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JIS News

Jamaica is reaping huge dividends from the investment of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the education sector, which amounts to about US$30 million over the last 12 years.
The input of the agency is primarily underpinned by three projects – the New Horizons, Expanding Educational Horizons (EEH), and Caribbean Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training.
Director for the USAID’s Mission in Jamaica Dr. Karen Hilliard, explains to JIS News, that the New Horizons Project, which commenced in 2001, was designed to improve literacy skills among pupils in primary schools, which eventually expanded to incorporate numeracy.
This project gave way to the EEH in 2005, which targeted the “71 worst performing” primary schools island wide. “The objective was to take those schools, and introduce a series of innovations, in terms of classroom practices, school management, the use of education technology and management information systems, all of which are designed to enhance the environment for the teaching of reading and mathematics,” she outlines.
In targeting those “71 worst performing schools,” Dr. Hilliard says the programme sought to bring the pupils in those institutions up to or surpass the national average for literacy and numeracy. She adds that over the past four years, 62 of the 71 institutions have recorded significant improvements.
“The schools that were the worst resourced (were) in the poorest areas… many of them in the inner city. Without changing the environment, by simply changing the ways the students are taught, we have managed to get those students up above the national average for literacy and numeracy,” she boasts, adding that efforts are being made to ensure similar results at the remaining nine schools.
Overall, the programme, which is scheduled to end in September, has reached some 30,000 students since 2005, Dr. Hilliard informs, adding that the progress made with the youngsters, has been underpinned by the training afforded to more than 300 teachers and principals, to effectively execute the provisions.
The USAID Mission Director contends that: “one always hears how difficult it is to teach students from disadvantaged backgrounds, that the students bring a lot of baggage to the classrooms, may come from poor backgrounds and face various socio-economic challenges… sometimes makes it more challenging to work with them.”
She notes however, that working with the students to bring them up to and beyond the national literacy and numeracy average is not impossible, adding that the programme has shown that “every one of those students can learn if the proper approaches are utilised.”
Elaborating on some of the components of the EEH, Dr. Hilliard explains that the use of educational technology entailed providing the institutions with electronic and digital apparatus to augment the teaching process.
“The project provided things like overhead projectors, desktop and laptop computers, digital cameras, and other multi-media devices that make learning more interesting,” she divulges.
The school management aspect, she notes, mainly comprises the use of Jamaica School Administrative System (JSAS) software in the 71 target schools and 200 others, which fall outside of the project.
The software, she explains, is an important management information system tool for teachers, principals, and guidance counsellors, who can use it to monitor the “full range of things that occur in the school,” including keeping track of students’ grades and classroom behaviour.
She informs that recently, a web-enabled version of the software was developed and endorsed by Education Minister Andrew Holness, which will now be adapted as the official management information system for the Ministry island wide. She says that the Ministry had indicated the need to develop software, which would serve as a management tool for the entire sector, as part of the education transformation programme.
“We presented the software to the Education Transformation Team, the Minister, and his advisers, and the Ministry took a decision to adapt (it) as the official (one) for the educational system. We agreed to make some changes to the software to, for example, make it web-enabled, so that it could be used by multiple users at multiple levels of the system, all at one time… all you have to have is Internet access,” she notes.
“We also added certain dimensions, such as… behaviour management…, which is part and parcel of the Ministry’s effort to improve the classroom environment, and inculcate a sense of discipline and order in the schools, so that all students can benefit from the learning environment without behavioural disruptions, so that students can be safe in schools,” Dr. Hilliard informs.
The Mission Director discloses that, currently, the agency is making efforts to ensure that commencement of the rollout of the software island wide takes place before the EEH ends in September.
“We really intend to roll it out beginning now. Over the next couple of years, we hope that we would be able to reach all the schools,” she says. Monitoring is expected to take place under a five-year follow-on programme being designed for USAID projects.
The USAID is also undertaking experimental work in gender sensitivity in the classroom, including training teachers and administrators on how to be more sensitive to the difference in learning patterns between boys and girls.
The Mission Director points out while girls in project countries in Africa and Latin America are disadvantaged and tend to under-perform boys, in Jamaica, the situation is the reverse. “Boys under-perform compared to girls. They tend to fail at a higher rate, they drop out at a higher rate, and then, of course, once they leave the educational system, they have lost the opportunity to acquire the skills that they need to be productive members of society, to get a job, and advance over the course of their lives,” she adds.
“So, it’s very important that we pioneer in this area, and discover techniques and approaches that capture the attention of boys… and keep them engaged as they move through the education system, so that more of them graduate high school, and go on to university,” she points out.
The agency has successfully collaborated with local private sector stakeholders to leverage approximately $2 million in contributions to schools, incorporating a broad range of provisions. These, she informs, include infrastructure upgrade, and the provision of computers and learning material.
“I think that the role of the private sector, here in Jamaica, will continue to be exceedingly important if we are to renovate the educational system, so that it produces the kind of men and women that both the public and private sectors will want to hire; the kind of men and women that will make Jamaica’s economy more competitive in the marketplace,” Dr. Hilliard argues.
Apart from the work that is done in schools, Dr. Hilliard informs that the USAID has also worked with some six non governmental organisations (NGOs) island wide, including Children’s First and the YMCA, to focus on inner city youth, who have dropped out of school and are in need of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as life skills to help them reintegrate into the formal school system, or workforce.
“Through these NGOs, we targetted (young people) from age 10 to 18 years,” she informs, noting that about 96 per cent of the beneficiaries have been successfully reintegrated into the school system, and are studying in mainstream secondary schools.
“Again, that goes to show that regardless of the background that these children come from, they can be reached… motivated, and they can be educated, they can succeed,” she contends.
The USAID’s Mission office in Jamaica also serves as a regional hub for the Caribbean Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training project, which Dr. Hilliard explains focusses exclusively on literacy training. Project countries are Jamaica, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, with services being extended to Anguilla/Barbuda, St. Kitts/Nevis, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands.
“What we are attempting to do is focus on pre-service training in teachers colleges, such as Sam Sharpe Teachers College (in Montego Bay St. James) … to teach reading in a way that will not only make it easy and enjoyable for students, who get it right off the bat, but gives them the techniques that they need to teach reading to children at all levels, even (those) with learning disabilities,” Dr. Hilliard outlines.
She says the initiative has been yielding “remarkable results” across the Caribbean, with significant changes in reading mastery levels among children in Grades one to three, and is having a “major impact” at the policy level, having been adopted as the goal standard for teaching in the region.
“This programme has reached an additional 20,000 people. So… since the early 2000s, you could say that USAID’s programme of assistance in the education sector has reached over 50,000 (in Jamaica and the region as a whole),” she informs.
According to Dr. Hilliard, the USAID’s focus on education is deliberate as it is the foundation underpinning development. She has expressed satisfaction with the results of the agency’s intervention, and the level of collaboration among key stakeholders in the education transformation process, and is optimistic about the sector’s future prospects.
“We feel that, because… the education transformation programme is so well designed… technically sound and… enjoys bi-partisan support … that the prospects for success are very high indeed. We are delighted to have had the opportunity to work with the transformation team, and our other donor partners, to advance this agenda in the coming years,” Dr. Hilliard says, adding that education will be one of three areas of focus for USAID in its five year strategy, which was completed earlier this year.