JIS News

Determined to find the winning formula to offer students a chance at being successful after they leave school, Cumberland High School in Portmore has been rewriting and innovating the traditional textbook curriculum, a juggling act that has been producing gradual change over the last three years.
After opening its doors six years ago to kids who were predominantly failing or had dropped out of the school system, Cumberland presented a big challenge for its administrators.
Today, the school has turned the curve, having found a way to empower children with challenges, ranging from emotional trauma to learning disabilities, with a renewed sense of direction and hope.
Driving this transformation are several programmes, including a sound guidance and counselling programme, and clubs and societies, that are tapping into the strengths of students and using these strengths to fight the challenges.
The school’s Guidance Counsellors, Barbara James and Valentine Hutchinson, tell JIS News about the students attending the institution and how various programmes are being used to boost self-worth, provide some degree of stability and offer choices for survival after high school.
Most of the students are from St. Catherine and a small number from Kingston and St. Andrew, informs Mrs. James. “The communities in which a significant number of these children reside are economically and socially depressed. There are times when they’ll have outbreaks of violence in those communities. These children are often traumatized. We’ll find out that they’ll come to us being traumatized and come with different issues. There are often family disputes and other events in these communities that often affect these children. They hardly have money to meet some of their daily needs – the bus fare, the lunch money, books – and often we have to be providing for them,” she says. During these outbreaks of violence, “some are unable to attend school,” Mr. Hutchinson tells JIS News.
The school has not remained unscathed. “Some tend to adapt the behaviour they see in their communities, and actually take it into the school community. As a result, there is a great demand for conflict resolution, or management of their anger .That’s one of the major issues that actually affects their education as well,” he says.
Counsellors and educators have a battle on their hands dealing with the repercussions of the high degree of instability fostered by unmet social needs and poor family support that dominate the daily experiences of many children attending the institution.
“Probably that is one of the things that is affecting our students.because the social needs are not being met, the basic needs – security, food, somewhere to live – because oftentimes the home environment itself is not comfortable, is not even stable, as sometimes children are moved from relative to relative, and it really affects them; and so when they come to us, oftentimes they are really angry – they’re really not prepared to settle down and to learn,” Mrs. James tells JIS News.
The absence of parents from the homes has also left many students feeling rejected and angry, and contributes to their poor academic performance in school, the counsellors explain. Many of these parents are either overseas working, or in prison overseas.
Many live with grandparents, which creates generation gap-related problems. With family life the way it is for so many, students at the institution are often demotivated to learn.
“It takes much to motivate and get them to realize that they really have worth and they can achieve just as much as anybody else,” Mrs. James says.
Although the school remains a feeder for a large percentage of primary school students who obtain low Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) passes, the students have made academic progress in the last three years, with a gradual increase in the CXC pass rate.
The counsellors, who have each spent an average of five years in the school, have been counteracting the problems of Cumberland’s children one intervention at a time, breaking the cycle of violent behaviour and general malaise through effective intervention and support. The school’s progress, they say, cannot be measured by comparing Cumberland to other traditional high schools, but by how they have changed the lives and future of the society’s most at-risk children, transforming them into children with confidence who can graduate and go on to college after five years. “Moving children from Grade Seven who are not able to read, to be able to pass a subject, that is an accomplishment,” Mrs. James tells JIS News.
There has also been a marked reduction in drug use on the school compound and significant drop in pregnancy among the girls. “The whole thing of pregnancy was really high,” Mrs. James asserts. “We started out with about 10 per year; now we might be looking at four, maximum five in the last two years, so that has changed,” she adds.
This did not happen overnight. Through a vigorous and targeted sex education programme, driven by an active peer counselling programme at the school, students are being facilitated to learn more about sex and their sexuality. Through the peer counselling programme, many cases have come to the guidance counsellors. Each school year, a total of 15 students from grades seven to 11 are selected by their classmates, trained and commissioned to identify and tackle issues affecting their peers. Peer counsellors can provide information, “but when they meet upon issues they cannot handle, they refer them to us,” clarifies Mrs. James.
“Sometimes students may not want us adults to know about (a problem), so we work though the peer counsellor, give them information on how to deal with it, and they directly go and work with their peers,” she notes.
