The opening of Gifft Hill School to all kids offers more than just education, it allows parents to get back to the work of rebuilding the island.
By Andrea Milam
Tuesday, September 5, should have been the first day of school for St. John children. Instead, that day was spent in a terrifying rush as the island’s families made final trips to the grocery store, the gas station, and the bank. Power tools and hammers on galvanized metal overrode the island’s typical soundtrack of gentle breezes, waves washing into shore, and chirping birds as families worked hard to prepare themselves and their properties for what Hurricane Irma would soon bring.
In the week leading up to September 6, each updated forecast was worse than the last until finally it was apparent that one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history would make a direct hit on St. John. Island residents awoke on September 6 to increasing gusts with one thought in mind: survival. And survive we did, through sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and more, and gusts well over 200 miles per hour. Many island residents wouldn’t realize the full extent of Irma’s destruction until the following day, when winds had died down enough for the curious to peek out from what was left of their homes and take in an unrecognizable landscape. Every single school on the island had suffered damage, though in our family, school was the last thing on our minds as we prepped for the next storm, Jose, which would turn out to be a non-event, and then for Maria, a powerful category 5, which came way too close for comfort. Maria passed just south of St. John two weeks to the day after our children’s scheduled first day of school, and by this point, my husband and I were exhausted with the constant prepping, worrying, salvaging, and repairing and our children, Dax, age 9, and Norah, age 4, were aching for the challenge and routine that school provides. So we were more than thrilled when Gifft Hill School, which our children have attended since age 3, announced they were preparing to open on Monday, September 25. Not only would they welcome pre-enrolled students, but they planned to open their doors to all of the island’s children they could accommodate, free of charge.
“We knew that with extensive damages to many properties across the island, bringing schooling back to the island’s kids would bring some sense of normalcy and relief to this talented, hopeful community that has a lot of work to do,” said head of GHS Dr. Laurie Bottiger.
Priority #1 Getting the School Open
GHS faculty, staff, board members, and volunteers worked tirelessly to prepare the school’s lower campus, which is typically home to preschool through fifth grade classes, to host to all grades, preschool through 12, as the school’s upper campus suffered more significant damage. Though many of the school’s teachers and previously enrolled students evacuated the island between Irma and Maria or after both storms, the school was able to welcome 41 students on its opening day. By the time the second week of school started, Gifft Hill was still the only functioning school on the island, and enrollment had grown to 125, nearing the lower campus’s capacity. Each prospective new student is evaluated to verify grade placement and to ensure that GHS can meet his or her needs. Though the school day is abbreviated, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the time our children spend there allows us to work on cleaning, repairing, and salvaging what we can at home, and they have been thrilled to be back among their peers. Our family isn’t the only one who’s grateful for Gifft Hill School.
“I’ve always loved Gifft Hill,” said Loraine “Miss Pat” Richards, who looks after the girls in her local dance group, the Dynamic Dancers, as though they were her own children. “My girls are loving this. They love Gifft Hill so much.”
Miss Pat’s son, who left the island to attend his final year of high school in the states following hurricanes Irma and Maria, has attended GHS since eighth grade.
“It’s been a fabulous experience for my son,” she said. “He’s grown so much since coming to Gifft Hill. The environment is fabulous and the teachers are great.”
Miss Pat said she will encourage the parents of her dancers to keep their kids at GHS even after the island’s other schools open up again.
“Hopefully by the end of the year, most of my dancers will be coming to Gifft Hill,” she said. “It’s a really good experience for the kids.”
Free Tuition for All
Gifft Hill School has always strived to accept anyone regardless of their financial situation, and they’ve relied on donations and the kindness of its donors to be able to do so. Now, as the school has opened its doors to the island’s children free of charge, they will need more support than ever. The private school is a huge factor in many families choosing to live on St. John during their children’s formative years; it plays a crucial role in the community.
“Our mission is to provide academic rigor through experiential learning and compassionate community, and it’s simply the right thing to do to have the school open right now,” said Dr. Laurie. “What better time to have kids in an experiential learning situation? In the St. John community, we look at each other like brothers and sisters, and everyone’s taken a hit from these storms. We will need the support of anybody who believes the children should be in school right now. This is our 40th year, and we will have an 80th year; this experience will be part of our history.”
Respect * Responsibility * Growth
Dr. Laurie leads meetings with the entire school body each morning and afternoon, her positive spirit infusing the ever growing crowd in the great room as she shares school news and leads the GHS community in team-building exercises. Several times, the combined fourth and fifth grade class has led the chant that embodies the school’s motto this year: “We are respect! We are responsibility! We are growth! We are GIFFT HILL SCHOOL!” The pride and school spirit exuded by the students, many of whom lost everything and are navigating a new school environment, has brought light and love to days that are sometimes dark and hopeless. Seeing the way the children have come together in the interest of education gives me hope that, yes, St. John can survive.
We Need Your Help
To help Gifft Hill School and the more than 100 schoolchildren now attending, please donate at https://www.giffthillschool.
Andrea Milam is a freelance writer and editor who has lived on St. John since 2005. Her children were born on St. John, and she and her husband built a home on St. John, where they rode out Irma and Maria, and where they continue to stay and work on recovery. Now more than ever, she adores Love City and its people with the fiercest passion. See more of her work at www.andreamilam.com.