John Mahfood | Working miracles at Whitfield
I was appointed chairman of the Whitfield All-Age School in March 2018, under the recommendation of the Member of Parliament Angela Brown Burke. In the early years, Maxfield was a lower-middle-class community and the school was considered an excellent place of learning. Being in existence for approximately 80 years, it once catered to more than a thousand students.
There has been a gradual change in the make-up of the community, mainly because of high crime. This has negatively impacted the status of the school on several levels, including the fact that it now functions only at primary level, catering to grades one to six. The school now represents mainly poor working-class and unemployed persons. Enrolment has fallen sharply and now stands at approximately 90 students, with most of the children admitted being in the category of 'academically challenged'.
These factors all contribute to poor performance at the GSAT level. Of the 27 students who sat GSAT in 2017, none passed for traditional high schools because of low grades. We know from experience that these students are likely to drop out of high school early and are unlikely to achieve very much in life.
On my first visit to the school, I was stunned by the conditions:
- No water, phone or Internet.
- The physical infrastructure was in complete state of disrepair, including a malfunctioning pit on the playground.
- No windows on the ground floor to keep out the rain.
- No lunchroom for the children.
- The school lacked basic equipment such as a photocopy machine, printer and computer for the principal to communicate with the Ministry of Education.
- There was a lack of support staff, including janitors or administrative support personnel.
- There was a lack of books for the students, as their parents could not afford to buy these.
- This situation did not happen overnight. It took years of neglect by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the previous member of parliament for the area, Portia Simpson Miller. The MOE apparently never intervened to address the declining education standards, or to bring the infrastructure to an acceptable standard.
ROLE OF MINISTRY
It makes me wonder how many schools like this exist in Jamaica in poor urban and rural communities. What responsibility does the MOE take for allowing this to continue for such a prolonged period?
When I met the children in school, I saw that they were like any other children in Jamaica - innocent and loving, but seriously underprivileged and ill prepared for further education.
It made me very sad to think that in a few short years, most of them would drop out of high school with little chance in society. The teachers I met were also dedicated and supportive of the plans of the principal.
PLAN OF ACTION
I was motivated to help to try and make a difference for this school. We developed a plan of action with the principal, which included:
- Development of an infant school (ages four and five) in order to help to feed the school at primary level with better-prepared students for grade one.
- Installation of windows on the ground floor.
- Change the designation from all-age to primary.
- Repair the malfunctioning pit in play area.
- Build a second gate for emergency exit.
- Build a dedicated maths resource room to increase the numeracy rate.
- Build a lunchroom for the students.
- Organise after-school classes and a homework centre.
- Paint the buildings and power-wash the floors and walls.
- Purchase a computer, printer and photocopier for the school.
- Renovate the kitchen.
- Organise special outings for the children, invite speakers to address them and organise sporting activities.
- Install Internet and a phone service.
- Employ full-time staff, both administrative and janitorial.
- Purchase books that are needed by the students but which they cannot afford, and have the teachers retain custody.
- The reaction of the minister himself to my analysis of the situation was very surprising, as he spent the time defending his ministry instead of demonstrating any responsibility for the systemic failures. I decided that our company would adopt the school. With the help of other corporate entities and foundations in the area, plans are afoot to complete all renovations by Christmas.
I want to acknowledge the assistance of the following companies' foundations and people for their assistance with Whitfield All-Age: Diamond Paints, Tropicair Ltd, Tools Hardware Ltd, WIHCON Properties Ltd, NCB Foundation, Scotiabank, Cable Pro, the Kiwanis family, Vertis Technology, and Angela Brown Burke.
- John Mahfood is CEO of Jamaican Teas Limited. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.