A renewed approach to the learning environment
Sheena Gayle, Gleaner Writer
THE CHORUS of noise is absent even during recess. Order is seen everywhere, and teachers and students take pride in staying at school for extra hours. This is Belmont Academy in Westmoreland, and it is the future of Jamaica's public-high-school system.
The model high school, opened in 2009, is the first of its kind and offers a renewed approach to what an ideal high-school environment should be like. But what makes such an institution successful?
"Everything here is different from what you would normally see in other high schools. Everything at Belmont is about excellence, and raising the bar of excellence," interim principal, the Reverend Dr Basil Chambers, explained.
"Children are not allowed to get lost in this model of a school system. Every six weeks, we have a student assessment to see where all students are, and what measures need to be put in place to bring them up to par if they are not in line with where they should be," said Chambers.
"Homework is also an integral part of the assessment. In addition, we have two separate academic training days each term where students set their own academic goals and those goals are tracked throughout the rest of the year.
He added proudly: "And I must inform that our 25 to one class-size-per-teacher ratio makes a tremendous difference in the teaching and learning process."
Belmont Academy was originally slated to be just a regular high school during its construction. However, halfway into the construction process, Education Minister Andrew Holness revealed that the school would be a centre for excellence.
Tiers of governance
The institution began with grades seven and nine, but had to be reconfigured to include fourth- and fifth-form students. One major accomplishment the school has received is the first place in Global Water Challenge out of 150 students locally and internationally.
The principal is not the final decision-maker, as the school has four tiers of governance. The executive management team consists of the office of the principal, division of academic services (vice-principal), division of student services, and the business manager (bursar). Teachers are referred to as faculty members, while auxiliary workers are called staff.
Culture of long hours
With school hours running from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. - one hour more than regular school hours - Chambers noted: "We have a culture of long hours at this school and teachers and students know that. We focus on student achievement, teacher quality and organisational effectiveness, and if it takes us a little bit more time out of the day to accomplish our tasks, it is not a problem for us to stay back and get the job done as at the end of the day, we all want to preserve the tradition of excellence."
As part of the Belmont Academy's Refinement Programme, which is focused on developing etiquette, all students eat out of dining crockery with a knife and fork during lunch - something that is almost non-existent in other high schools.
Maintaining such a high standard of excellence can put pressure on the school's purse, but Chambers noted that the international partnerships the institution has managed to forge has aided it to continue in its efforts.
The interim principal said that while several of the promises made by the education ministry in relation to the school have not been forthcoming, the institution continues to soldier on.
'Children are not allowed to get lost in this model of a school system. Every six weeks, we have a student assessment to see where all students are, and what measures need to be put in place to bring them up to par if they are not in line with where they should be.'