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Martin Henry: Iris Gelly Primary - ‘Ghetto Prep’

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2016 | 1:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Nicole McCain gestures to 12-year-old Saphyre Miller at Iris Gelly Primary.
Martin Henry
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The rush is usually in the opposite direction. There are several depopulated schools in the area. And only recently Trench Town Comprehensive and Charlie Smith Comprehensive, with which I have some acquaintance, were merged. Falling student numbers was a big factor. Kingston and the surrounding southern St Andrew, that area south of Cross Roads, is the only parish-level geographical area in Jamaica in which the population is falling. According to the 2011 census, the Kingston numbers have fallen from 96,052 in 2001 to 89,057 in 2011.

But Gelly is booming. "The outstanding performance of students at the Iris Gelly Primary School in recent years," the Nadine Wilson-Harris story opened, "has led to a flood of applications from parents who want their children to attend the Arnett Gardens-based institution in South St Andrew."

The Arnett Gardens school, which has seen a flood in enrolment because of improved performances, is now overpopulated and the teachers overworked. Built for 700, it now accommodates 1,092, although there has been some expansion of the facility, with three additional classrooms added back in 2007. Class sizes get up to 50, although the Ministry of Education recommends 35 as maximum.

Registration is done only on the first two working days in May, during which the 140 official spaces are gobbled up. But parents still come knocking and are reluctant to be referred to other available schools. Then the bending over takes place to accommodate more students above the official capacity of the school.

The school uses a first-come, first-served number system for registration, and from as early as 3 a.m. on registration day, parents are turning up to get a number.

On registration days, "here is like KPH," Iris Gelly principal, Veronica Gaynor, who has been at the school as a teacher for 34 years since 1982 and principal since 2008, told The Gleaner reporter.

 

TOUGH SIDE OF TOWN

 

Veronica Gaynor went to Iris Gelly the year after I left Charlie Smith, where I had taught for a year on the evening shift while completing university with morning classes. Jungle was eerily quiet for the 1980 general election but exploded into a long-running gun battle between the security forces and gunmen when area leader Anthony Tingle was killed in a security operation. The students had a carnival as the guns clapped throughout the day. We outsiders were terrified. The police escorted teachers out. The only other time I have ever heard so much sustained gunfire was on the night of the election itself near where I then lived.

But with overcrowded classes and overworked teachers, sitting in a tough side of town, and not having "the very bright ones", the principal says Iris Gelly Primary is doing well. And GSAT scores, which are consistently above the national average, say so.

Parents want their children in. What's going on? This is the kind of case study school that the Ministry of Education should study and replicate as model. Strong and stable leadership seems obviously a factor. School pride by students and parents in a virtuous circle helps.

Another key factor, though, is likely to be overlooked. That is the consistent, long-haul investment in education by Dr Omar Davies, the member of parliament for South St Andrew, the PNP's strongest garrison. Davies has worked hard to break up licky-licky handout politics and has focused on education very strongly as the way out for his constituents. He's been lucky. Damion Crawford in East Rural St Andrew and Raymond Pryce in North East St Elizabeth have not fared so well with the enlightened politics of advancement.

At a deeply personal level, I understand the education-as-the-way-out philosophy. I was born the same year as the Common Entrance Examination, the predecessor of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). The CEE fly-the-gate for access to high-school education fi poor people pickney. At its inception, the entrance exam opened up 2,000 scholarship free places in high schools, from a mere handful of parish scholarships before.

A full dozen years later, I was the first winner of a CEE scholarship from my small 'backbush' rural all-age school. There wasn't another until fully five years later when I was graduating from high school. Now all but a handful of Jamaican children have access to full secondary education of some sort.

Iris Gelly, the 'Ghetto Prep', is prepping students, most of them from comparatively disadvantaged backgrounds, for places in top schools. And parents and the students themselves are loving it.

Private prep schools used to so outperform the public primary schools that Minister of Education in the 1960s Edwin Allen introduced the 70:30 rule under which 70 per cent of CEE scholarships would go to Government primary school students and only 30 per cent to private prep school students.

 

PERFORMANCE GAP

 

The performance gap between prep and primary has never really been closed. And parents, many of them through their noses, pay for expensive prep education so that their children can qualify for a high-quality, free high-school place. When a public school like Gelly can deliver, there is going to be a rush on it!

I have long been advocating to the Ministry of Education since I engaged the development of the National Assessment Programme, which includes GSAT, from its inception, that they are failing to use a key strategy for dragging up school performance. And that strategy is to publish school performance data and allow parents, as far as is possible, to shop for the best schools for their children, which they are doing despite the considerable obstacles. I can't now, for instance, find online the performance data for Iris Gelly. State resources would be preferentially directed to good schools to get better on a student per-capita basis. A combination of shame and loss of 'business' and student customers would force poor performance schools to shape up or ship out. Gelly is licking shot out of Arnett Gardens. Others can, and must.

A neighbouring business, Rainforest Seafoods, already providing water from its well to residents when the NWC pipes are dry, is backing Gelly.

Some Gelly parents and their children may have to rely on fish back, but the youngsters are performing. In my time, real Canadian cod salt fish, red herring, shad, and salt mackerel were cheap and poor people's staple animal protein. Salt fish was cheap enough to shingle house!

"The outstanding performance of the school came to my attention through the media," says Marketing Manager Roger Lyn, "and since we are based metres away on Slipe Road, I decided to check it out. When we saw what they had achieved with so little resources, we were overwhelmed and quick to join with the school, which is in a community we feel a part of .... We are prepared to do anything we can to ensure that they continue to do as well as they do."

The Rainforest to Iris Gelly budget is being upped this year. More Jamaican businesses should join Rainforest in assisting the schools in their community. This is known to be a crucial factor in school performance.

Iris Gelly, after whom the school is named when it was established in 1977, was a KSAC councillor for the Trench Town division. She died in 2008, but would have been proud to see what her school has been up to.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.