Bowden Hill community moves education minister to reopen primary school
The Bowden Hill Primary School in Stony Hill was one of 18 schools considered non-viable and ordered closed by the education ministry in July.
But up to last week, workmen were feverishly working to effect repairs to the school after Education Minister Ronald Thwaites had a change of heart and decided to reopen the institution.
Thwaites told The Sunday Gleaner that he was moved by the efforts of the residents to continue operating the institution as a private school at a nearby church, when the ministry decided it had to be chopped from its list of government-funded schools.
"I was impressed," said Thwaites.
"Certainly, the Ministry of Education wanted to recognise and partner with such a community initiative. This is exactly the kind of spirit that we need," he said.
Bowden Hill Primary was closed because, among other things, it had only 18 students enrolled.
However, residents went on a drive to increase the numbers after it was revealed during a meeting last April that the school was to be placed on the chopping block.
Although they were eventually able to get commitments from parents that they would pull their children from other primary schools if the school remained opened, the community's benevolent society was unable to secure the required 80 to 100 students needed to guarantee its opening in September.
Among those who had attended the series of meetings to discuss the school's impending closure was Audrey Tulloch-Lorne, who, after more than 30 years as a teacher, had decided to take a break so she could stay home and care for her granddaughter. When the community realised that it had a number of commitments from parents to switch their children but no school, it was decided that they would operate from the nearby Bowden Hill Work and Worship Centre Church of God of Prophecy pastored by Phillip Smith.
"The pastor said we can't afford to let it close and, considering that we were getting people, and people were committing themselves, he said if we didn't have access to here, because we didn't want to trespass, the benevolent society and the church would open their arms so that we could have the school there (at the church)," said Tulloch-Lorne, who was asked to volunteer as a teacher and eventually became the interim principal for the new facility as well.
"The benevolent society went ahead, and they got tables done; they got blackboards done; and they got support for chalk and every little thing that you can think of that a school would need. Above all, they decided that they would provide lunch and breaks (snacks) for the children, so it wouldn't be a problem if you couldn't find the money to send the child to school," she explained.
The benevolent society and the church got the endorsement of Paul Buchanan, member of parliament for West Rural St Andrew, and also informed the Ministry of Education of the decision to continue the school as a private institution until the enrolment figures could be increased and the needed changes were effected to regain status as a public school. Up to last Tuesday, 68 children were registered.
While no fundraising events were held, Tulloch-Lorne said the community came together and donated funds and resources so the school could maintain itself. This meant the students did not have to pay for their tuition, lunch or snacks. At least two retired teachers, two cooks, an office attendant, and a watchman all came on board as volunteers, as well as to ensure that the students were taught, well fed and safe and secure every day.
"People asked what they could do to assist," said Tulloch-Lorne.
"People came out of retirement to volunteer, because we knew that our cause is just," she said.
Among the volunteers is Ena Thaxter who, along with her church sister, made sure they were at their pastor's house by six o'clock every morning to assist the pastor's wife to prepare lunch for the children.
Pastor Phillip would pick up the women in the mornings or send someone to pick them up, and then would drop off the lunches and snacks at the school before midday.
"Every day from September, I have been here. I haven't missed a day," said Thaxter, who noted that they all had fun preparing the meals which varied daily - from soy mince and spaghetti, to stew peas, to chicken and festival, or nuggets and fries.
Father of two Jason Oliphant said he, like other parents, contributed to the cause by pulling his daughter from a prominent primary school in St Andrew to enrol her at Bowden Hill Primary.
He said he has no regrets, since she has continued to maintain a high academic standard.
"I am a product of here and was willing to try anything I could do, in my small way, to facilitate the reopening of the school, so it was a no brainer for me to really pull one of my children from another school to bring here for support," explained Oliphant, who said he decided not to pull his oldest child, since he was now in sixth grade and preparing for the Grade Six Achievement Test.
LETTERS TO THE MINISTRY
Tulloch-Lorne said reports were periodically sent to the Ministry of Education outlining their achievements, in hopes that the ministry would reverse the decision to close the school.
"We were always sending letters to say what we are doing, our new proposals, how we plan to go forward and all of that. In December, still having no positive or direct word from the ministry, we were planning to take a letter down to the prime minister and also to the minister (of education) to give him it directly, because we were wondering if the proposal had got lost along the way," she said.
"Then the ministry called us to say that they would be sending up a fact-finding team to find out what is happening and if it is some misunderstanding why we are going ahead. They came up and, in my opinion, I think they liked what they saw," said Tulloch-Lorne.
The principal got a call the following day to say the education minister wanted to visit the school and, upon doing so, the minister decided to rescind the decision to close the institution.
"He said it was a Christmas gift to us," said Oliphant, who noted that the whole community came together on Boxing Day to clear the schoolyard, as it was overgrown with trees and grass during its four-month closure.
Both Thwaites and Tulloch-Lorne are hoping that the school will be opened this coming week, but they agreed that, even if it is not, there is no concern that the children will be short-changed, since they have been doing well at their present location in the church hall.