Principal calls out for help!

There is growing evidence that stratification of schools is contributing to social inequality through the marginalization of poorer, less performing students,” Dr Didicus Jules, registrar and chief executive officer CXC.
Jamal has dropped out of school at just 13. He has no idea where his father is and his mother died at age 32 while giving birth to her eighth child, Jamal being the first. His aunt agreed to provide him with food, but was a little short on helping otherwise, including transport money daily from Castries to Ciceron. And so, a request was made for him to attend a secondary school, in walking distance from his home, a request the Ministry of education flatly denied. So, Jamal like more than one hundred who do so each year, dropped out of the George Charles secondary school. Today, he is somewhere out there on the streets of Castries.
A recent World Bank study revealed that there is a high drop-out rate in Caribbean schools; Saint Lucia included, which is impacting negatively on the social issues including crime.
It is a hot mid morning. The students of George Charles Secondary School have gathered to celebrate the 32nd Independence anniversary of Saint Lucia, a country that has by and large either ignored them or forgotten about them, for all of the school’s 20 year existence.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the school name had anything to do with this. After all, George Charles himself, a man who had contributed so much to the island’s political life and trade union and labour movement was relegated to a life of poverty and neglect by the authorities before his
passing. George Charles Boulevard, George
Charles Airport and now George Charles Secondary School, have all been institutions of a nation’s lack of pride. But back to that day at the school.
The students have no assembly room in which to sing the anthem or recite the national pledge which ends “in the pursuit of excellence, justice and equality for all.”                 After listening to a guest speaker, they rush through the songs, dance and creative pieces they have prepared, for today the sun is unfair and the unbearable heat pounds on their open space. A young girl, who has had nothing to eat, has no mother and father and finds solace in an orphanage, holds her stomach in pain as a compassionate teacher props her up and moves out in an effort to find her something to eat.  Today is not black Friday, and these scenes are among every day occurrences, every day reality of a high percentage of students at the school, where at any point a class may have more than one child whose father is in prison or the latest victim of gun violence.
These are the children of a failed education system, children of a “monster school” which the Ministry of education has created, as the principal put it, children
who are being set up to fail. They are the ones whose scores at common entrance were too low to make it to the so called “top” schools, students whose reading and numeracy skills are below average.                     Compounding their status is that a Ministry of education policy, now expects them to compete with the so called “Ivy league” schools by writing a mandatory five CXC subjects general proficiency. This has become disconcerting to the students, parents and teachers as well who believe that the voice of the school is being disregarded.
The George Charles Secondary School, located in South Castries, caters to more than 500 students from the Castries basin, south Castries and as far as Dennery. At one time the school experienced a drop-out rate of almost 50 percent. In 2006, amidst a barrage of negative reports of school violence some even involving teachers, Lera Pascal took up the position of school principal there. Prior to that she was a teacher at Saint Mary’s College, and later appointed principal of Sir Ira Simmons.
“My first impressions when I saw the school was that this seemed to be an impossible task,” Principal Pascal told the STAR in an exclusive interview last week. “There seemed to have been a complete breakdown of authority, a very troubled school, and lots of measures had to be put in place, regulations had to be adopted to bring it to a point where it was functioning as a normal school. But I was up to the task so I took up the challenge,” Pascal told us. She noted that not only was there a very low self-esteem among students, but some teachers appeared worn out after years of trying to get things straight at the school. “There was a general lack of energy and drive to put things together,” Pascal added. In fact even the last Principal noted in the school’s records that there was need for someone to come in from outside to revitalize the school.
One of the first things the “new” principal enquired about was the area allocated as a playing field for the students. “I was told that the funds were there to set up the grounds, someone came to take measurements, but since then nothing has been done,” she revealed. The only sporting area for students is a broken down basketball court which was built by parents and teachers, an eyesore now, adjacent to the school. The school grounds itself is a combination of dirt, mud and rocks and the only semblance of beautification are a few benches built by students themselves.
“The students we get here are not high academic achievers, they are more into sports, singing, dancing, the arts, but we do not have the facilities or even the teachers to accommodate them in those areas,” Pascal pointed out. “You should have seen
how eager and excited the young boys were when
we got them to build those benches, and last year
despite the lack of a training facility we were able to place second in the basketball competition, so these children have talent, but we are just not being given the facilities to develop those skills,” she went on.  A number of students who were registered in the physical education exam have also done very well, despite the challenges of having to travel to Sir Arthur Lewis Community College to use their facilities, at a cost.
