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Absenteeism project sees improved attendance

Published:Friday | March 26, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Philip Hamilton, Gleaner Writer

Eleven-year old Nashane Simmonds of Fairfield Primary School, nestled in the cool Blue Mountains, has plenty of reasons to smile these days.

Nashane, who is this year sitting the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), is one of several students from the community of Bangor Ridge, Portland, benefiting from the school's breakfast programme which assists needy students from the community.

Prior to the start of the programme, Nashane, who lives with his unemployed father Ludlow Simmonds, only attended school occasionally, as it meant having to walk long distances without any breakfast.

Road conditions in the poor farming community where they live are extremely bad, and some parents can barely afford to purchase shoes and uniforms to send their children to school, much less provide money for lunch.

During an 18-month study conducted in 2008 by the University of the West Indies' School of Education, Fairfield Primary was identified as one of 100 primary schools with poor student performances due to high absenteeism levels.

Problem addressed

Patrick Hartley, Fairfield's principal, says the problem was addressed following a meeting with Professor Zellyne Jennings-Craig, director of the School of Education.

Jennings-Craig and her research team, which identified the root causes responsible for absenteeism in those areas where the schools were located, established workshops for the schools so they could mobilise communities in identifying solutions to the problem.

"Our school was offered a grant if it could develop a sustainable project that was ongoing," said Hartley.

"We formed a committee with members of the community and looked at poultry rearing and a vegetable garden. We were given a limited amount of funds, which were sent to the hardware for materials to build the chicken coop."

Hartley says he received overwhelming support from the community, which rallied together to build the coop and purchase chickens, in addition to donating seeds for the school's vegetable garden.

He said the school has hired a cook to provide breakfasts free of charge to needy students through the breakfast programme, which was established from the sale of chickens to shops and jerk chicken vendors.

"On the mornings when breakfast is served, teachers report that children who used to be dull and drowsy are now bright and willing to participate in classes," said Hartley.

99 per cent attendance

He also reports that attendance at Fairfield, which previously amounted to 60 or 70 per cent, now stands at 99 per cent.

He says there has been significant improvement in the school's Grade Four Literacy Test results, and also among those students preparing for GSAT examinations.

Ludlow Simmonds, Nashane's father, agrees.

He says he has seen a significant improvement in his son's grades since the introduction of the breakfast programme, in addition to him being more focused and alert in class.

'We live some distance away and some mornings we don't have any breakfast before he leaves for school," said Simmonds.

"It's tough for him to come back home for lunch. What's going is a really good thing and I wouldn't mind if it were extended to other communities."

For Nashane, the programme could not have been introduced at a better time.

"It was kind of difficult as I would reach school late as some mornings there was no breakfast," he says. "I'm really thankful for it."

Attendance at Fairfield, which previously amounted to 60 or 70 per cent, now stands at 99 per cent.