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Beacon on Bowden Hill - Primary school a symbol of success two years after closure

Published:Saturday | December 2, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Audrey Tulloch-Lorne, acting principal at the Bowden Hill Primary and Infant School in St Andrew, receives a big hug from students during break time at the institution last week.
Volunteer teacher Paula Beecher engages students in a lesson.
Students at Bowden Hill Primary and Infant School.
The entrance to the school.
Two students at the school.

More than two years ago, Bowden Hill Primary and Infant School in Stony Hill, St Andrew, was scrapped and ordered closed by the Ministry of Education because it was considered non-viable. But, at the insistence of residents, it was reopened and is now being dubbed a beacon on the hill.

The school was among 18 that were closed by the Government in July 2015 because there were only 18 students enrolled at the institution at the time. But, after learning that the residents in the community decided to continue the school as a private institution at a nearby church, then Education Minister Ronald Thwaites had a change of heart and decided he would reopen the institution if they could improve enrolment figures.

Today, the school has 85 students enrolled, as parents took the decision to pull their children from other schools, despite the fact that the treacherous road network leading to the institution makes travelling unbearable.

"The road is our problem why we don't have more students, but it will come, just as how these new ones overlooked the road and came because they see that we get good results because we have small classes," said interim principal at the school, Audrey Tulloch-Lorne.

Tulloch-Lorne has been an educator for more than 30 years and was one of the individuals who volunteered to teach at the school when the community came together and insisted that they didn't want to see the doors of the institution closed. Although she had been enjoying a break from the classroom, she was moved by the efforts of the community's benevolent society.

School operated privately

After the school was shut down, it operated privately at the nearby Bowden Hill Work and Worship Centre Church of God of Prophecy. The benevolent society pooled resources and made tables, got chairs and other items for the school. To encourage parents to send their children to the institution, they also provided lunch and snacks to the students at no cost.

Several persons came out of retirement to offer assistance. Among the volunteers were two teachers, two cooks, an office attendant, and a watchman, who ensured that the children were nurtured, fed and secure. Members from the church gathered at the pastor's house from as early as six o'clock in the morning to prepare lunch and snacks.

The community's effort paid off as in January 2016, the institution regained its status as a public school.

"They carried the torch saying, 'If you close the school, then you have killed the community', so they were at the front of that fight," said Tulloch-Lorne of the benevolent society.

"At the end of the day, we all spoke with one voice and we see the vision of making this school the beacon on the hill, because we are literally on top of the hill," she said.

... Starting from scratch

The Bowden Hill Primary School has experienced a rebirth as its history was scrapped after the decision was made to close it two years ago.

"There are no records because the ministry has gutted the place, furniture, everything, even the pictures of the heroes. If you notice, we don't have a flag; we don't have a picture of the minister of education. They gutted everything, so we have to start from scratch," Audrey Tulloch-Lorne, the interim principal, told The Sunday Gleaner.

"It's a new school," she beamed.

Fortunately, a member of the community had saved one of the school's attendance registers and it shows that the institution was started in 1894.

Tulloch-Lorne said the focus now is on trying to recruit more students and developing the institution further.

"These things don't happen overnight, so in the next five years, we will be bursting at the seams, and outside of academics, we have been very visible," she said, as she listed a number of competitions the institution has entered in recent times.

Multipurpose area being built

The benevolent society and the church are currently in the process of building a multipurpose area for the students, and the Ministry of Education has pledged to build a retaining wall. The ministry has also committed to refurbishing the principal's cottage, which currently houses three classrooms, and the CHASE Fund will be creating a play area for the infants. In addition to this, the Universal Service Fund has already started work to convert the school's library into a community access point centre.

"This will be a hotspot so that you can get Internet service and phones will ring readily," explained Tulloch-Lorne.

The school currently has four teachers in addition to Tulloch-Lorne, and she said she was pleased that students at the institution did extremely well at last year's sitting of the Grade Six Achievement Test.

Currently, 11 students are being prepared by volunteer teacher Paula Beecher to sit the national exam next year.

"The children I have been working with are exceptional and they are open to new things," Beecher said.

Beecher travels from Spanish Town each morning to get to the hilly community, and continues to commit herself to her students despite the fact that she is yet to start receiving a salary from the ministry. She applied to the school for a job after seeing an advertisement because she has not been able to find teaching employment since graduating from the St Joseph's Teachers' College in 2012.

"I heard that there was an opening here, but eventually it became all about volunteering," said Beecher, who receives a stipend from the school.

"We give her something, but she

doesn't collect a salary from the ministry. I have been trying and trying to get the ministry to see the wisdom thereof, but until then, she is doing what she is doing," said Tulloch-Lorne.

Although the ministry has also advertised for a principal and is currently fielding candidates, Tulloch-Lorne has huge plans for the institution. She hopes that students at the institution will start learning Mandarin (the Chinese language) as of next year and is already forging links to make this possible.