Citing the success of the programme, she informs that one of the school’s recent graduates and former Head Boy, Theodore Williams now plays a national role on the National Committee of Peer Educators. Theodore is presently engaged by the National Youth Service (NYS).
Using fora such as the ‘lunchtime corner intervention’, peer counsellors look for students ‘hanging out’ in various corners of the school and try to educate them. They distribute handouts, depending on the focus, which could be sexually transmitted infections or another topic. They also invite peers to join discussions addressing issues affecting teenagers. These are sometimes attended by guest presenters.
Mrs. James attributes the notable reduction of pregnancy at the school to the successful influence of the Peer Counselling Programme. “We try to look at gender roles; we look at getting them comfortable with their sexuality, with themselves as a person, helping them to understand. Because one of the things I found out is that some of the children feel that you are somebody if you have a boyfriend; and when we get them comfortable with themselves and understand that you are worth more than just the fact that you can get intimately involved with somebody, then we find out that they are trying to see themselves in a better way. Now they are able to focus a little more on building the person. That is helping and also the fact that we work with other agencies like the Family Planning Board, Hope Worldwide, and the Women’s Centre Foundaton of Jamaica,” informs Mrs. James.
In their new roles as leaders and change makers, the students in the programme “are enjoying their responsibilities,” she says. So gradually, with the implementation of these and other programmes, such as Boys’ Day and Girls’ Day, and Youth at the Crossroads, there is evidence that behaviours are being modified. “I find out that there were some boys who became very conscious and became more responsible after Boys’ Day 2006,” Mrs. James adds, noting the boys “exceptional behaviour” on the day, which was held under the theme, ‘A real man has a vision’.
Boys’ Day, now in its second year, was held at the school earlier this month and addressed issues such as gender roles, sexuality, anger management, and male hygiene. Included also was a panel discussion in which specially invited female students gave feedback on what they look for in men.
In another successful intervention, this time to discourage the pervasive issue of skin-bleaching among students, Mr. Hutchinson tells JIS News that a group of students who were taken to a skin-bleaching seminar put on by the Ministry of Health earlier this year, returned and launched a campaign among their peers at Cumberland targeting those who were bleaching. He reports a “70 to 80 per cent success” rate with the campaign to date, based on an informal survey conducted recently.
Mrs. James highlights the supportive parenting role her department and the school play in monitoring 120 needy students and their parents who have been granted financial reprieve through the Government’s PATH programme. The school funds a lunch programme for 30 PATH beneficiaries who are provided with lunch two days per week from the school’s canteen or tuck-shop.
“In deciding on these students, parents are interviewed to ensure genuine cases. Referrals also come from form teachers and classmates of the needy children; parents also make requests, as well as persons from the community who have observed poor living conditions of children and asked the school to help,” Mrs. James says, adding that the Guidance Counselling department sells ice-cream to students daily to raise its own funds.
Assistance is also provided for uniforms, bags, books and bus fare, but these tasks by no means exhaust the work that the counselling duo have to do. “Most times we have to actually go out there and find the parent. We make phone calls, invite them in, tell them don’t give up, there’s a chance,” Mrs. James notes.
In an effort to provide these embattled students with a semblance of family stability, the guidance counsellors say they have created Family Day, when parents are invited in for a day to bond with their children, as well as a parenting support group.
“On Family Day, each child was asked to report to school with at least one parent, and we had some of the major agencies like the health care providers, Blue Cross, National Housing Trust, financial institutions, institutions that we think the family needs to interface with, and so we had those persons here,” she informs.
The children whose parents turned up were the ones to benefit most from this family empowerment initiative, Mrs. James states. “Those children whose parents came out, it meant something to them. Because the fact that those parents took time out from their jobs or whatever it is they have to do and spend the entire day with them, it told those children that they were important. And I found out that those students who came without parents really felt as if they were left out, as if they were nobody, as if nobody cared about them, because nobody took the time out to be here for them. So I know it made a difference,” she says.
The focus of the school’s counselling programme has shifted over time in tandem with the transformation in the student population. “Things have changed, yes, but there are still challenges,” Mr. Hutchinson acknowledges.
“At this point in time, rather than just looking at the things that are happening, we can be proactive to deal with issues that we expect or to actually get students prepared for life, career and other things, rather than everyday addressing the problems, and the fights. We are now able to make more long-term planning, rather than just planning intervention strategies for every day,” he notes. Joining with teachers and administrators, the school is constantly devising new ways to reinforce learning.
