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Darien Henry | I’m no ‘backra massa’ - Transformation taking off at Cumberland High

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2019 | 12:00 AM
UNICEF quality education specialist Dr Rebecca Tortello Greenland (second left) talks with (from left) Darien Henry, principal of Cumberland High; then Education Minister Ruel Reid and and vice-principal of academic and student progress, Diana Goslin-Green. Occasion was UNICEF’s observance of the World’s Largest Lesson at Cumberland High School in Portmore, St Catherine, on September 19, 2017.

I wish to respond to a story that featured Cumberland High School on Friday, June 21, 2019, titled ‘School fight: Cumberland principal, staff at loggerheads over ‘backra massa’ leadership’.

It is necessary to provide clarity and further understanding to the school’s context that was never afforded in the cloak of anonymity. We at Cumberland High are working feverishly to transform our school into a TVET centre of excellence that focuses on literacy and numeracy instruction and preparing and certifying our students with new and emerging skills that ready them for a dynamic economic space.

Your newspaper prides itself as an unrepentant advocate for strong accountability systems in the schools that will impact learners and, ultimately, provide returns on the more than $80 billion of taxpayer funds expended on the sector annually. The most recent NEI report which was provided to your reporter but was never factored to bring a balanced context to the story rated the school’s leadership as ‘satisfactory’.

According to the NEI (2018): “The current leadership of the school has brought a growing sense of hope and optimism to the school community. Largely, the senior management team (SMT) has been a cohesive force in the transformational processes at the school, reflecting the cooperation and motivation necessary to ensure that the goals are achieved.

“These goals are strategically derived to move the school towards becoming a technical and vocational education and training (TVET) centre of excellence; a vision widely communicated and owned by major stakeholder groups. In order to achieve this, the roles of senior leaders have been clarified and streamlined to ensure efficiency and productivity, to include a reshuffling of responsibilities among middle managers, the drafting of policies to guide processes and procedures, establishment of accountability systems for all tiers of the school’s leadership and tenacious strategies to remedy the state of the school’s finances.”

It is precisely our enhanced accountability systems that may have likely stoked discomfort among some team members, which has been unfortunately confused or mischaracterised as ‘backra massa leadership’.

At Cumberland High, all staff members across the board are held accountable. School based leadership insists on punctual arrival for school and for classes and account for unexplained absences as provisioned in the Code of Regulations. Persistent late arrivals to school are tracked each week and feedback is given to all staff in writing reminding them of their responsibility for duty of care to the children under our supervision.

We insist that all teachers plan their lessons effectively with student-centred methodologies to ensure that all our pupils are learning. We track lesson plan submissions through monthly reports provided by heads of department who hold subject teachers accountable.

School-based leadership conducts sustained and purposeful walk-throughs and consistent lesson observations each day to ensure that all resources are impacting teaching and learning and that educational value is being added and that student achievement and discipline are consistently realised.

This enhanced leadership has caused some amount of uneasiness even though school-based leadership fosters a school ethos that is professional and respectful. Uneasiness and discomfort are features of school transformation, but the focus on our students, we believe, is what will make our school an effective institution in which visionary leadership communicates high expectations for staff and students.


The National Education Inspectorate rated teaching and learning and student achievement as unsatisfactory, and performance in English language and mathematics in need of immediate support. One of the first things that was done under my principalship is the promulgation of an assessment policy that focuses on many of our struggling students realise their learning potential. All school-based systems with the input of every stakeholder have been impacted to address the NEI findings.

As a school, we are being remissioned to focus on student progress and achievement through data-driven instructional leadership that is now impacting internal student performances as well as CSEC, NCTVET and City & Guilds performances. In the June 2018 exams, we saw a near 50 per cent increase in school performance over the previous three years combined. Here are a few standout results: agricultural science, 100 per cent; information technology, 100 per cent; theatre arts, 89 per cent; visual arts, 87 per cent; English 70 per cent.

Additionally, the following were established or introduced during my tenure as principal thus far: Disciplinary Committee, Budget Committee, a vastly revamped timetable that focuses on increased sessions for literacy and numeracy instruction, redeployment of teachers, hiring of specialists in numeracy and literacy, new coursework requirements, including mandatory six-week tests that are tracked closely to inform decision-making, the mandatory upload of student performance data, a new code of conduct for staff and students, revamp awards scheme that now includes Principal’s Award for Academic Excellence, Wall of Excellence, TVET Student of the year, new School Improvement Plan that focuses on building out a state-of-the-art sixth-form programme that focuses of digital integration, artificial intelligence, a new student management and registration system, streamlining the supervision of teachers with significantly reduced absences from work, revamped administrative offices which now feels and looks like the business offices of the school.

The school recently emerged victorious in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information Regional Mathematics Competition, copping additional awards for most creative pieces. Some of my grade nine students told me while I stood at the main gate to greet them in the mornings that they “feel proud to be a part of Cumberland because of what the school is doing for them and they like to see their principal visit classes and check on their work”.

Cumberland High School has been making significant strides over the last two years, especially in student discipline and conduct, and the momentum is continuing to lift the image of the school. This is purpose-driven and visionary leadership, not ‘backra massa’ leadership, as your story has unfortunately mischaracterised about a promising school with a committed staff and awesome students.

Darien G. Henry is principal of Cumberland High School. Email feedback to