Starlight pupils and staff protest lockout and imminent eviction

~ No overnight solution, says Sarah ~

"I don’t want my school to close because I don’t want to lose out on my education," 10-year-old Colombian native Jesus said in the midst of a chaotic situation outside Starlight Education Center on Monday.

His sentiments were echoed by many of the 180 primarily undocumented immigrant pupils who found themselves locked out of their elementary school when they turned up for classes. The situation brought at least one parent to tears and left pupils, teachers and parents worried over the fate of the children, some 40 of whom are preparing for final exams to determine their placement in a secondary school.

Some parents complained that they had nowhere to leave their children during the day if the situation persisted and they could not afford babysitters on their meagre incomes. "This is a very serious situation," said one concerned parent of Haitian origin.  

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Marshals padlocked the grilled entrance to the school Friday, while classes had been suspended and teachers had been attending a workshop at another location. The lockout, which sparked a silent protest outside the Government Administration Building, is in keeping with a court order of April 2008 stipulating that the school had to vacate the premises due to large rent arrears which up to yesterday had surpassed the US $50,000 mark.

Education Commissioner Sarah Wescot-Williams told The Daily Herald yesterday evening that her hands were tied in the matter, as the school’s request for rent subsidy in 2007 had been on ice because all documents had not been submitted. Once all conditions have been complied with, she noted, the request would have to go through the same process as any subsidy application. This will not bear fruit overnight.

However, Starlight Director Carmen Hodge warned that if there was no solution by today, Tuesday, she would move to the court to force government to intervene.

Hodge said she had brought her plight to the attention of the International Defence for Children as well as Dutch and Central Government officials, and is calling on authorities to either fork out funds to help the school retain its current location or make space available in existing schools to accommodate the education-hungry pupils.

She promised not to rest until a solution was found and called on parents to join her in the fight to bar imminent eviction and to rally their friends and families to support the cause. If the eviction goes through parents will have to wade through a system that bars undocumented pupils from mainstream education.

Hodge had lost her original location, opened in Cole Bay 15 years ago, under similar circumstances in 2006. She said she had never managed to pay the NAf. 5,800 (US $3,222) monthly rent since relocating to the Genip and Watermelon Roads, St. Peters, venue in September 2006.

She was banking on the assistance of at least two organisations, including the St. Maarten Timeshare Association (SMTA), which she said had promised to assist with rent. SMTA President Joan May said she was unaware of such a commitment, but Hodge said the pledge had come from a former President.

Another promise of aid to the tune of US $30,000 from a women’s group in the Indian Community also fell through, Hodge said.

The US $15,000 collected monthly in school fees is barely enough to cover the salaries to pay her 10 teachers, cleaner and overhead cost that amounts to $18,000-$19,000 monthly, said an evidently frustrated Hodge as sad children, parents and teachers with questioning looks on their faces milled around.

She argued that the closure, if prolonged, would put a serious damper on education.


After an early morning meeting enlightening parents and pupils about the situation, a band of pupils and teachers moved to the Government Administration Building just before 10:00am and stood in the scorching mid-morning sun to draw attention to their plight and send a strong signal that an emergency solution is needed. The action ended around 11:00am when Hodge was promised that a meeting would be arranged with Wescot-Williams for later in the day. However, that meeting fell through.

Wescot-Williams told this newspaper that while she empathised with the institution, a solution could not be hammered out overnight.

She said she had been hoping to "bring the parties together" in a meeting on Monday in which "the facts" would have been tabled, but this had fallen through because Interim Head of the Education Department Quincy Harrigan was ill. However, she said that the matter had the attention of Sector Director for Education Claudette LaBega.

Asked what the next step would be, the commissioner said once all documents had been submitted the request, which falls under "general subsidy" requests and will be scrutinised like any other request, would be "evaluated." Certain criteria also will have to be met, such as having qualified teachers and an up-to-par school building.

Wescot-Williams did not have at hand the list of outstanding documents still needed, but Hodge maintained that she had submitted all paperwork and contended that government was using a stalling tactic.

Sarah: "As much as I would love to, I can’t make commitments without necessary research and without it being put in the right legal process. It’s just not possible. I refuse to make someone happy with promises that I can’t fulfil."

We want to learn

What are the views of the pupils trapped in the midst of this chaos?

"Sad, horrible, hurt," said Shantea, an 11-year-old Jamaican immigrant, who said her parents had enrolled her in Starlight when her undocumented status eroded efforts to register her in a mainstream school. The fourth-grader, who was brought here several years ago to join her parents, said she feared what would happen to her education if Starlight remained closed.

