It has been bubbling under the surface for a while, but it is now official: at the start of the 2014-2015 school year, three Southside Belize City high schools – Sadie Vernon Technical High School, Maud Williams High School and Excelsior High School – are entering a unique partnership to deliver quality education to over 500 students between them.
It was born out of a need to address crippling issues at each school, including dropout and repetition rates that combined were more than double the national average.
Retired Wesley College principal Brenda Armstrong is a member of the transition team directing the development of this educational triumvirate, and she summarizes how the program will work in practice.
“All three schools remain as individual schools. First and Second Form classes will be done at your home base. But when it comes to Third Form, in order to have every student be able to choose across the board, there is where the combinations took place, and so, where the resources were best, that is where the course will be delivered. If a Science Lab was excellent at school X and school Y, then, Biology and Chemistry will be delivered at school X and school Y. All the students who opt for that choice, will go and have their classes at that campus. In other cases where there are sufficient students who wanted to take the course at a specific school, but the best teacher is at another school, the teacher will move”.
Current third-formers who will enter fourth form in the upcoming school year will continue in their current programs while those in the grades below them will be exposed to the new program, which sets 40 hours of core content in mathematics, language arts, the arts and sciences and computer literacy, and optional content in third and fourth form that will be taught at identified facilities, including the Institute for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ITVET).
The road to this revamping began with honest self-assessments at all three schools. Sister Caritas Lawrence, a retired educator now working with the Quality Child Friendly Schools Initiative Program, says they told a chilling story.
“This year we went back to the schools again because by now, the data was collected and collated and so we went back to see the end results of what that data said. So, during that process, we found that there was a common thread that ran through that these three schools, there was a loss of population, a problem with dropout, problem with failure rate, a problem with curriculum (many of the children of these schools: I call them open schools) where as long as you apply, you can get in. It is not based on what your PSE results are like other schools. These schools are for our children who need an education”.
The statistics for each school combined back up that assessment. From 676 students five years ago, the total enrollment has slumped to 511.
The teaching complement, conversely, only fell by two from 63 to 61. Sadie Vernon lost 47% of its students, Maud Williams about 30% and Excelsior somewhere between the two. But those who remain, said Armstrong, were consulted about the process, and were not shy about what they wanted.
Brenda Armstrong: “And so, we had a meeting of Board Chairs along with the representatives of the Belize National Teacher’s Union on March 17 where we shared our ideas with them and they asked all the questions that they wanted to ask. Their questions were so helpful in guiding the process because some things that were raised had not occurred to us at the time. By the time we fell to April, we felt it was time to talk to the students and some of the students sitting in here today were te ones that came over to the ITVET dining room and asked them, I think, three questions: 1. What would you like to learn? 2. What services do you think you would need to help you to be a better student? 3. What would you like to see happening in your school; what activities would you like?”
The first contacts were with the principals and vice-principals of each school, who had already agreed to work together in a reading program that saw reading levels rise by at least two grades per student, per school.
Thereafter, there were meetings at every level, from students to teachers, parents to the Belize National Teachers’ Union this week, and the Ministry of Education.