The attention on the 40 scholarships won by Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu School and on them winning the president’s medal overlooked the mind-boggling consistent performance of the St Augustine Girls’ High School that copped 28 open scholarships, which is 13 more than their closest rivals.
The Greater St Augustine area, defined as from St Joseph to Trincity, through seven schools accounts for 80 such scholarships or 45% of the national total. This concentrated achievement cries out for examination as a means of lifting the national performance.
The area is an amalgam of middle- and upper-income neighbourhoods with parents who have higher education and considerable assets. These parents can afford to volunteer at the schools since they have more time available because either they have flexible work arrangements, or in the case of some mothers, do not work.
Through this involvement, they inevitably bond with the teachers and school administrators and can discuss current schooling problems and future plans for their adolescents. Family cohesion increases the ability to monitor their children, and they are aided in this task by the parental social networks developed within the school and work contexts.
These networks provide tacit knowledge that enables the nurturing of cognitive, social and emotional skills in the students, and which facilitate them absorbing more at school. As the adult son of a friend recently put it in an email to me:
“As a child in Camden, I thought all black men were doctors because all of my father’s (a radiologist who had emigrated to this country from Trinidad to attend college) friends were doctors (one even drove a Maserati!). I thought it quite normal for people to spend their free time studying medical books like my mother who passed the medical boards in internal medicine in the first time in the early 1960s.”
The Greater St Augustine community, in which they live, has low crime rates and, therefore, is a low-stress environment and is equipped with a range of learning opportunities, not limited to academics. The parents have higher expectations for their children and their networks support academic and life goals.
The link between the parents, their networks and the school administration act as a brake on potential behavioural problems. The reduction of the potential for aggression and inattention increases potentially useful social skills, which are positively correlated with achievement.
They inculcate in their children a positive growth mindset. The children believe that they can do whatever they put their minds to. They have a lower fear of failure and, therefore, set higher learning goals.
This dominant theory that ‘if we work hard, we will achieve’ is undermined for the poor who are disadvantaged by the absence of the enabling factors noted earlier. The children of poorer neighbourhoods seldom are encouraged to develop evidence of personal competence and have fewer positive role models. Their parents’ networks are feeble and limited. Time, a scarce resource due to work hours, and competing demands on their available cash limit the potential school involvement for these parents.
The cost of homes in the high-performing areas precludes residency by the poorer families thus creating higher travel expenses for strained budgets as well as robbing the children of the chance of seeing positive role models. The emphasis on zoning creates another structural barrier for poor students with ability. Even when a poor child gets into one of the high-performing schools, the stress levels are high because that child does not have the money and other resources to be a true peer and may lack the tacit knowledge needed for quick success.
If the child does not get into these schools because of zoning, she will meet the least experienced teachers and other children who would be less motivated to participate consistently in schoolwork. Of course, there are dedicated teachers who work assiduously in these neighbourhoods, but they are not the norm.
School performance is driven by the quality of the leadership, the principal and the board. This is and has been demonstrated in the Catholic, the Presbyterian and now the Hindu schools. The tragedy of many government schools is that tenure, and not commitment to the academic cause, determines who is the principal since the boards are weak.
It is the principal or the school administrators who dictate the classroom practices. The damage that can be done by a poorly performing principal can last for decades. Frequently, there is no tangible community support for government schools for various reasons.
High academic achievement is self-perpetuating, success attracts the best teachers and students. This is the nature of what we call ‘prestige’ schools. But tradition can be created, if there is a clear vision focused on student learning and proper organisation of the curriculum, and if the school is supported by the host community.
Wired868 recently spoke to the visceral support of the Moruga community in the recent school football competitions. This type of support tells the students that they are not alone. The same applies in the academic sphere. When the Old Boys/Girls Association turns up, they add to the feeling of pride. When the businesses and associations in the community adopt the school and donate, there is a bounce in the steps of the students.
Students also know that undisciplined behaviour outside of the school premises will be reported. The continuing success of Bishop Anstey & Trinity College East, a relatively new school, which got 10 open scholarships this year is an example of how this works.
Children from wealthier families have many chances at success, poor children often have only one, the educational route. How we treat the poor children among us tells us who we are.