PHILIPSBURG–While Charlotte Brookson Academy (CBA) for the Performance Arts is grateful for the pavilion (tent) it received to temporarily house its students following Hurricane Irma, the school is facing an uphill battle to get the ill-equipped facility ready for classes.
The challenges have deepened since CBA was asked to immediately vacate University of St. Martin (USM), where it had been holding classes temporarily since Irma, because USM needs its classroom space for its reopening on Monday. School also reopens on Monday after the Christmas holiday break.
CBA official Claudette Forsythe-Labega told The Daily Herald on Thursday that immediately vacating USM poses a problem for CBA, as it is difficult to reach parents and students at this time to inform them of the new location as well as the fact that the tent is not quite ready.
This newspaper was taken on a tour of the pavilion to get a first-hand look at the challenges that exist. One of the first things noticed is the extreme heat in the pavilion. Forsythe-Labega said the air-conditioning system in the pavilion is problematic and does not function properly.
The pavilion was one of several sent from the Netherlands, with an air-conditioning unit, as part of the hurricane relief items. The unit was sent back because it was incompatible with the grid of utilities company GEBE.
The pavilion has six classrooms, so Government subsequently installed six air-conditioning units. However, the units trip the circuit-breakers each time they are switched on, as the circuit cannot carry them.
“We were told to purchase fans to solve this problem. Large fans will have to be purchased and we are trying to secure the funds for this,” Forsythe-Labega said. CBA has not yet been able to do so.
“As we had only been granted the use of five classrooms at USM, we have been storing items at the tent which now need to be moved to a rented storage facility. … The constant hiring of trucks and labour to move our meagre possessions from one location to another is depleting our funds.
Remember that we were also giving classes at the Cultural Centre while at USM and had furniture stored there as well. Those also needed to be moved. Additionally, we have to rent storage space, as the tent offers nothing more than the six classroom units.”
Another issue is that no Internet service has been provided at the tent to facilitate office administration and communication with parents and other stakeholders.
The tent is also not large enough to accommodate all of CBA’s students at the same time, so the institution might have to stagger school hours for the different forms or set up classes in the corridor of the pavilion. “This will require a brand-new class schedule which will take some time to produce.” The pavilion can safely house about 90 persons at one time. CBA has 135 students and 18 staff members.
CBA received the keys to the pavilion on December 1, 2017, in response to an article that appeared on a local website questioning why the institution had not yet relocated.
Given the location of the pavilion on the Ring Road, Forsythe-Labega expressed hope that the dump will not start burning once more, as the smoke at the tent becomes unbearable and several of the school’s teachers and students have respiratory challenges.
“The accommodation at the pavilion was supposed to have been an emergency measure right after the storm until permanent accommodations could be arranged. It was never intended for long-term housing and does not provide even the basic necessities for a school.
“Several months have passed since Hurricane Irma and where housing is concerned we are back to where we were after losing the building,” she said. “And six months down the line we will once more be moving as the hurricane season will again be upon us. The question is where to?”
CBA’s management has tried over the past two years to keep the school operational in the interest of students and its belief in the need for such a school in the educational landscape of St. Maarten. “However, it is exhausting and very difficult for all involved.”
She said CBA students need stability and structure after six years and teachers and management deserve to be able to function in a normal school environment and setting.
“Especially post-Irma, when we are struggling with so many additional personal challenges. Nonetheless, we thank the board of USM for offering our children a shelter over the past almost-three months. We knew that it was only temporary and our time there has come to an end.”
She said students are the innocent victims of the current circumstances and it breaks her heart to have to interrupt their education process as well as their sense of security once more.
“I hate to uproot them and displace them once more and then again and again. However, our unwavering belief in the ability of those 135 children is our driving force as well as their belief in and dependency on us, especially the senior students.
“They are only a few short weeks away from writing their CXC [Caribbean Examinations Council exams – Ed.] – a feat that the regular school system on St. Maarten would have denied them – an opportunity they never would have had were it not for the innovative approach of CBA and its tireless efforts on their behalf. We will never abandon them until forced to do so and even then we will put up a fight. We have experienced what can be accomplished when we show our youth that we care. For this reason, we will never cease to care.”
Forsythe-Labega is upset to see how an initiative in the interest of bettering the quality of life for students is on the verge of dying for lack of political will and support. “It angers me to see that we have a Government that really does not care,” she said.