Hurricane Relief: Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori

by St. Croix Foundation for Community Development
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Hurricane Relief:  Re-Opening St. Croix Montessori
Friends are visited by an iguana.
Friends are visited by an iguana.

Project Close Out Report

There is a Norfolk Island Pine tree that stands just beyond our front porch, with half of the branches stretching 3 feet long, and the other half, lighter green and tender, measuring about 7 inches. It is impossible to miss. Whether I am standing looking out on the porch, readying my son for school, walking the dog back into our home, or looking up from my laptop - there is the pine.

Following the nearly two years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, you often hear families reflecting on the power of nature – the raw ways it can uproot and disrupt every aspect of our community – as well as the resiliency, beauty, and hope the regrowth inspires in us.

This tree in my yard has been a consistent visualization of what it is like for a community, and our school, to experience the disaster of two Category 5 hurricanes, and then to persevere through rebuilding, to set our efforts on long-term recovery, and also maintain a degree of “normalcy” for our children.

The Joy of A Learning Community

As the director of St. Croix Montessori, I have had the intense joy of seeing children discover that they are capable and appreciated.

While preparing for end-of-year presentations, a group of students ages 6 to 12 practiced presenting research projects to peers. A parent observing kept on marveling that each student had created a project on their own, based on their interest. While the format varied – from games to poster boards to giving a mini-lesson or writing a book – the collaboration was consistent. As one student practiced Jawperdy – a quiz on sharks, complete with points from 200 to 1000 - his peers advised him: “Remember to speak up when someone gets the correct answer. We get excited by that.”

A younger student was advised by an older student during practice, “It’s okay – just read your notes to us so you can help yourself memorize what you want to say. We know you can do it.”

Yet another student, who took weeks to speak to the teachers following his family’s relocation back to the island, transformed when asked to help the class raise an orphaned chick. “Here,” he told us. “At night, you wrap the chick in a towel, like a chickburrito, and it just quiets and sleeps.”  He called a veterinarian to confirm the chick’s health and create a care plan, and developed guidelines for classmates to safely care for our adoptee. 

Two alumni, who began middle school this year, presented to families about what they learned from their 12 years in St. Croix Montessori, including how to prepare for the transition into middle school. “Don’t give up,” one stated. “You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Because then you need to learn from them and figure out what works best for you. Then try it out and keep going.”

She added: “And parents, have patience.”

Restoring Balance

There are times where the fear, stress, and anxiety of parents takes on a feverish pitch, and they come to the school riddled with insecurity about parenting, their child’s friendships, and their child’s chances for future success. Even the best of our school’s team members have had those moments of doubt, whether it is about helping guide a child or family through a challenging time or trying to find the phrase or lesson that unlocks a child’s imagination and interest.

Aside from the trauma of the hurricanes, there are roughly 55% of families surveyed that acknowledged having personally experienced trauma in the past year (i.e. violence, loss of home, family separation). A recent study of the post-disaster impacts on children and families in the USVI reported that 60% of our children have depressive symptoms and there is a severe shortage of behavioral health professionals.

Which brings me back to our Norfolk Pine.

These pines are across the island. You will see many that look like the one outside my door. Many others are stripped bare, and only their dried trunks remain.

The pine has been a sort of measure – and reminder - of how lives progress after the hurricane.

Half of our lives are like those 3-foot branches: we have persisted. We continue to go on with the routines, rituals, and daily nuances of our families’ lives and life in a school.

The other half of our lives is like the newer portion of the Norfolk pine. It is flexible, growing, may never “catchup.” It gives us a new perspective on just how much we’ve accomplished, and what is needed and important in order to restore balance.

Overall, we are the entirety of this picture – aware that the world continues ahead, aware of our fragility, aware of our strength. The work to restore balance – in our schools, our homes, and our community – is the next phase.

So while we are closing out this project, because our most immediate and critical hurricane recovery efforts have been completed, we trust that the GlobalGiving community is engaged in our long-term efforts to restore balance to the St. Croix community by providing families sustained security for their children and ensuring equitable access to a quality education for St. Croix’s children exists for many generations and hurricane seasons to come.

https://globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-recovery-educating-for-equity-in-stx

Thank you for helping us restore the school!