Suakeshana (12), who was born in St. Maarten to immigrant parents from Haiti, was in a similar plight when her parent attempted to enrol her in a mainstream school. Children born in St. Maarten to undocumented immigrant parents assume similar undocumented status. Suakeshana said Starlight was her only means of "learning" and she pleaded for authorities to assist.

Jesus defended teachers saying, "They not only give lessons, but also teach us discipline and make sure we’re on the right track. So I really don’t want the school to close. Some kids are probably happy that the school is closed so that they can play. I want to learn."

But even as these pupils try to remain focussed, there are many distractions. Jesus, Cynthia (11) and Jamaican Ashlee (11) said they had been the subject of taunting by peers from other schools at one point or another. They are also saddened that their legal status prevents them from travelling because "we won’t be able to return."

"Some people say our school stinks and that I am a loser …," said Cynthia, a Dominican Republic native who joined her parents here two years ago. "They also say it’s an illegal school." Jesus said he dismissed these assertions whenever they surfaced on the grounds that "it’s not the building, but the education that we get that matters to me."

Bigger problem

Even as Starlight lobbies to block eviction attempts, Hodge’s battle to educate undocumented immigrant children is not uncommon. "I’ve always said that this problem was a sleeping time-bomb. Well, now the bomb has exploded," Hodge said.

Some 10 similar schools exist in St. Maarten that provide educational opportunities for the growing number of undocumented children here who are barred from the regular education system. Some are located in people’s homes, backyards and in one case in deplorable conditions under a tree in the heart of Philipsburg.

At last count, there were 700-800 undocumented immigrant children residing in St. Maarten, up from the 500 recorded in 2005. They are from many of the 104 immigrant groups living here, but in particular Caribbean nationals from countries such as Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica and Colombia.

Wescot-Williams said a number of mainstream schools had bent the rules to accommodate undocumented children over the years. She alluded to a recent survey at one such school that showed its pupil population included 47 per cent immigrants whose papers "were not in order."

All Children’s Education Foundation and School of the Arts Foundation are among the so-called "undocumented" schools whose officials have publicly denounced the absence of compulsory education here.

Responding to criticism that government is numb to the request for aid from undocumented schools, Wescot-Williams said many schools had been benefiting indirectly from government support. They are allowed to use school buses and government has been paying the utility bills for some of these institutions. She said too that at least one school was also allowed to use a uniform similar to that of a public school.

Compulsory education

On the issue of compulsory education, Wescot-Williams said a five-year phasing-in had begun, with several measures in the pipeline.

The last time the compulsory education ordinance was drafted and submitted to the Governor of the Netherlands Antilles for approval in the 1990s, it was turned down on grounds that it failed to adequately address the issue of the illegal immigrant child.

The Committee on Compulsory Education, consisting of Immigration, Central Government and education officials, is in the final stages of compiling a draft law that will spell out guidelines governing the implementation of compulsory education. The commissioner couldn’t say when the committee was expected to wrap up its work, but noted that once completed the draft law would have to be tabled and debated in the Island Council. Without this law, compulsory education remains on ice.

Another measure being undertaken is the recruitment of Truant Officers to ensure that pupils are in school in keeping with the law once passed. Authorities are also determining whether the implementation would start with children born in St. Maarten.

Also, most children entering the education system are not sufficiently proficient in the English language (the language of instruction at most schools) and authorities are examining how to tackle this and other concerns. "This is an extremely costly affair," Wescot-Williams said, "Because we will have to look at all the deficiencies."

The Island Territory had come in for a barrage of criticism from, amongst others, Education Minister Omayra Leeflang, who last year stopped short of saying that the Island Territory was acting illegally by denying pupils a right to education.

The Netherlands Antilles has been party since 1991 to the United Nations Treaty on the Rights of the Child, in which compulsory education is included, but Wescot-Williams has always maintained that barring pupils from the regular education system is not a violation of the Treaty, for "any international law should be looked at from a local perspective."

With a large segment of the estimated 20,000 illegal immigrants in St. Maarten eventually brining their children to the island, the commissioner also holds the position that the problem cannot be resolved without immigration loopholes first being closed.

In the meantime, while Starlight lobbies for its reopening and authorities seek solutions for the bigger problem of compulsory education, pupils hope that they will not suffer the brunt of this latest chapter in the saga.