Education officials, senators discuss consolidating Guy Benjamin, Julius Sprauve schools on St. John


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V.I. Education Department officials told senators Monday that they are considering consolidating the two public schools on St. John: Guy Benjamin School and Julius Sprauve School.

Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said she is working on a plan to repurpose Guy Benjamin School, the small Coral Bay elementary school that currently teaches second- through sixth-graders, to be an early childhood development facility with pre-kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes and possibly a Head Start program.

Residents of Coral Bay were concerned last fall when the department decided to move the kindergarten and first-grade classes from Benjamin to Sprauve, which is in Cruz Bay. Many worried that the move was simply a precursor to the department shutting down the school completely.

In a Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development hearing on St. John on Monday, Frett-Gregory explained to senators why the move was made and the many challenges both schools face.

At the start of the school year, Guy Benjamin kindergarten and first-grade classes had only nine students each. A teacher shortage at Sprauve School meant bringing the kindergartners and first-graders to Sprauve would free up a teacher to teach third grade.

Frett-Gregory said enrollment at Guy Benjamin has steadily declined over the years, going from 112 students in 2010 to only 55 now. By contrast, Sprauve School's enrollment has gone up, from 147 in 2010 to 285 now.

Despite the declining number of students at Benjamin, it still costs the department the same amount of money to operate the school, she said. It costs about $1.1 million annually to operate Guy Benjamin and $2.3 million to operate Sprauve, according to Frett-Gregory. Benjamin has only 15 employees compared with Sprauve's 44.

Sprauve poses some concerns - it is located in the center of Cruz Bay and surrounded by bars and traffic - but it does have a maximum capacity of 729, more than enough to absorb the 55 Guy Benjamin students.

Frett-Gregory said she understands that the residents of Coral Bay love their school and parents want to keep the low teacher-to-student ratio, but the department must look carefully at how its limited resources are being spent.

"The department's goal is to provide the best education possible and to use the resources available to us wisely and responsibly without sacrificing the health and safety of our students," she said.

The commissioner said she has begun conversations with people at the V.I. Human Services Department and the Office of Management and Budget to consider available options.

The residents of St. John will be included in the discussions before any final decisions are made, Frett-Gregory said.

Using Guy Benjamin as an early childhood education facility "is in line with the department's mission and goals and will ensure children entering the school system are ready to learn," Frett-Gregory said.

St. Thomas-St. John District Superintendent Janette Smith-Barry said that if the local community wants to save Guy Benjamin School, they need to enroll their children there.

"There are parents who have the option of leaving their children at Guy Benjamin and chose not to," she said.

Some parents at the hearing explained that once the kindergarten and first grades were moved to Sprauve School, they pulled their older children out of Guy Benjamin and moved them to Sprauve as well, making the morning commute much easier.

Smith-Barry said registration for the 2014-2015 school year begins later this month.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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