The enthusiasm of school principal Shaunavon deSouza is infectious. He can hardly conceal his excitement as he recounts how Bellevue Primary and Junior High used agriculture to pull itself up from the bottom of the school effectiveness ranking established by the National Education Inspectorate (NEI).
In its February 2012 report, the NEI adjudged the overall effectiveness of the Trelawny-based school as "needing immediate support".
The school had scored very low in several indicators, including leadership and management, teaching and learning, students' progress; as well as curriculum and enhancement programmes.
"After looking at the NEI report we took a holistic approach to moving the school forward. We decided we needed to take on this task together as a team," deSouza told The Gleaner. "Coming out of our examination of the NEI report, we realised there were some key areas we needed to adjust. We did just that."
The team saw the need to introduce a programme that was mainly hands-on because the school had significant numbers of students with learning challenges. Students are exposed to three main vocational areas - food and nutrition, visual arts, and agriculture.
Of the three, the students were more enthusiastic about agriculture skills, which has resulted in a vibrant project at Bellevue Primary and Junior High.
"We incorporate agricultural science in our day-to-day curriculum as well as in extra-curricular activity," said deSouza, who is a trained agriculturalist. The school operates a "tutorial farm" where everything that is done on the farm is by the students under the guidance of the agricultural science teacher, Aeon Stewart.
Rather than pushing students to sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination, the school administrators plan to partner with the HEART Trust/NTA to provide the students with a certified and employable skill.
Stewart pointed to tremendous success by the school since September 2016 in the 4-H School Gardens Competition. The accomplishments included the awards of top high-school garden at the parish, regional, and national levels.
Because of the success of the agriculture programme at Bellevue, its graduates (at grade nine) move on to form the core of the agricultural science programme in high schools, including Knockalva Agricultural, Muschette, William Knibb, and Cedric Titus.
deSouza said the rationale for making agriculture the centre piece of the technical and vocational programmes was because it subsidises the operation of the school kitchen.
"It's a business place that you are coming to, not just a school; produce is sold when the farm output is high," he stated. He further discloses that charitable organisation Food For the Poor has promised to supply the school with a greenhouse so they can move into more modern farming techniques.
In addition, as part of their prize for winning the 4-H Movement National School Gardens Competition the school is receiving a rain water harvesting facility through the Government's Adaptation Fund Programme. The school chose that prize due to recurrent droughts associated with climate change.
Shaunavon deSouza (right), principal of Bellevue Primary and Junior High in Perth Town, Trelawny, and his award-winning 4-H Club agriculture team.
... Literacy and Numeracy Push
Having enjoyed some recent success in its vocational programme, the Trelawny-based Bellevue Primary and Junior High is pushing to improve the performance of its students in the areas of literacy and numeracy.
Literacy teacher, Kadian Drummond identifies as the main problem students reading below their grade level. Diagnostic tests are done in grade seven to determine students' reading levels and from that data the school has developed strategies to address their deficiencies.
These include a comprehensive reading programme, including reading skills, vocabulary, comprehension, and word recognition.
"All stakeholders are involved in this effort, including principal, guidance counsellor and parents," Drummond points out. The literacy officer from the education ministry's regional office also assists in the process.
According to Drummond, the main approach adopted is differentiated instruction and assessment to cater for the varying learning styles and abilities of students.
"We focus on what students are good at and instruct them, using that along with more hands-on approach and games," said the literacy teacher. "We encourage other teachers to take the same approach in teaching other subjects."
The school also integrates the use of technology to promote teaching and learning of literacy skills. The technology includes stories on audio files, online videos, and student-friendly classrooms. Students are also encouraged to read The Gleaner's Children's Own magazine. In addition, teachers engage in common planning time, when they share ideas and strategies that can be used in reading and other subject areas.
In numeracy and mathematics, the sessions were increased for each year group to provide teachers with more time for introducing and reinforcing concepts.
Mathematics was also integrated into other subject areas. This was facilitated by the common planning time for teachers. The school administration also ensured that mathematics teachers attended workshops put on by the Ministry of Education.
This approach to teaching and learning contrasts with the situation the NEI team found during its first inspection.
The teaching staff is also supported by two coaches from the Education Ministry's Alternative Pathway to Secondary Education Programme who help to customise the curriculum to fit the learning needs of many students with learning challenges.
... Building Better Boys
Boys outnumber girls in the overall student population at the Bellevue Primary and Junior High in Perth Town, Trelawny, and the administrators have implemented several initiatives geared towards improving the performance of the young males.
Principal Shaunavon deSouza told The Gleaner that pedagogical strategies were modified to make learning more accessible and enjoyable to boys.
These included the use of project-based learning and the incorporation of technology into lessons. Classroom seating arrangements were also modified to place boys closer to the front of the room. Other modifications were the use of circular seating arrangements and 'walk around' breaks.
Boys who showed exemplary conduct and academic achievement were appointed to leadership positions and The Three B's (Building Better Boys) Club was established to develop self-confidence and leadership skills of boys.
Weekly gender devotions were also held, during which boys were exhorted to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, and were congratulated for improvements made.
The school ensures that students are motivated by recognising their achievements through incentives such as tokens and certificates.
In addition, on Career Day students are exposed to a wide range of professions and types of businesses. Also, on Open Day students' vocational works are put on display and parents are pleasantly surprised.
Student's performance has shown mixed results between 2012 and 2014 when the primary department was phased out.
Mastery of literacy by the grade-four cohort moved from 50 per cent to 100 per cent between 2012 and 2013, with mastery of numeracy moving from 21 per cent to 33 per cent for the same period.
Grade Six Achievement Test results for 2012-2014 showed a decline in the average pass for Language Arts from a high of 58 per cent to a low of 49 per cent; and a decline from 49 per cent to 41 per cent for mathematics.
Following its re-inspection of Bellevue Junior High, the National Education Inspectorate (NEI) upgraded the school's overall effectiveness from level one to level three - satisfactory, which is the minimum performance expected of any school.
The principal praised the school board for its support in turning around the institution's performance. He also acknowledged the significant support he received from the education officers attached to the school.
Source: Jamaica Gleaner