"When are we going to invest some serious capital in our learning institutions?" she asked. "They say our children are not scoring and performing as others across the nation, but I will tell you, the tools used to measure and assess are grossly flawed."

She encouraged teachers to continue to make a difference in the lives of children and make the sacrifices they need to invest in the future of the territory.

The keynote address was given by Ann Claire Anderson, assistant vice-president of Center for Occupation Research and Development, who challenged the professionals to continue seeking knowledge. She used the mnemonic device of REACT - relate, experience, apply, cooperate, transfer - to encourage teachers to help their students learn by ensuring that they are making the most of the knowledge they gain.

Al Squire, AFT director of the southern region, said teachers must be ready to defend their profession because the public education system is under attack by people who call for cuts to the system and who are fixated on testing and not teaching and then determining that the success levels are not being met.

"We are at a crossroads, a critical moment, and we all must reclaim the promise of public education," he said. "We believe and will fight for the rights to help all children dream and achieve those dreams."

Other speakers included representatives from the Education Commissioner's Office and the office of the district superintendant, Board of Education Chairman Oswin Sewer and Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen. While they were listed on the program, no representatives from Government House or the Legislature were there.

Following the general session, professionals and support staff joined individual break-out workshop sessions that specialized on areas that are beneficial for the teachers, support staff, paraprofessionals and kitchen managers.

Workshop topics included building with geometry; women in focus; technology in the classroom; building peace; brain tools that tell teachers how students organize their thinking; transition to a healthy you; relaxation and de-stressing; bullying; common core; childhood obesity issues and resources; personal finances; and presentations about cultural education and how it fits into the lesson plan.

Teachers got comfortable in the classrooms across the campus as presenters explored their areas. There were many hands-on activities aimed at making learning and teaching more exciting for all involved.

There were also a number of vendors with health products, bush tea, fruits and vegetables, educational resource materials and health screenings.

The St. Thomas-St.John conference will take on the same module with a general assembly, followed by breakout sessions throughout the day.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email

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