To learn more about the long-term recovery and how we are building an equitable learning community across every area, policy, and practice of our school – from classroom to leadership – please follow our new project. We look forward to sharing the journey with you!

https://globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-recovery-educating-for-equity-in-stx

"I discovered cartography!" Student maps.
"I discovered cartography!" Student maps.
Day old orphan chick receives sugar water.
Day old orphan chick receives sugar water.
Nature reminds us that we are still recovering.
Nature reminds us that we are still recovering.
Alumni remind parents: ask questions, be patient!
Alumni remind parents: ask questions, be patient!

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Practicing squaring, cubing and Teach Your Parent
Practicing squaring, cubing and Teach Your Parent

Thank you Global Giving community for supporting our educational journey!

Our 2019 at St. Croix Montessori (STXM) began by launching a revision to our parent education series. Our school leaders and teachers engaged parents in small focus group and one-on-one interviews throughout the fall semester. As a result, we prioritized (with our parents’ input) parents’ feedback and made revisions for more meaningful classroom engagements, monthly opportunities for parents to discuss relevant parenting topics with the school and other parents, and created a communication platform to receive more consistent snapshots of what their children are experiencing in the classroom. You can see one of our classroom videos, which was created to give busy working parents a chance to see their student and their peers having Montessori Moments!

While our community did experience the tragic death of a parent, we banded together to support the family and our St. Croix Montessori (STXM) community in processing our grief and learning techniques for mindfulness. Everyone – students, STXM team, and families – learned the St. Croix Montessori Heart High-Five – a slower version of a high five, it is a simple way of asking for connection and support. We found ourselves having a range of experiences after – from peacefulness to laughing, crying, or hugging! Our STXM community regularly practices various techniques for calming our brains and positive thinking, which provides a solid foundation for executive functioning skills.

For the first time, St. Croix Montessori has been able to introduce a “State of the School” report to our families – capturing data from our past and present, sharing progress on our 5-year strategic plan, and reporting back on a series of consultations between our families, our STXM team, stakeholders, Board and a Montessori school accreditor, which also highlighted our growing school’s strengths and opportunities. Families responded immediately: “This is great!”; “We should do this more often!” The result of this event was that several parents stepped forward to help organize and lead some of the key opportunities for our school, such as workshops with the students on positive self-esteem, arts classes, wood working, and capital planning.

A major highlight of this semester was the annual Elementary student visit aboard the Roseway, the nautical education sailing boat that is part of the World Ocean School. The students practice leadership and community building, as well as see how their physics, geography, and math lessons become a necessary reality for marine science. Students designed tinfoil boats to determine which would be most buoyant, even as nuts, bolts, and pennies were added. Students reviewed longitude and latitude, and then mapped the Christiansted harbor they were in. We even had an opportunity to practice our knot tying skills – with several students from our summer bush skills classes teaching their peers a square knot, figure eight, and the difference between a bowline and granny knot!

Currently, our students are working on their research projects for Teach Your Parent day. This event is an opportunity for our parents to become students – and our students to practice leadership, confidence building, academic, and presentation skills. All of our students – from 2 ½ years of age to 12 – participate in teaching parents a favorite lesson or, in the case of our more mature Elementary students, presenting their research projects.

Our STXM community is continuing our efforts to purchase our long-term home, in expectation for the quickly approaching 2019 academic year. With our island continuing its recovery, the need for schools focused on executive functioning is crucial. We have prospects and are excited for the future!

Friends create a STX topographical relief map
Friends create a STX topographical relief map
Foundations of writing begin with the metal insets
Foundations of writing begin with the metal insets
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Students learn about VI-PR Friendship Day
Students learn about VI-PR Friendship Day

Our school began the academic year with a challenge to ourselves: At St. Croix Montessori, our commitment is to prepare children for life – i.e. the many, many years beyond high school. In order to raise independent, respectful, engaging adults, our school must build a healthy learning community around and focused on supporting children. Thus, how can we practice being a learning community at every level of our organization?

 This question has guided a process of alignment across our school.

 Learning Takes Order & Chaos

Hosted on campus, we began with a deep-dive lesson on complex systems and change. One of our favorite moments was discussing the chaordic process – as it is extremely complimentary to our Montessori philosophy of freedom and responsibility. Our team discussed how being in a learning community means that we invite chaos and order to coexist, recognizing that it’s this balance that allows transformation to occur. Parents and teachers self-identified with which part of the process we are most naturally comfortable (e.g. chaos or order). We discussed positive mindsets and different ways of approaching opposition, unknowing, or change.

