St Michael's Primary enjoying new lease on life
Sitting beside the intimidating Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre and surrounded by a number of volatile communities, the central Kingston-based St Michael's Primary School has for years been stigmatised as a fading institution.
But teachers at the school say things are looking up and they are preparing for brighter days.
The institution had been under-populated for decades, barely keeping its doors open to fewer than 100 students as gangsters in the neighbouring communities trade bullets.
In the last two years, however, enrolment has taken an uptick, moving from 131 students in 2015 to 212 today.
Principal Juliet Campbell-McPherson is hoping she can get the number up to 350 by next September.
"The numbers have shocked me because I started out here in the 1990s with 98 students, now we are 212 and still counting. We are still getting calls from parents asking if we can take more," Campbell-McPherson told The Sunday Gleaner last Wednesday.
"We are doing a lot of things and we are really seeing a turnaround in this school. The efforts have been working. We hope to bring the number to 350, and we are going to do it," added Campbell-McPherson, a past student of the school.
She listed top passes in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and shaping better adults out of her students as the main priorities of the administration.
Campbell-McPherson said she has started by relocating the school's main entrance to Tower Street from a secluded and uninviting section of the premises.
Even though the illegal guns are still present in the communities around the school and at least six persons have been killed in the area since the start of this year, Campbell-McPherson said students from as far as Old Harbour, St Catherine, have enrolled this year.
"We got children from Spanish Town, Portmore, Duhaney Park and Golden Spring, and their parents are very excited about our programme and want to be a part of it," the principal added as she noted that attendance at Parent-Teacher Association meetings have moved from 20 to roughly 50 per cent in just over two years.
Last week, staff members smiled as they cited the horrible names the school has been called over the years.
They noted that as the gang rivalries grew heated around the neighbouring communities, many residents relocated, taking their children with them, while others opted to send their children to schools outside of the community.
Past student Emile Blagrove, who mans the main gate at the school, told our news team there is no need to avoid the school now.
"Nothing not going on in here in terms of gang war, not here, but you have youth with them differences still, so more time shot will fire. But we try to make the students feel safe. No violence not coming into the schoolyard," said Blagrove, a resident of Parade Gardens.
"The man dem have respect for the teachers dem so we always make the youth dem know that even if shot fire the school can still go on," added Blagrove.
"The youth dem know them one another; them come from the same school and the same area, so we don't let them scare we.
"People used to have it that is a dunce school, but right now no stigma is on my school, my school good now," added Blagrove, as he noted that the school has never been broken into or vandalised.
Sharon Chambers and her daughter, Natalia Whyte, both past students of the school, have been serving cooked lunches to students for more than 20 and 13 years, respectively.
"I am still here because I love children, especially boys, and I want to see a better life for them. I don't want to see them rubbing out them hand middle and drinking," said Chambers.
She told our news team that many of the students come from tough homes and have fathers and other relatives who are locked up inside the neighbouring prison.
"A lot of the youths them in the community and a lot of them in prison right next door want better for their children. Even though they do bad things they don't want their children to do bad things. I hear people who I know do bad things come out and say that," said Chambers.
In the meantime, Camecia Vassell, teacher of the sole grade six class, emphasised a unique teaching style and learning activities as the main ingredient to the school's growing success.
"You must love everybody. You don't put a face to your students. That is the only way they will begin to trust you, and once you gain their trust that is the starting point for their success," said Vassell.