Iris Gelly Primary shines
MANY of its students are from poor single parent households or are orphans whose parents' lives were snuffed out through gun violence. Still, Iris Gelly Primary School manages to churn out scholarship recipients, talented athletes and socially aware students each year from its Arnett Gardens locale.
The institution is highly regarded by parents from the surrounding communities in the Kingston 5 area, because the majority of students at the institution are able to get placement at some of the most sought after traditional high schools in the Corporate Area each year. The school's GSAT examination results surpass the national average and its present literacy rate is over 80 per cent. But perhaps even more encouraging for principal Veronica Gaynor is the fact that most parents have realised the role the school has been playing in the lives of their children to unearth their potential and give them a chance to extend themselves beyond their circumstances.
"Parents in here will call us the prep school of Arnett Gardens. 'Ghetto Prep', that's what they call us," said Gaynor.
"We try to ensure that the children achieve success and we try not to keep them in the inner city. We try to expose them as much as possible. So if a child wants to choose Campion College, we try to work with the child, work with the parents, and offer guidance," she said.
Gaynor said many of the students had not been made to venture far outside their immediate environs prior to going to the institution. As such, the school has sought to get them more acquainted with life outside the inner city.
"We enter every competition that it is possible to enter, because we believe in exposing the children to everything and we find that their writing skills are sometimes limited, so it's left up to us as teachers to take them on field trips, so we try to expose them to as many things as possible. Even sometimes children come here and they don't know as far as Half-Way-Tree," she said.
"You say to a child, 'you have friends visiting from abroad, write about some places of interest that you would take them to', and it's usually KFC and Burger King. That's how limited their scope is, so we are trying our best to expose them," she pointed out.
Iris Gelly Primary started in 1977 and is named after the former councillor for the Trench Town division who died in 2008. The school has survived many gang-related feuds over the years, but Gaynor, who has been at the institution since 1982 and became principal in 2008, said the teachers are extremely committed. Thankfully things have somewhat improved, although students from the institution still have to deal with the effects of that period.
"Many of them have suffered as a result of violence or the incarceration of their fathers. Quite a few of them are orphans and wards of the state. Some of them don't know their fathers. Unfortunately, sometimes you hear of an incident in the community and then I am at home in Portmore and I think, 'Oh my God, I wonder if any of my children are affected?'" said the principal who learnt of the killing of a past student just a few hours before the Career & Education interview.
Thankfully, the community happenings have not impacted the students' ability to attend school. According to Gaynor, the school has over 1,000 students enrolled and has an over 90 per cent attendance rate.
"The PATH (Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education) has been a haven for these students, because they have to come here to get their meals, but then PATH just came in effect probably about two years ago. What used to happen is that we used to have to give them meals. We used to have a breakfast programme, but the ministry has taken over that now, but in terms of lunch, we have a programme and the guidance counsellor has been instrumental in putting children on the welfare programme of the school, so that they can get a meal if they need it and then the humanitarian side of the teachers step in and parents are always helping," she said.
Gaynor said most of their students are from Arnett Gardens, Trench Town and Denham Town and parents are often unemployed or self-employed. Although they are unable to contribute to the school financially, many of them give their time to ensure that the institution continues to be a school of excellence.
"The major challenge I think we have is that parents who have children who are not 'bright', don't give them the support as much as we would like. So you find that parents with the children who are bright, they want to be here everyday... they want to find out what is happening. But the parents that you really need to see; those with disciplinary problems, those who are not achieving much academically; you rarely see those parents," the educator said.
Gaynor said the teachers are careful not to discourage slow learners, but try to work with them to get them to an acceptable academic level. Efforts are also made to harness the athletic capabilities of those who show great potential to excel in sports such as football and netball. In fact a few of their students were granted scholarships to attend traditional high schools last year as a result of this.
"Graduation is a five-hour affair because every child has to be lifted up and lauded for their achievements," she said.
"We try to make sure that while we are lauding those academic achievements, we don't forget the child who was struggling and had stepped up, so we look at the most improved children. We have our sports children who may not achieve academically, but they achieve in sports," she pointed out.
The school has been the recipient of the Scotiabank scholarship on several occasions, and won the majority of the community football and netball matches that were organised in the past by Member of Parliament for the area Dr Omar Davies. The school also made it to round three of the Junior School's Challenge Quiz competition last year, which was their second attempt at entering the highly competitive event.
When asked what would be her greatest wish for the institution, Gaynor said it would be for one of her students to finally win a government scholarship. She said the school has failed to do so, despite the fact that a number of the students continue to score 100 per cent in the various subject areas in GSAT.