A hands on approach to improving schools in Jamaica

A hands on approach to improving schools in Jamaica

Cynthia Hobbs 12 marzo 2015 Comments

Jamaican schools apply eight  “effectiveness” factors to improve students’ performance and behavior.

What is an effective school?  What makes some schools perform better than others?

Jamaica’s Ministry of Education commissioned a School Effectiveness Study through a technical cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank to answer these questions.

The study identified eight factors, in line with international findings, that show that student behavior and performance are closely related. The government took these findings and used them to develop practical hands-on tools to improve the country’s schools, focusing especially on school leadership.

“Historically, principals were promoted on the basis of being good teachers and were not necessarily prepared to be good leaders,” explained Dr. Maurice Smith, Director of the NCEL, Jamaica’s National College for Educational Leadership.

A good teacher is not necessarily a good principal

“Not all good teachers make good principals,” agreed Talbert Weir, principal of Kingston’s Donald Quarrie High School. He noted how some principals stay in their office and focus on administrative work. But to do the job well, you have to be “hands-on,” walking the school grounds, talking to students, observing teachers, engaging parents.

These are some of the skills that Mr. Weir honed in NCEL’s Effective Principals’ Training Programme. NCEL built the findings of the School Effectiveness Study into the programme in modules such as School Planning & Data Management, Quality Educational Leadership, Roles & Responsibilities of a Principal, and Financial and Human Resource Management.

Mr. Weir is one of over 600 principals that have been trained since March 2012 to improve leadership in schools. “The programme is very hands-on,” he explained. “I’m using lessons learnt from modules I pursued in training.”

A hands on approach

When Mr. Weir arrived at Donald Quarrie High a year ago, he was faced with several challenges. Students and teachers were continuously late, management was weak, students fought in and outside of school, and many students had low academic skills. Local stores banned students, and there was a divide between the community and the school.

Mr. Weir appreciated the NCEL training because, “[It] helped greatly in developing a program of transformation of the school.” This fits into the Ministry of Education’s broader Education System Transformation Programme.

Jamaica’s education system historically was run centrally by the ministry, but the transformation programme set up separate agencies such as NCEL to manage technical functions and gave more responsibility to the regions and schools, adopting a more hands-on approach.

Mr. Weir applied the elements of school effectiveness, which he learned through NCEL’s training, to transform Donald Quarrie High into a safer school where “everyone is motivated to perform at their best.”

Eight factors for an effective school

How did he do this? First, he set clear and focused goals and aspirations. The School Effectiveness Study identified the School Improvement Plan as a key ingredient shared by all effective schools. Mr. Weir worked with teachers, students and the school board to develop their Plan.

Data from the school revealed that a small percentage of Donald Quarrie High’s students took the regional exams that would allow them to access post-secondary education opportunities. So the team included a goal in the Plan to increase the number of students to 50%. To make this goal a reality, Mr. Weir implemented important changes.

He created a supportive learning environment by hiring two trained reading specialists and a full-time literacy specialist to help improve students’ low reading and comprehension skills.

Mr. Weir also implemented new rules for uniforms, behavior and punctuality and this brought about greater discipline and a more positive public perception of students in the community, leading to higher levels of family and community involvement. Several local firms donated materials and computers to upgrade the library, and students are using the new computers to study for the regional exams, starting in 9th grade to give them more time to prepare.

Mr. Weir encourages teachers to frequently monitor students’ learning, using data from tests to shape their teaching strategies to better match students’ needs. And Heads of Department revised the curricula to cater to varying student learning needs and experiences, and they work with teachers to organize lessons more efficiently, thus generating high levels of collaboration and communication, especially among teachers. Mr. Weir visits classes to evaluate teachers and uses that information to determine focused professional development for teachers to help them improve their skills.

Throughout this process Mr. Weir has demonstrated strong leadership, spending time in classrooms and talking with students, making his presence visible. He also made good use of limited resources, calling on staff and students of the Engineering Department to retrofit an old building into a cosmetology lab, and drawing on the grounds men’s masonry skills to transform an unused classroom into an audio visual laboratory.

The IDB’s School Effectiveness study helped the Ministry of Education to better define the essential ingredients for an effective school  in the Jamaica context. NCEL then built those ingredients into their training program, and a School Effectiveness Toolkit was developed to share the findings of the study and provide Jamaican school leaders like Mr. Weir with information, strategies and resources to help improve their schools.  On February 25, the IDB handed over 2000 copies of the School Effectiveness Study  and 3500 copies of the toolkit to the Ministry of Education to be distributed to school administrators and used by NCEL in Jamaica. To check the news referenced in the national newspapers, you may click here.

A hands-on approach has transformed findings into results!

This blog post was originally published in the Development Effectiveness Blog of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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