Resident classes, modelling the primary school classroom, have been implemented to bring students reading levels, which teachers tell JIS News, start from as low as pre-primer (basic school level) up to the Grade Six level. A tour of the property reveals resource rooms dedicated to various academic disciplines, such as Mathematics, Language Arts, and Humanities. Fully equipped Computer and Reading Laboratories are in place as are the Home Economics and Food and Nutrition, Welding, and Visual Arts practical rooms. Students are exposed to a wide range of subject areas at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level, including Theatre Arts, Music, Spanish, and Information Technology.
This year, the school will be launching a programme, in collaboration with HEART Trust/National Council on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (NCTVET), that will make students workplace-ready to some degree, after two years, and advance them towards achieving HEART Trust/NTA certification.
The school has established a partnership with several HEART institutions to teach their skill competencies at Cumberland High. They will work in tandem with the Portmore HEART Academy on the Woodwork, Welding, and Electrical programmes; with National Engineering Institute in Machine Shop; and Boys’ Town, with Foods. “We are now in discussion with Stony Hill HEART because we intend to bring in general office administration programme,” Mr. Hutchinson explains.
The benefit of such a programme is to provide career opportunities to students who could, by just passing one competency unit such as, in cashiering, be employable after leaving high school.
“Based on the level of the students here, it would be far way better, because you may have about 21 units in a programme and therefore the student will be tested at different times in different units, so upon completion, it is not that the student will necessarily have completed all 21 competencies and be given the Level One certification, but at least they may have eight or nine competencies. So upon leaving, they could go to any HEART institution and pick up the other competencies to get their full certification,” he tells JIS News. In its role as a resource partner, HEART will provide curriculum guidelines and monitor standards. The programme will be fully integrated into classroom instruction. Assessment begins in Grades 10 and 11.
“Because at the end of the day, what we really want is to make our students useful citizens, so whatever it takes to get them to that point, that is where the real drive goes,” Mrs. Hutchinson says.
According to the counsellors, the new NCTVET Programme has begun in some areas. Students doing Food Preparation has been tested in cake baking. “Whereby in a regular HEART Programme, if you’re full time, it could take 10 months, we are trying to get it done over two years,” Mr. Hutchinson explains.
Cumberland is also one of two schools in the island that have been selected to pilot a test programme run by another unit of HEART – the Professional Guidance Information Services (PROGIS). The Career Development Initiative Pilot Project (CADIP), as it is called, started its piloting phase last year with the Grade Seven batch. These students are now in Grade Eight. Mr. Hutchinson explains the programme’s aims: “A particular class is being looked at to see how and what level it (career) would influence learning,” he says.
Mr. Hutchinson says that a national policy will be developed to make career development a major part of high schools. The findings from the experiences of Cumberland High and Edwin Allen High, the other school involved in the test run, will guide the process.
Select teachers at the school have been exposed to formal training in the area, and are required to integrate career objectives into lesson plans. “They are thinking that while they are learning, students should be able to apply the knowledge and see where it really satisfies work. You shouldn’t just learn something in isolation and can’t see its application,” he explains. In the meantime, the emphasis on providing students with career choices has doubled in the last three years. “We do have a career programme. It is not as active throughout the grades as we would like it to be, but it is active through Grades Nine to 11,” Mr. Hutchinson notes.
“We take the opportunity to involve the institution in as many programmes as possible that exist. We are a participant in the NYS Success Programme for the last two years, where we dealt with some conflict management,” he says.
An annual career expo is held at the school for Grade 11 students before they go on Work Experience between March and April. “We also involve them as much as possible in institutional career expo and career fairs that are held outside, and field trips. For the Grade Nine in particular, just before they select their course options for Grade 10, we have a series of career development seminars, field trips, presentations and a display in the library, which educate them on how to choose their careers,” Mr. Hutchinson points out.
Of Cumberland’s future, an upbeat Mr. Hutchinson tells JIS News that the institution will move forward. “I think Cumberland will move, because whereby the counselling department is looking at programmes for students, we are also looking at development of teachers through workshops, seminars, staff development.having something to expose them somewhat, so that they can understand and get themselves more equipped to better meet the challenges of Cumberland. So we’ve been working as a team,” he tells JIS News.

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