Neville Graham, Gleaner Writer
Holy Trinity High School in Kingston has an uphill task to bring the below-par students who enter its gates to the level where they should be when they leave. Teachers at the secondary school have had to be teaching lower-level primary school work because some of the students entering its grade seven are "not smarter than a seven-year-old".
"These are worlds apart but we really have to tackle it head-on," said the school's principal, Sadpha Bennett, in reference to the strategy of teaching primary-school English at secondary-school level.
But that is the only option available to the teachers at this school, which was one of those labelled as "failing" by then education minister, former Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
About a quarter of the children who entered grade seven at Holy Trinity High School last September were reading at the grade-three level.
This year, the situation seems even worse.
After testing half of the 350 students who will start school tomorrow, 32 were found to be reading below the grade-two level.
This statistic is part of the reality facing the team of teachers and administrators as they try to rescue the school from the historic shackle of underperformance.
"Our intake last year was just about 350 students. Of that number we called in about 180 who had an average GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test) mark of 40 per cent and lower.
"We administered a test and the results told us we had work to do ... a lot of work. About 78 were reading below the grade-three level!" said Bennett.
"Again this year, the intake was about 350 for GSAT and we took in another 50 from GNAT (Grade Nine Achievement Test). We looked at the GSAT scores and about 120 of the students placed at this school scored 40 per cent and below.
"Eighty-one of this number turned up for testing and already (we have found that) 32 of them are reading at grade-two level and below," added Bennett.
"We will have to capture the rest when they come in for September, but it's not looking good," was the frank admission when The Sunday Gleaner spoke with Bennett in August.
The scenario seems to beg for remediation, but Bennett is not entirely enthusiastic about that route alone.
"Remediation is expensive, inefficient and uncertain," he argued while giving his approval to identifying and focusing on the students with potential.
"We have to come up with strategies and innovations to take account of the student profile," Bennett said.
"So there is remediation and then we try to identify those students with good potential and channel our efforts," said Bennett.
The task of the teachers at Holy Trinity High is made more difficult by the lack of parental involvement.
As it is, many of the parents seem indifferent to the lack of progress of their children in the school.
"We sent out letters to all of the parents for the below-par students we tested and do you know how many turned up? One!" principal Sadpha Bennett lamented.
"What we find is that those students who do well often have good parental support."
But even in the cases where the parents are involved, Bennett is convinced that there is a structural problem affecting the performance of his students.
"The shift system must go!" he said with the slightest hint of a rant.
"We have two shifts, 7 a.m. to 12 noon and 12 noon to 5 p.m. We squeeze in 40 periods per week, that's 20 hours. Take out 21/2 hours per week for break and 21/2 hours for form time. That leaves us with 15 hours contact time. What kind of teaching can take place?" he asked.
To surmount that challenge, Holy Trinity has put in a third shift that is called an extended day. This runs from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and caters to the grade-11 and some grade-10 students who are pursuing CSEC or vocational subjects.