Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Jaevion Nelson: Better support for educating the poor

Published:Thursday | December 10, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I am really worn out by headlines screaming about the academic prowess of children from low-income communities and/or poor families, which skirt around the real issues that limit their opportunities and possibilities for achieving their fullest potential. It's astonishing that so many of us have managed to maintain our oblivion so successfully, profile after profile to the realities (plight?) of children from the poorest families and the structural barriers that have been designed to perpetuate and thereby normalise their underachievement.

Why do we get so excited when people like, 24-year-old Jermaine 'Ryan' Haughton, who grew up in a poor household in Clarendon, 'receive the faculty award for most outstanding student at the University of Baltimore School of Law'? Why do we talk about their income/socio-economic status more than their hard work, commitment and dedication to their goals and dreams, as if by being born to a poor family you somehow have a gene that predisposes you to illiteracy or achieving very little in life? Do you ever ask yourself questions about why the narrative in these stories is framed in this way when you read the articles or hear their profiles? Do you ever wonder why it is that stories like that of Haughton's are so uncommon? Or is it that to you, it doesn't matter because you have subscribed to the view that Jamaica has a good education system that is accessible to all and they and their parents just do not work hard enough (read too darn lazy)?

Thanks to structural barriers, people like Jermaine Haughton, when they excel, are celebrated and held up as an illustration that poor people can in fact achieve. We must be honest about the fact that the system (Rastafarians might say Babylon) limits the performance of those from poorer families. The data is there; there are many reports which discuss this, of which the Education Scorecard published by the Caribbean Policy & Research Institute is among the most recent. They typically attend the school that are more unsafe, crowded classrooms, higher student-to-teacher ratio, fewer resources, poorly managed, etc. They usually don't have the resources to afford all the extra lessons that have been normalised as mandatory to complete the curriculum and do well academically.

'Poor people' are actually very ambitious and hard-working just as much as those in the 'one per cent' and the diminishing middle class that has an insatiable appetite in scoffing at the poor. We know this. Many of these children's parents work for some of us, yet we characterise and chastise them in the most disparaging ways. Do you ever wonder how they may feel? They dedicate so much time to taking care of your children, cleaning your house, landscaping, serving in your favourite bars, restaurants and eateries, opening gates, cooking and running errands (oftentimes for little to nothing; a mere $5,600 - sometimes for more than eight hours of work). They have dreams just like the children from more affluent families. The problem is that some of us have to work harder than others to achieve and even then it is still an uphill task for them because of the structural barriers that limit their freedoms and opportunities to reach their fullest potential.

We are, of course, making progress more children like Jermaine Haughton are excelling and achieving their fullest potential, but let us not fool ourselves because of these kinds of stories or the children from Jungle who are attending schools like Immaculate and Campion. Let us remove the veil covering our faces and recognise the stark realities about education and poverty that are so ever present in our communities and country.

We need to appreciate and move with more alacrity in finding more and better ways of supporting/investing in the education of children born and raised in poor families so that these kinds of stories aren't that rare. This will require more than just removing auxiliary fees. We will need to continue some of the excellent work being done to improve the education system as well as reallocating resources, redeploying teachers, making it easier for the diaspora to make donations to schools, better management of schools, more tailored curriculum, employing more counsellors and social workers as well as special-education teachers, and providing more and better resources for students with disabilities, among others.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.