From the onset the Principal says she knew that measures, some simple, some new and drastic had to be put in place to rebuild the school. One which drew some opposition from a few teachers at first was to have the students return to their home room after the
final period for a general assessment of the day and to offer some motivation, encouragement and share prayers. “This has helped calm things down at the end of the day because what used to happen before was, as soon as the bell rang, it was a mad rush for both students and teachers to get off the compound and all that pushing and running often resulted in fights,” Pascal says. She readily admits that generally she gets her teachers involved in the decision making at the school, but there are times hard decisions have to be taken and she can be autocratic. However, the principal says the school is a lot calmer and the students are responding.
The next step is to get the Ministry of Education officials and even donors to respond to the needs of the schools.
“Why does there seem to be a reluctance on the part of the authorities to provide for the school with its very basic needs?” I asked Lera Pascal.
“That’s a million-dollar question, because a school of that nature, which from its inception has been receiving the lower end of common entrance students, what some have labeled slower kids, this school should be at least helped to deal effectively with the students if we expect a different result. From what I see not much has been given to them. You look around and you can see it is a neglected school,” she says with the obvious frustration seeping through.
“The Secondary education system is doing an injustice to these students and this country and when we think of the level of crime we can trace it back to the system. It discriminates, it is elitist, and it does not give equal opportunity to the students when you categorize students,” Pascal boldly stated.
As far as academics is concerned the Principal says; “we have accepted the fact that our students are not the high scorers in the common entrance. But they come and we accept them as our
students and we know we have to work with them and we do. But any serious educator would know that there is differentiated learning, children don’t all learn the same way. Whereas a child will take a year to learn a concept another child will take a month and you have all of those children coming to school here, but what is happening is that the ministry is putting all the children in one block and expect all of them to be the same.”
A few years ago CARICOM recognized that only 30 percent of students writing CXC qualified to receive certification which would enable them to move into the tertiary level. With the advancement of universal education,  which meant that all students were placed in a secondary school regardless of their performance, the situation has worsened with students leaving form five hardly able to read, write or analyze. In a report on the matter Dr Didicus Jules called for “ the universal adoption of the Caribbean certificate of secondary level competence CCSLC, as secondary school diploma in all countries and for the creation of new opportunities for certification of core competences emanating from secondary education.”
Last year Lera Pascal and her teachers started working with form four and five students to be assessed under the CCSLC program which would allow students to gain a certificate in basic competency skills, particularly those who could not write CXC. “Under that program through continuous assessment
these students can leave school with a certificate and later on if they choose to they can register to write CXC as independent candidates,” Pascal informed us. However, a directive from the Ministry has barred the implementation of the CCSLC and a new policy dictates that all form five students from all secondary schools must write at least five CXC subjects including English and
Mathematics regardless of their capabilities.
“That is clearly showing that the Ministry has no regard for the different levels in the education system because they stream the students at the common entrance. They say it is the parents who choose, but that is not quite true. It may be true to some extent, but the ministry assigns students to schools. So now what they have done is create these monster schools, by sending children to schools like this one and Marigot and
Gros Islet Secondary. They have killed the school before it even got started, because nobody wants to be associated with us.                         “Whereas I have no problem with Ivy League schools, but you see these schools are set up to succeed. If SMC and SJC gets ninety percent intake what do you expect their average to be at CXC? So they glorify these schools and give those awards, but the other schools are relegated as failures,” Pascal intoned.
The principal also had to find thousands of dollars of school funds to pay for CXC subjects for students whose parents refused to pay saying that they knew their children were incapable.
“I believe this is a gross injustice and the ministry has refused to discuss the matter with us,” the principal told the STAR. The Secondary Schools Principals association which Lera Pascal is a part of is divided on the issue.
Some solutions the George Charles Secondary school principal proffers to remedy this malaise, include closer examination on early childhood education and Primary education.
“Because you cannot tell me a child spends all these years at a primary school and enters a secondary school barely able to read and write,” she says.
Pascal also believes that the zoning system where students go to school based on districts or zones should be implemented, placing less strain on parents and the bus subsidy system and would de-stigmatize schools. And, she also believes that the Ministry of education must give consideration to the CCSLC exams, otherwise they are simply setting students up to fail, adding to our social problems.
Leading up to its twentieth anniversary celebrations in October the Principal, staff and students of George Charles Secondary are looking to host an art and craft exhibition and an awards ceremony and are also keeping their fingers crossed that someone will come to their aid with a fully equipped resource room and library and possibly a playing field.
But for now, the school sits atop a hill gazing at the open Cul de sac where many a promise has been made by several politicians. And on the cusp of another election, two qualified educators and lecturers are wrestling for supremacy in the constituency where the forgotten school stands, barely.

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