 Some insights shared:

  • Seeing this, hearing this, reminds us to stay flexible while also creating a structure.
  • As an adult, we need to remember to step back and observe, not to jump in and control.
  • Now I understand why I love my role – it has clear, consistent parts each day – and how I can be more positive when the unexpected happens. It’s good to know this!
  • I get it! You set expectations for a child – that’s order – and chaos is the learning process and experimentation!

 Learning The Language of Strengths

Before our school reviewed alignment of our practices, we wanted to support a strong foundation of trust across our leadership teams. Our St. Croix Montessori school team, which has three (3) new faculty, and our Board of Trustees, which has four (4) new members, each took Gallup’s Clifton StrengthsFinder and spent a day with a coach learning about strengths-based leadership, our unique individual strengths, and recognizing strengths in others. One of our exciting discoveries was how our leadership teams had strengths evenly distributed across all four domains (executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking).

St. Croix Montessori’s school team set personal and team development goals for the year that reflect our strengths. The workshop’s insights assisted in creating mentorships for the new teaching team and new Board members. Over the course of 1.5 months, our teaching team reviewed best practices, school procedures, and our day-to-day social norms. By using a strengths-based approach, we were able to quickly identify what worked well, where we needed individual support, where we needed clarification or adjustments, and which procedures did not align with our mission of having a learning community. The result was a teaching and administrative team operating in sync, having fun, appreciating and supporting one another – which transformed the relationships with families.

The workshops were so successful that the Head of School was asked by a new parent to lead the Caribbean Center for Boys and Girls Frederiksted and Christiansted teams’ professional development day and to facilitate their Youth Leaders retreat. Based on everyone’s feedback, we are preparing to launch a Parent Education event on learning strengths and using strengths-language in parenting.

 Capacity Building & Measuring Learning

Hiring early childhood teachers to stay or move to St. Croix has always been challenging. This past year was especially difficult to hire teachers, as the cost of living increased and there continues to be a lack of housing. With our Elementary class already at capacity, St. Croix Montessori is planning ahead for the need to transition to two Elementary classes (ages 6-9 and ages 9-12). It is an exciting time for our school. As our Board works to increase our physical space, we asked ourselves: What do our children and our teachers need to be actively learning today and preparing for transitions next year? How are we measuring learning?

Our school decided we needed to be creative.

We are piloting a teacher training model. We invited a consultant teacher trainer to collaborate with us throughout the year in a combination of remote and extended on-site visits. In this model, our Elementary classroom has two trained teachers available to provide all of the learning experiences for the students; we created a career pathway for an assistant; the teaching team receives ongoing coaching; and the Head of School receives feedback on how to successfully create a teacher-training pipeline to suit St. Croix Montessori’s needs.

St. Croix Montessori knows that behind these stories there’s data. However, our school had been searching for affordable assessment tools that could measure across all the domains of learning – executive functioning, academics, and social and emotional learning. In late November, our school was accepted as part of a pilot consortium. We became trained and certified in two statistically valid assessments for executive functioning and developmental learning environments. These resources allow us to more accurately self-assess and measure growth in our learning environments. We are also excited to be the first in the U.S. Virgin Islands to be trained in them!

The Year Ahead

The gift of the Global Giving community was that our school made it through over a year of hurricane recovery, and now we can focus on our true mission: access to a healthy learning community for all of St. Croix.

With gratitude,

St. Croix Montessori

Friends sharing a joke during Gratitude Feast
Friends sharing a joke during Gratitude Feast
Free Chess Club now has advanced players!
Free Chess Club now has advanced players!
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First week for a new student - learning to tie!
First week for a new student - learning to tie!

A year after two Cat-5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, rampaged across the Caribbean, St. Croix Montessori opened its doors to embrace 37 children and their families and welcome the start of a new school year. The new gutters gleamed in the sunlight, and the campus burst with the sounds of rejoice – our children ran across freshly grown grass to leap on the playground they hadn't seen in two months, families shared stories of summer vacation and hugged as they reunited.

“It feels like a family reunion!” one father shouted.

“You’ve moved back to the island! Thank you!” a grandmother said to a young mother of two.

