Students, teachers bid farewell to Guy Benjamin

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ST. JOHN - Students, parents and teachers said goodbye to Guy Benjamin Elementary School on Thursday for the last time.

During a two-hour ceremony in Coral Bay, the school - which will be closed after this week - ushered through its last "graduating" class of sixth-graders who will go on to middle school.

"It was exciting, but also sad," said Liliana Farrell, one of the eight sixth-grade students to be promoted to seventh grade. "I don't want to leave it."

While the sixth-grade class was the center of the ceremony - the girls dressed in elegant white dresses and the boys wore bow ties and white button-ups - many of their classmates attended to show support. The second- through fifth-grade students prepared an assortment of songs and poems to honor their upperclassmen.

The sixth-grade ceremony typically is at the church across from the school, but this time, the school had the ceremony outside in the school's vast, tree-filled yard.

"I always thought I would be leaving Guy Benjamin, and the fifth-graders would take our place," said sixth-grader Lillie Hayward at the ceremony. "I feel like I belong to a family."

The V.I. Department of Education announced June 9 that it is closing Guy Benjamin, which has been at the heart of the Coral Bay community for decades.

The school's enrollment has dropped drastically in the last few years. Some parents argue that it has been because the department did not replace multiple staff and faculty positions, though Education Department officials said that they were unable to fill the positions because of a shortage of qualified applicants.

When the department announced at the beginning of the current school year that the kindergarten and first-grade classes at Guy Benjamin will be consolidated with those at Julius Sprauve School in Cruz Bay, a 30-minute drive from Coral Bay, many parents anticipated that the school's closure was a probable next step on the department's agenda.

"It could have kept going," said Pastor Joseph Luke, whose son, Akhil Luke, finished sixth grade on Thursday. "I believe due diligence was not given."

Department officials have argued, on the other hand, that with the entire V.I. government in a budget crisis, the shutdown of Guy Benjamin, a school that has met Adequate Yearly Progress report standards all seven years, was a potential way of saving money. The school's enrollment this year was at a record low of 57, down from the 88 students at the end of the 2012-13 school year and from more than 100 students at the end of the 2011-12 school year.

This month, the potential for a closure became a reality, with notice coming only a week before the school's final day.

"Guy Benjamin has been the core of the community," said Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay Community Council.

The school certainly is at the heart of the community, which consists of a few bars, restaurants and shops scattered around the island's eastern end.

While some of the parents and teachers are concerned about some of the second- and fifth-graders continuing their education at Sprauve, the principal of Sprauve vowed Thursday to watch out for the students.

"I am a product of this school," said Dionne Wells, who has lived in Coral Bay all of her life and spent six years as the principal of Guy Benjamin. She also served as acting principal of the school this year, in the absence of Brenda Dalmida, who was out on sick leave much of the year. "Education is not defined by the building you're in. Education is a work of the heart."

Wells said that all of the Guy Benjamin staff who want to continue working within the district already have positions that they have been offered at Sprauve. One of the wings of Sprauve, in fact, may be named after Guy Benjamin, as many of the educators noted that it is important to remember the namesake of the school.

"He was an educator and an author," said Brenda Brown, a niece of Guy Benjamin and a now-former third-grade teacher at the school named after her uncle. "He was a principal at Guy Benjamin for years. My stepmom is in her 80s, and he was her principal."

Born in 1913 on the east end of St. John, Benjamin was the first St. John resident to earn a diploma from Charlotte Amalie High School - graduating as a valedictorian.

He had to live with relatives on St. Thomas to get a high school education.

Benjamin went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a master's degree from New York University.

He later returned to the territory and was the first teacher at John's Folly School and later taught at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School - which later came to be known as Guy Benjamin. He also taught at Bethany Elementary School, today known as Sprauve.

Additionally, Benjamin is credited with initiating ferry service between St. John and St. Thomas to allow St. John students to continue their educations beyond the sixth grade.

Guy Benjamin Elementary School is hoped in the future to be converted into a multipurpose center, as suggested by Gov. John deJongh Jr.

"We're going to embrace the change and move forward as best as we can," Wells said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email

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