Holy Trinity High School the latest project for educator determined to fix ailing institutions
She had defied her mother's wish for her to go into medicine and instead moved into education where, for much of her life, she has been diagnosing and fixing ailing schools.
Margaret Brissett-Bolt had managed to breathe new life into St Peter Claver Primary School, which, at the time of her takeover, was virtually on life support. The inner-city school thrived under her leadership, and as it did, parents who once shunned the institution were among those begging for their children to be enrolled there.
"I went there four days after (Hurricane) Gilbert in 1988 and people had moved into the school and had taken over the premises, so all the benches and so forth were now firewood. Oh jeez, it was terrible," recounted the educator with her hands on her head.
"They had one Common Entrance pass and they were so proud of this one young man, as if to say, this is it, and I was saying, 'but you have 50-odd other students, so what happen to them'?" Brissett-Bolt told The Sunday Gleaner.
The situation that greeted her in her first year would have caused even the most ardent educator to turn tail. Many of her students were struggling with adult problems. Five of her teachers had resigned by the second year, and efforts to improve the school's physical plant proved futile. When they installed flush toilets for the first time, for example, school administrators came back to find empty bathroom stalls the following day. Residents of the area had stolen the toilet bowls.
It was not that Brissett-Bolt had no other choice but to stay. Her résumé could have secured her a job elsewhere, as prior to her stint at St Peter Claver Primary, she had won the admiration and respect of colleagues at the Norman Manley High School, where she had entered as a freshly minted teacher and left as the head of the school's Mathematics Department.
But inspired by her mother, Gloria Brissett, who was for many years the vice-principal of the St Anne's High School in west Kingston, Bolt was attracted to the opportunity inner-city schools provided for the transformation of communities.
She recalled with admiration how gangsters would stop their shooting during the terrible '70s and '80s to allow her mother to pass through the communities surrounding the school.
After her initial diagnosis, Brissett-Bolt determined that music was going to be her first course of treatment to remedy the challenges at St Peter Claver. A number of students at the school were illiterate and so, too, were many of their parents, so tackling academics first was not the best solution at the time.
A school choir was formed and as students started to travel to Canada and the United States to sing on behalf of their school, they started getting exposed to life outside of the inner city and their confidence increased.
ticket out of poverty
Brissett-Bolt's personal motto is: 'Once there is success, it pulls success', and she proved this at St Peter Claver Primary. Students were excited about being at school, parents were starting to see their children as their ticket out of poverty, and teachers were inspired to go beyond the call of duty.
"I remember when I just went there, I used to sign leave forms very frequently. Everybody was taking a day, and then afterwards, teachers wouldn't stop. They would come. No matter how ill they were, they would come to make sure that their children were being taken care of," she said.
The school managed to churn out several scholarship recipients, and for two consecutive years produced Jamaica's top-achieving boy in the Grade Six Achievement Test.
The institution's about-turn was obvious to everyone, including officials at the Ministry of Education, who asked Brissett-Bolt to join their inner-city schools improvement project. She was given 24 other schools similar to St Peter Claver to work with.
"I loved that, because I was now working with colleagues," she said.
Brissett-Bolt joined the schools improvement team in 2006 and remained until 2013 when she was given her biggest challenge to date.
That was the year she was first approached by Education Minister Ronald Thwaites and then the former archbishop of Kingston, Donald Reece, to consider taking up the post of principal at the failing Holy Trinity High School.
Brissett-Bolt had misgivings as she didn't want to put her focus on just one school, but she was assured that it would only be until they could find a more suitable candidate.
Despite being named after one of Jamaica's most illustrious religious headquarters and being surrounded by prominent institutions like Kingston College, St George's College and Alpha Academy, the Holy Trinity High School had amassed the reputation of being one of Jamaica's worst-performing schools.
The school's image was further tarnished when it was listed in the top four of the country's 'Failing Schools' list in 2011 and then the Jamaica Constabulary Force 'Prison Schools' list in 2014.
"I met many children who felt that they were failures, but I saw these children as beautiful children who just figured that listen, we are placed here, we didn't want to be here, this is not our school of choice and so we couldn't do well here, so you had that in the majority," said Brissett-Bolt in describing her first impression of the students.
"There was this boy who said to me, 'Miss, we are the garbage, they are just waiting to put us out at the gate'. I will never forget that statement and I say 'my God, these are now 14- and 15-year-old students who were waiting to be put out, and I said 'no way'," asserted the determined educator.
It has been a little over two years since she became the principal, but in that short time, there has been a drastic change in the school's culture and the students' attitude. Where she used music as the catalyst for change at St Peter Claver, sport was her initial prescription for addressing the ills at Holy Trinity High.
The school's football team earned the name 'The Giant Slayers' after their smashing performance in the inaugural all-island LIME Super Cup in 2014, where they became the second-placed urban team.
An impediment to learning Brissett-Bolt quickly noted was the shift system that existed at the 64-year-old institution. The school had four shifts and so students only spent five hours in class at best.
"I said this is not fair to these students. These students are coming already at a level where they need more time if they are going to compete with students in fifth form at a regular school; they need extra help," she said.
After the teachers audited the school's space, they found that it was possible to get off the shift system, although the transition would cause some discomfort. Eight new classrooms were later added to ease the space challenges.
"I can't forget that change, September 2013. Oh my, I underestimated what would have happened, because we now have two separate schools together, the blue shift and the red shift," the principal said.
"What that did was it brought an after-school life to school. Because children were now out of classes at 2:30, they now had the entire afternoon, and teachers were able to work with them in extra classes, free of cost," she said.
Teachers who for years were working at the same school, but had never met each other, are now working together to inspire and educate the students, although this has meant that they have to spend longer hours at school.
The school has also started a drum corps with the assistance of the US Embassy, and the South African High Commission has decided to host its Freedom Day celebration at the school in the coming weeks. The institution also instituted a sixth-form programme, has doubled its percentage pass in CXC mathematics and has dramatically improved its performance in English language.
The school's alumni is also more involved, and efforts are now being made to put in a cafeteria and build benches outdoors for students. The school is also equipped with Internet hotspots and all the students were given free tablets by the Government to strengthen their academic performance. Psychologists and social workers have also been brought on board to assist those students with emotional problems.
"A lot of things have changed and a lot of success stories have happened in the little time," the principal said.
Thwaites expected nothing less. He told The Sunday Gleaner that he picked Brissett-Bolt for the task because she is a transformational leader.
"She improved the social and behavioural tone very significantly and has been able to forge partnerships within the society, which will help to uplift the students.
"I knew she would do a good job. The school needed a transformative leader," said Thwaites.