“We are just so thankful to have been able to join Montessori this year," exclaimed a grinning parent of one of the four public school students able to enroll in our Elementary program.

Thanks to the GlobalGiving community and St. Croix Community Foundation, our school was able to navigate our initial year of hurricane recovery. We struggled. We survived. Your support ensured we provided a year of education following the storms, six weeks of summer enrichment to the children of St. Croix, and enabled St. Croix Montessori to re-open our doors for the next year of recovery.

 

The Foundation for Learning

In St. Croix, there is a severe gap in options for early childhood education. Roughly a dozen private options exist for pre-school, and the public system introduced a pilot pre-school program for 30 children ages 4 and up this September.

Our school exists in a unique position, having the only accredited option for developmentally-based education preK-grade 6. St. Croix Montessori understands that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first five years of life and forms the neural foundation for all learning, behavior, and health (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University). Programs engage all aspects of a child’s development – i.e. emotional, social, practical life (movement), and academic - beginning at age 2 ½ and continuing to age 12.

We practice equitable collaboration – parents and community partners are part of the learning process. We teach social justice and peaceful conflict resolution. Our team of 5 instructors integrate cultural education as well as academics and gardening into the daily routines. For St. Croix Montessori, systems-thinking is just good Montessori.

The Importance of The GlobalGiving Community’s Support

It is only through the support of St. Croix Community Foundation and GlobalGiving that our school has survived through to September 2018.

As of this report, our school has not yet received disbursements from insurance, FEMA Private Non Profit Assistance, or SBA Disaster Loans, despite having begun these processes in September 2017. The impacts of having been stretched to capacity for over twelve months are seen across our organization, however, in the face of islandwide, chronic shortages for teachers, contractors, supplies, and in response to the demand for safe learning spaces, we have remained open, provided quality education, repaired a collapsed sewer line and damaged roof, expanded our Elementary program, and became one of the only summer enrichment programs to remain open.

We have a saying: the child is the promise of humanity.

St. Croix Montessori believes that access to education should never be determined by socioeconomic status.

Thus, we fundraise to provide scholarships to over 50% of our families. On average, St. Croix Montessori’s fundraising results in 25-50% of the total amount waived for scholarships for low-income families, which are 35% of our population.

Our commitment is to practice our core beliefs. For example, the Head of School refused to take a salary for over a year so that teachers could receive a living income. In the face of rent increases and housing shortages, the Head of School continues to receive less than half of her salary so that all available funds can be directed towards teaching, learning, and ensuring the integrity of our school’s operations. Our team, at their personal expense, is in the process of becoming cross-trained in order to address the realities of life (e.g. we get sick; our relatives pass; our children are ill) and still provide support to our students.

 

The Global Giving community is saving children in St. Croix.

In 2015, 40% of all VI children entering public kindergarten lacked age expected cognition skills and over half (55%) lacked age-expected word recognition and comprehension skills for kindergarten readiness (USVI KidsCount 2015). In comparison, 85% of St. Croix Montessori’s students who are eligible for promotion (i.e. 1st grade, 3rd grade, or 6th grade) perform at or above grade level, and transition successfully into public, parochial, and other independent schools.

And our classrooms are filled!

In September 2018, public school students were promoted to the next grade despite having had a year of half-day sessions. Many were sent back to schools with hurricane damage. In comparison to St. Croix Montessori, the only other choice for non-parochial education on St. Croix charges over $12,000 a year for Elementary education and increases to $16,000 per year for middle school.

On an island whose median family income is $42,000 (pre-hurricane), we ask: how can we ensure equitable access to education exists for all families?

The Challenges & Joys of Being Different

St. Croix Montessori is unlike most independent schools. We operate more closely to a public Montessori program, yet don’t receive the support of our public counterparts; nor do we have an endowment or affluent, enrolled families.

The reality of continuing to provide access to wholistic, child-centered education is challenged by an island in crisis and our school having:

  • Full responsibility for all damages to the leased campus and property, including ongoing maintenance (over $10,000 per year), routine repairs (approximately $5,000 per year), and property insurance, which doubled in annual costs.
  • Hurricane Repairs total over $200,000; we have not received disbursements from FEMA, SBA, or Insurance.
  • Rent was increased three times since the two hurricanes, even as critical plumbing infrastructure collapsed and the school requested an agreement that would not compromise our ability to remain open
  • Our Elementary programs are at capacity with a waiting list; space on STX is in demand.

