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September 15, 2009


First Lady Chairs Children and Families Council Meeting; Members Discuss Strategic Goals to Synchronize Inter-Agency Services, Reduce Poverty and Provide Mentorship/Training for Children and Families

Labor Commissioner Highlights Youth Net, sets stage for Drop-Out Prevention Initiative

First Lady Cecile de Jongh opened the fourth meeting of the Children and Families Council Monday afternoon at Government House, St. Croix. The quarterly meeting was an opportunity for Council members to provide updates on programs underway, as well as recommendations on steps needed to continue to improve the delivery of services to children and families territory-wide. During Monday’s meeting, Council members reported on progress in aligning priorities, streamlining existing programs, and addressing existing gaps in services. In response to the Governor and First Lady’s challenge to take bold steps in leading this inter-agency, public-private effort, both short and long-term strategic goals were discussed.

“In cooperation with the private and non-profit sectors, the Children and Families Council is leveraging the resources of the V.I. government to streamline departmental capabilities so that we may improve the standard of services available throughout the territory. I look forward to continuing to work together as we invest in the health, education, safety, and overall livelihood of all of our residents,” Governor de Jongh said.

Monday’s Council meeting follows the mandate of Section 2 of Executive Order No. 440-2008 “to study, plan, and recommend changes to improve the delivery of services to children and families.”

During the meeting, Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan provided a presentation on the Youth Net initiative, a program targeting drop-out prevention for ages 16-24. An estimated 8% of Virgin Islands youth drop out of the school system annually, or approximately 400 students per year. 

According to Commissioner Bryan, Youth Net will identify youth in crisis and will encourage students to stay in school through creative programs, counseling, training, and mentorship. As a “safety net” for displaced youth, Youth Net will focus on providing pre-employment programs for youth with the goal of graduating literate and “work-ready” students. This inter-agency approach includes the departments of Justice, Education, Human Services, Labor, Health, Housing, Parks, and Recreation, and the V.I. Housing Authority. Joining these public sector partners are the Ritz Carlton, Hovensa, Plaza Extra, and other private sector entities, along with various non-profit organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, V.I. Unions, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), and other training partners.

“Youth Net maintains a three-pronged approach in targeting youth in crisis: Prevention, Recapture, and Rehabilitation. Through these efforts, we aim to provide a multitude of resources to address the most urgent barriers to educational development while ensuring literacy attainment. We will utilize all available resources, including JAG and Job Corps, to shape best practices among all agencies in order to highlight the options and resources available to help. With this program we look forward to graduating students who are self-sufficient and able to compete in the global workforce. Youth Net is the alarm system that rings before kids really get into trouble,” Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan said.

As Chairperson of the Council, First Lady Cecile de Jongh offered words of praise for the collaborative efforts underway to improve the delivery of services. “I’m pleased by the ongoing progress of the Council on behalf of children and families throughout the territory. In cooperation with the National Governor’s Association and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we are taking important steps to guide the direction of improving service delivery, including creating a positive environment for students and reducing the duplication of services. As a community we want to ensure that access to needed resources and treatment plans is available, especially for those in poverty and amongst youth. Toward that end, the Council continues to serve its mandate to help families in guiding their children towards a future of their own choosing and a life of self-fulfillment,” First Lady de Jongh said. 

The Council also heard from Family Connection Director Ellie Hirsh, who provided an overview of the Early Childhood Advisory Committee (ECAC). As liaison to the Council on behalf of ECAC, Ms. Hirsh noted, “Family plays the most important role in a young child’s life, and the responsibility of school readiness lies not with the children but with the adults who care for them and the system that supports them.” She continued, “Recognizing that all children do not develop at the same rate, we aim to work with families to ensure that all Virgin Islands children grow up ready for school and ready to succeed in life.”

Council members also discussed the Leadership in Action Program (LAP) in conjunction with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, poverty reduction, and data tracking systems.

The creation of the Children and Families Council fulfills a promise made in Governor de Jongh’s 2008 State of the Territory Address to develop a holistic approach to supporting children and improving their school readiness and early learning. 

Along with First Lady Cecile de Jongh, participants at the meeting included: Deputy Chief of Staff to the Governor Pamela Berkowsky, Attorney General Vincent F. Frazer, Education Commissioner Dr. LaVerne Terry, Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan, Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch, Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands President Dee Baecher-Brown, St. Croix Foundation Chief Operating Officer Deanna J. James, Family Connection Director Ellie Hirsh, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) Coordinators Laurie Phelan and Michelle Joseph, as well as members of the Governor’s Executive Staff. 

The Council previously met in August 2008, November 2008, and May 2009. The next meeting of the Council is scheduled for October 2009 on St. Thomas.