Centres of Excellence Helping Students Meet the Grade

The Centre of Excellence programme is achieving success in improving the performance of students in six upgraded high schools, many of whom were functioning below grade level.

University of the West Indies (UWI) Lecturer and consultant to the programme, Dr. Joan Ernandez, says that while the targeted institutions are reporting different results, they are moving in the right direction.

 “We are on track with improved grades. We have more children getting ones and twos, we are seeing an increase in the number of grade threes because we have failing students coming over into threes now,” she tells JIS News.

“Quality is moving, the number of passes are moving and we are achieving the target of getting far more children to sit the exams and to pass them and getting better grades,” she adds.

The programme, funded through a $100-million facility provided by the Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS) and The Victoria Mutual Building Society (VMBS) was set up in 2008 to improve outcomes in six rural high schools, where students were found to be reading below grade levels.

It is in support of the Ministry of Education’s efforts to provide quality educationin rural communities to support social transformation, by injecting much needed technical and financial resources to improve student achievement, teacher quality, and organisational effectiveness.

The targeted schools are Mile Gully High and Porus High in Manchester; Seaforth High in St. Thomas; McGrath High in St. Catherine; Godfrey Stewart High in Westmoreland; and Green Pond High in St. James.

Ms. Ernandez says that these schools often receive Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) students, who score anywhere between 20 per cent to 50 per cent on the Language Arts test. “So, it means that they have been getting, over the years, a number of students, who cannot read and write; they are not literate. What we find is that students would come in and are unable to access the grade seven curriculum because their reading and writing skills are very poor,” she notes.

Through the Centre of Excellence Programme the aim is to transform these schools into model institutions for teaching and learning, which can be replicated across the education system.

Focus is placed onteaching and learning support, diagnostic testing, remedial education, student exchange (twinning project schools with schools in the Diaspora), student leadership, mentorship, co-curricular activities and after-school programmes, and engaging the local community.

School plants are also refurbished and resources are injected to improve science and computer laboratories and resource centres.

Teacher training is a major component of the programme, with teachers benefiting from instruction in student-centered learning approaches, instructional technology and other computer-related skills, classroom and behaviour management, and the use of management information systems. Their skills in areas such as Mathematics, English Language, Science and Information Technology are also upgraded.

“The centres encourage the teachers to come out of their comfort zone, to move away from the chalk and talk.  They provide the teachers with suggestions and resources that can be use to make the classroom more student-friendly, hence conducive to learning,” Dr. Ernandez tells JIS News.

Dr. Ernandez explains that an intervention was worked out for each school based on a situation analysis conducted.  “We do not have a common intervention for all schools. What we do is look at the situation as it exists in each school and deal with it on its own merit,” she points out.

She explains that at McGrath High for example, “we would look at their intake from GSAT, we would look at their current situation with grades eight, nine, 10 and so on.  We also look at their trends in CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) performance, staffing, staff qualification; is there a reading specialist, is there a literacy resource room.  We then meet with heads of departments to develop school improvement plans and literacy improvement plans that are tailored to the needs of the school.”

She says that the objective is to get all staff members on board “to have a vision for the school in terms of not just the CSEC passes but getting every single child at least to minimum literacy before they graduate.”                                                                       

According to Melissa Gordon, Head of the Language Department at the Porus High School, the programme has had a positive impact on the teaching and learning experience at the school.

“The programme is data driven, so it forces us as teachers to be more accountable to for the overall performance of our students.  The collection and analysis of data have to be done on a regular basis and this helps us to better plan for the diversity within the classrooms,” Ms. Gordon says.     

At Porus High School, at the beginning of each year all students entering are administered a reading test using the Mico Diagnostic Reading Assessment. This allows a better feedback on their performance in reading.  Intervention programmes are then structured around the students’ needs.

“Students become active participants in their learning, using reports to track their own progress and set personal targets,” Ms. Gordon states.                                                     

Kareem McLeod, Head of the Language Department at the McGrath High, tells JIS News that the programme emphasises the use of graphs to compare students’ performance. “Literally seeing the students’ performance on paper was quite shocking but it helps.                  

She says that one strategy the school uses is to group students according to their ability levels, which allows them to learn from each other.

The programme will conclude at the end of the 2012/2013 academic year.