Trouble In Paradise: Teen’s Nonprofit Educates Invisible Children of St. Thomas

July 13, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

For the thousands of children who call St. Thomas home, life isn’t exactly a walk on the beach: 37% percent of them live in poverty, 67% percent live on food stamps, and 47% percent will fall so far behind in school that they’ll never receive their high school diploma.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, the small island chain off the Northern coast of South America, have been a U.S. territory for the past century, and, like many of our U.S. states, they’re dealing with something of an educational crisis. By the time students enter kindergarten, 53% test below expectation in language skills, an early gap that spirals into 83% of students in grades 3-11 failing to meet standards in English and 93% failing math.

Nicholas Midler, a 17-year-old, who lived on the island for five years with his family, decided he wanted to try to do something about it.

A newspaper article was what first sparked the fire that led him to start his own nonprofit, The Family Connection Kindercamp, bringing six weeks of free educational curriculum and social development to children entering or repeating kindergarten.

“I met great-grandmothers barely older than my own mother, parents who wouldn’t bring their kids to school when they had the day off from work, and kindergarteners raised with seven siblings in a single parent household, I learned the hard truths that so often dictates life in the Virgin Islands,” he said.

Nicholas With Kids Mash Up

Midler himself suffers from dyslexia, and was the last person in his grade to learn to read and write. This, he says, made him realize how important the need for personalized attention really is.

With some help from Thelca Bedminster, a local elementary school principal, Midler learned how to write grants and hold fundraisers to get their educational summer camp off the ground.

“Six weeks might not seem like a lot of time, but you’d be surprised what can be accomplished. By the time our kids leave the program they are able to recite their ABCs and count to 100,” said Bedminster. “We also saw increases in self-regulatory skills, knowledge of school routines and culture and, most importantly, a love of school.”

Kids in class

During the school year, Bedminster keeps eyes on the community and on incoming students to see who may need the extra support, especially children who come from “a locale where English isn’t always the primary language and education hasn’t always been a first priority.”

At Kindercamp, kids go from saying their name to singing the alphabet to spelling with macaroni, and parents who only speak Creole or Patois at home watch their kids grow into artists or mathematicians and play along with their new classroom friends.

For some kids the Kindercamp is the first time they’ve been in a classroom, and while six weeks is, undoubtedly, a short time, small classes and dedicated teachers work hard towards making sure a real transformation takes place.

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“Some of the most determined teachers I’d ever met commit ten hours a day to lifting up struggling kids, but the crumbling infrastructure and dismal test results reflect those of a developing nation rather than the educational system of the wealthiest country in the world,” said Midler, who has since relocated to San Diego, California, but returns to the camp each summer.

“My goal is to correct this learning deficit early and put the kids on a path of higher test scores that will last all the way to graduation.”

So far, they have served 105 children in their first two years of operation, and are currently halfway through this summer’s program, which has 80 children enrolled.

Kids on Curb

The classroom is broken down into several stations where students can rotate between different activities, each of which exercises a different skill set.

The different stations encourage good behavior and communication between transitioning groups, and serve as an informal introduction to the classroom setting.

An independent review authored by Elizabeth Jaegar, an early childcare Ph.D., catalogued the curriculum’s role in the success of the program.

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The report notes that “During the last week of the program, the classrooms appeared to be ‘well-oiled machines’ where children moved smoothly from a large group activity to choice time at various learning stations throughout the room.”

The report even describes “one child who even cried and pleaded with his mother to stay longer,” demonstrating that the children find the open-ended syllabus to be fun and engaging.

One child only spoke French Creole at the start of the program and could only indicate her name with its first letter. By the end of the program, the child was able to verbally communicate her needs to the teachers.

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According to Dr. Jaeger, staff were so impressed with the child-led learning activities that they planned to introduce them into their regular classrooms during the school year.

Both privately and publicly funded, the camp is able to operate with the help of companies like Quantico and Sea Glass Properties, as well as support from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.

To meet the growing demand, he’s also set up a GoFundMe page, which has allowed the camp to double its staff, and its capacity, for this summer. Often, once camp is already underway, more students than expected will show up.

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“There’s a quiet transformation as well. When kindergarten rolls around in the fall all the Kindercamp kids will be ready,” he said.

“They’ll know where to store their backpacks, how to share toys at recess, spell their names, and count to 100. For those six weeks, we have the chance to do something. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever see something as hopeful as what happens during camp.”

Featured photo CC by Giorgio Minguzzi

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