Wed | Dec 12, 2018

School Report | Excellence is the mantra at Buff Bay High

Published:Thursday | September 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Students and teachers perform an experiment in the science laboratory at the Buff Bay High School in Portland.
Students at the Buff Bay High School in Portland converse against one of several murals throughout the school that promote positive behaviour.
Principal of the Buff Bay High School in Portland, Sandra Buchanan (right), and vice-principal, Orville Richards.
Students showing off the many many trophies won by the Buff Bay High School in Portland.
Sandra Buchanan (second right), principal of the Buff Bay High and Orville Richards (right), vice-principal along with members of the academic team that has been working to turn around the school's performance.

Buff Bay High School is a powerhouse in athletics, having won the Eastern Championship thrice since 2010 and earning gold medals at Boys and Girls' Champs since 2012.

The school is attempting to replicate this sporting success in teaching and learning. The west Portland-based institution is near the bottom of the National Education Inspectorate's (NEI) ranking for school effectiveness.

Following its inspection of the school in November 2012, the NEI rated the institution's overall effectiveness as unsatisfactory. A similar rating was given for all, except one, of several leading indicators.


Data-driven response


Principal Sandra Buchanan and her management team have devised a plan, driven by data, to turn around the performance of the school in anticipation of the imminent re-inspection by the NEI.

"We are a data-driven school. Our goal is to achieve a minimum of five per cent incremental gain on each examination that students sit per year," Buchanan told The Gleaner. "Every six weeks, we test students then analyse the results in relation to the target and make the necessary adjustment in delivering the curriculum."

She explained the use of key performance indicators for every teacher to track overall class performance from the beginning to the end of the term to achieve the stated increment of five per cent in class average.

Teachers are mandated to enter starting-point scores for each student in their mark books. The student's performance is then tracked throughout the year. Heads of department and the vice-principal inspect the mark books along with teachers and identify regression in performance by individual students. Appropriate intervention strategies are then implemented accordingly.

"Importantly, the target is shared with the parent-teacher association and other stakeholders to get their buy-in," Buchanan pointed out, "and later, they are invited to attend the awards for excellence ceremony that is held to recognise students' achievements in the six-week-cycle test."

... Smaller classes boost teacher-student interaction

A key strategy employed by the administrators of the Buff Bay High School in Portland to improve teaching and learning is the reduction of class sizes for the core subjects of English and mathematics in order to provide teachers with greater opportunity to interact with individual students.

In this regard, principal Sandra Buchanan pointed to the learning challenges being experienced by some students. She disclosed that the school receives mainly students who scored low in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and Grade Nine Achievement Test (GNAT), along with a cohort from the Alternative Secondary Transition Education Programme (ASTEP).

"We have enrichment classes in every grade for the children with learning challenges. We design special classes for them using special teachers like it is at the primary level," the principal reported. "As soon as they attain a certain level, we fit them into the regular class or stream. We have been pretty successful at that."


Problem-solving approach


She reports that at fifth form, students who initially had learning challenges pass exit examinations, with some sitting as many as eight subjects in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations.

Teachers at Buff Bay High also use the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) problem-solving approach to provide instructions, along with an emphasis on critical thinking as required by the new National Standard Curriculum. Teachers also apply differentiated instructional methods to match the learning abilities of each student.

How effective have these strategies been in turning around student performance in the core subjects of English language and mathematics? The pass rate in CSEC English language has been 38 per cent (2013), 44 per cent (2014), 45 per cent (2015), and 57 per cent (2016).

The results are mixed for students' performance in CSEC mathematics. The pass rate was 27 per cent (2013), 42 per cent (2014), 53 per cent (2015), and 21 per cent (2016). Educators acknowledge that there was a national decline in the 2016 CSEC maths, which was probably caused by systemic factors.

However, Tiphonie Reid, head of the mathematics department, is not deterred. Strategies employed include block-teaching of the subject to several grades, ongoing workshops, extra classes on Saturdays, free math camps, and math quizzes or trivia at morning devotions.

"We are moving in a positive direction in math," Reid asserted.

A math coach visits the school weekly and assists with the preparation of lesson plans.


Big on technology


The school is doing well in non-core subjects such as the sciences, a trend that preceded the National Education Inspectorate assessment.

"Science appears difficult to learn because children are least exposed to it at the primary school level when compared to other subjects," suggested Samuel Morgan, head of the science department. "We are big on technology, and we use a lot of animation through interactive software."

In addition, he has introduced more school-based assessment-type activities in the lower school so that by the time students reach grade nine, they are ready to take on the CSEC curriculum. Students are also performing well in the skill or technology-based subjects, where the curriculum is tailored to fit their needs. It is mandatory that every grade nine student going on to grade 10 study a technical or vocational subject.

... Working to realign the vision and mission of the school

The turnaround strategies employed by the administration of the Buff Bay High School in Portland resulted from a partnership with Robert Wynter of Strategic Alignment Limited to realign the vision and mission of the school.

In this regard, middle managers have been trained to perform their role as the main force behind the school-improvement process. The academic staff was sensitised about the then status of the school and where it wanted to be in five years. The performance gaps were identified and strategies implemented to bridge them.

In its initial assessment, the National Education Inspectorate (NEI) scored the leadership and management of Buff Bay High as unsatisfactory. Since then, principal, Sandra Buchanan, and vice-principal, Orville Richards, have been exposed to leadership training at the National College for Educational Leadership (NCEL).

"I received more hands-on practice in the difficulties involved in running a school and all the challenges that come with leadership. We still have our challenges, but we have made good strides," the principal testified.

She disclosed that at the end of each six-week cycle, heads of departments are required to provide her with a report. In addition, department heads use lesson plan logs to track the progress of teachers in delivering the curriculum, and there is corporate planning of goals for each department.

Richards said that the NCEL programme was an eye-opener.

"The things that we learned, especially accountability, helped us to formulate a system where each middle manager and teacher becomes accountable, which will ultimately lead to improvement in performance," Richards stated.

Other members of the teaching staff are involved in professional development initiatives organised at the school or education ministry level, including National Standard Curriculum training because Buff Bay High was selected as a pilot school.

"The school has adopted a drive with 'excellence is our mantra' being the theme," Richards disclosed. "There are walls that are painted with murals of excellence throughout the school not only to bolster aesthetics, but to create a permanent aura and culture of excellence in the school - excellence in academics, in sports, in the performing arts, and in industrial education."

The school has introduced several measures, including the deployment of roaming security guards, which has resulted in a significant decline in truancy by students and improved safety and security on the compound. Attendance is 80 per cent, with a significant drop on Fridays.

Notwithstanding, this September, the school has five class sizes of Grade Six Achievement Test-placed students - roughly 200 up from the regular intake of 120 students.

"Apparently, more students are selecting Buff Bay High as the school of choice," the principal remarked.