From boys' home to vocational, education institute - Alpha transitions despite tough challenges
Roy Black, Gleaner Writer
The Sister Ignatius and Alpha legacy continues with the transitioning of the school from a residential home for some 80 boys, ranging in age from eight to 18, into a new vocational and educational programme for over 100 boys between the ages of 15 and 18 years. The change brought about a new identity and a new name for the institution, which is now known as The Alpha Institute.
Situated on lands bought in 1880 by Jesuit Sister Jessie Ripoll, friends, and the Church, at 26 South Camp Road in east Kingston, over the years, the school has established itself as the bedrock and repository for musical talent for more than three-quarters of a century, producing some of Jamaica's best singers, deejays, and musicians. Music remains an integral part of the school's curriculum, sharing curriculum status with the other subject areas of woodwork, screen-printing, printing, bookbinding, entrepreneurial skills, and landscaping. Each subject area is geared towards securing employment for students at the end of their two-year course.
The embryonic stage of the transition was bedevilled with rumours, misinformation, and mischief concerning the closing of the Alpha residential facility, or home, with some authorities claiming that sexual predatory behaviour on the part of some students was responsible for the move. Things got so bad that some even thought that the school was closing for good. Alpha's management had to pull out all the stops to dispel the rumour. In an April 2014 release, Winston 'Sparrow' Martin, the current bandmaster and a member of the special advisory committee for the school's organisational planning process, said: "Alpha Boys School is not shutting down. There is absolutely no truth in that. Alpha is in fact, taking significant steps to increase and expand the educational and vocational programmes". Also, in a release, responding to the rumours, the school categorically stated: "There is absolutely no truth to a rumour suggesting that the home is shutting down largely due to inappropriate behaviour among Alpha boys."
Despite its challenges, the school had successfully transitioned from a residential home to a day-school vocational and educational facility by July. Many boys from the residential programme began living in their homes but were given the opportunity to attend the day programme. During this period, the boys and their families were given strong support from the staff at Alpha, who conducted family visits and had meetings with parents and guardians to assist with any problems associated with the transition.
By September 5, 2014, the programme got into full swing, with the enrolment of students and a familiarisation exercise, which launched a free two-year vocational and educational programme for 120 low-education-level boys, aged 15-18 years, who, for one reason or another, are not in school.
A team of Alpha staff and Sisters of Mercy had previously taken to the streets and homes of some inner-city communities, pointing out to idle youngsters and parents the benefits of Alpha Institute trade-training programmes. Operating under the Ministry of Education's career-advancement programme, The Alpha Institute started classes on October 21, with students spending half day in general-education classes and half day in trade classes.
The Alpha school band, which made the school famous, continued to impress with several outstanding performances since the beginning of the year. Under the guidance of bandmaster, 'Sparrow' Martin, the now 61-member band is pursuing a two-year music course, which sees them currently doing music theory. According to Martin, theory exams commence the second week in December, while practical classes begin in January 2015, to go along with mathematics and English classes.
The guitar, drum, bass, French horn, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and piano, are the instruments being taught from The Lennie Hibbert Hall - the present music room. Plans are afoot, however, to establish a new state-of-the-art, high-tech music room fuelled by a grant of $2 million dollars from the Jamaica National Building Society. The room will become the new home of Alpha Boys' School Radio, where students will be taught music production and radio broadcasting skills.
The Internet-based radio, alphaboysschoolradio.com, featuring musical giants, who were students of the institution, has been up and running since September 2013. Training in the business of music will be an important component in the curriculum of The Alpha Institute.
The screen-printing course will provide an opportunity for students to work in a commercial screen-printing and apparel-production business. Introductory classes are available for students who wish to learn basic skills and techniques required for screen-printing, tailoring, and graphic design.
In woodwork, which has been one of the traditional trades at the school, students will be taught several practical skill sets in the field of woodworking, using both hand tools and machinery.
Landscaping will see students being trained in the maintenance of property grounds, using hand or power tools. Planting, mowing, weeding, fertilising, and watering are some of the skills involved.
Printing has been one of the traditional trade-training areas at Alpha, and this tradition will continue.
Although the institution no longer uses traditional printing presses, the tradition will still be taught, using more modern digital printers.
Bookbinding is another of the proposed skills to be taught at the new Alpha Institute. Some may downplay the importance of this trade, but the Institute believes that "every skill one learns is valuable, and it is with this ideal we strive to make a positive contribution to building a youth force of dedicated and skilled individuals".
In a statement released by the institute, "The business and social entrepreneurship programme focuses on the creation of social and economic value by developing core capabilities of idea generation, opportunity recognition, resource acquisition, and entrepreneurial management". The goal of Alpha was, however, forthright, as evidenced by an April press release: "Alpha is now completing a thorough organisational planning process that will enable the school to continue to serve youth at risk, and in greater numbers, for another 100 years. The Alpha School of the future will be one that graduates dozens of students every year with certified skills training, real-world experience, and meaningful career-advancement opportunities."