Enabling access to schools is a critical cornerstone in securing an economic future; it is also a fundamental requirement for humanity.

The Joy of Being Different: Together with the GlobalGiving community, we build a network of relationships whose purpose is to support families on STX and create a scalable, model system of education that always places the child first.

The magnitude of change needed in the USVI makes it clear that closing the education gap and ensuring St. Croix’s children have the skills for a 21st century world, requires investment in partnerships that are built upon an equitable collaboration philosophy and community of practice.

St. Croix Montessori, with a team of 6, has been steadily growing its relationships to meet this call. With you and our global Montessori partners commited to ensuring our school survives through the next year of hurricane recovery, we will transition from survival to a model for thriving. Parents, who have donated their talents and time to building, repairing, and cleaning, join this commitment. 

You, our GlobalGiving community, have ensured that 37 children, and their families, can discover the joys of learning and feel the security of knowing they have a school for another year.

Learning takes place for everyone in the family!
Learning takes place for everyone in the family!
Montessori Dads oversee the joyful return of kids
Montessori Dads oversee the joyful return of kids
Teaching the colors of the rainbow
Teaching the colors of the rainbow
A joyful return back to her island home!
A joyful return back to her island home!

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Upper Elementary students write to their pen pals.
Upper Elementary students write to their pen pals.

It has been nine months since our Global Giving community first helped us re-open our doors. As we enter into the 2018 Hurricane season, our school is experiencing a touch of PTSD.

 “You want to tell everyone that you are doing well,” says a St. Croix Montessori parent and volunteer. “Because we have come so far. Because we are grateful for all the support received and we can see opportunity for regrowth. Yet the truth is, I am tired; my family is tired; we have been stretched thin for months. We aren’t ready – physically or emotionally - for another hurricane or even a tropical storm. Our community needs hope and strength now more than ever.”

 The Global Giving community understands that disaster recovery is long, hard work that continues for years after the media cycle has moved on. Your commitment ensures local nonprofits directly serve the communities we live in. 

 This June our commitment is simple: remain open.

On an island with 44% of children underprepared for kindergarten and 98% below proficiency levels grades K-12 (USVI KidsCount), our school has consistently risen to the top, with 85% of graduating students at or above grade level and engaging families in an established peace education. Our commitment to community has led St. Croix Montessori, the only certified-Montessori school on the island of St. Croix, to always provide low-income families scholarships even when we do not have the funds in reserve. We have been creative and flexible in the face of challenge by partnering with local nonprofits and organizations to deliver services, provide transportation to extracurricular activities, and meet the holistic needs of our families. St. Croix Montessori is focused on what matters most in life – our children.

 

June is the month our school bridges multiple timelines:

  • Our teachers create a sense of completion and celebration for the students;
  • Our school prepares to host students from across the Territory in our summer enrichment programs; and
  • We evaluate, reflect, and refine our goals for the 2018-19 academic year.

 

This June we also continue disaster recovery processes, each day anticipating the enormous relief of eventually receiving in-hand our Insurance, FEMA, or SBA settlement. St. Croix Montessori negotiates with over-booked contractors on how to complete critical repairs before the Summer program and the start of a new school year.

 We persist with optimism, even as our landlord increases rent by 120% and our plumbing line collapses. We plan for acquiring property so that our improvements invest in the long-term needs of our children.

 We hold onto the vision that it is possible to create a hurricane-resistant, sustainable-energy campus that supports children’s academic, social justice, physical, emotional, and spiritual growth from birth to high-school.

 We celebrate the opportunity to sponsor individuals for Montessori teacher certification, thus creating the island’s pathway for Master’s level education and retaining highly-qualified instructors.

 St. Croix Montessori remains committed to love the journey, wherever it may lead us.

Llama made of hurricane debris wins 1st place
Llama made of hurricane debris wins 1st place
A 4 year old practices phone-grams
A 4 year old practices phone-grams
Students host and cook a four course formal lunch
Students host and cook a four course formal lunch
Friendship for Life!
Friendship for Life!
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Organization Information

St. Croix Foundation for Community Development

Location: Christiansted - Virgin Islands
Website:
Twitter: @stxfoundation
Project Leader:
Deanna James
Christiansted, Virgin Islands

Funded Project!

Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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