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A school begging for good leadership

Stakeholders say Hopewell High neglected by education ministry in wake of corruption reports, poor performance by some staff, students

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 06, 2014    

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THE sad saga of poor leadership at Hopewell High School in Hanover and the unresolved matter of a corruption probe against its principal continue to haunt the institution, forcing some stakeholders to suggest that the Ministry of Education does not care about it.

The eight-year-old institution saw its only principal, Joyce Irving, suspended last January, in light of a probe into corruption allegations at the school.

Months after the Ministry of Education said in April that its personnel committee would meet with Irving and determine the way forward, no meeting has been held, and there is fear that the school will begin the 2014-2015 school year without the matter being resolved.

Ministry spokesman Byron Buckley confirmed to the Jamaica Observer recently that the committee had still not met with the principal.

School board chairman Hervin Stennett also confirmed to the Sunday Observer in a telephone interview last week that the long overdue meeting with the board and principal had not materialised, but would soon be held and a final decision regarding Irving's future made.

"We are near to that point," the retired policeman said.

"We have not yet set a date, but the meeting will soon be held," stated Stennett, a pastor.

Now some of those close to the action at Hopewell, whose motto is Pioneers for Excellence, are suggesting that officials acting on behalf of the Ministry of Education are dragging their feet, even trying to conceal information that had already been presented as evidence in a previous meeting of the board of governors.

One even stated that the principal's close association with "people in high political places" was causing the matter to be dragged out.

The Sunday Observer could not immediately determine whether or not Irving had any political affiliation.

"What's happening at Hopewell is a microcosm of the country," one member of the fraternity said.

"The chairman wants to drag his feet to save the principal and the bursar. The school board needs to make a decision and stop the dilly-dallying. The school is now a fully functioning day care centre," the member said.

The reference made about bursar Marsha Dwyer's qualification also remains a sore point at the school, one official said.

The Ministry of Education appointed Region Four Education Officer Leonie Dunwell to act as principal of the institution last January, but members of the school community have also complained that nothing has improved under her six-month watch, in terms of school discipline.

"The education officer doesn't want to be at the school, so she is not putting out any effort to improve it," said another member.

"There was a breakdown in discipline long before she came, and with her coming it has changed for the worse, maybe because she didn't expect to be there that long.

"What is happening here reminds me of the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party), with its many gangs and factions. Anything bad you can find at a workplace, it is here at Hopewell High School, double or triple time," the staff member continued.

Members of the school's fraternity have complained to the Sunday Observer about being frustrated, moreso since rumours about the possible return of Irving for the start of the school year in September have begun to surface.

"Our school is in limbo," one complained. "Our education system has been hijacked by certain stakeholders. Hopewell High needs some attention and certain things need to be resolved now.

"There is a perception here that nobody is doing anything in administration ... it's like swapping a black dog for a monkey. Nobody in authority seems to want to do anything about it. This is a classic case of everything that can go wrong with a school. The morale is so low," the individual stated.

Another complaint of the teaching staff is the rapid breakdown in general conduct at the school over the last two years.

"The school is like a sore finger," one parent told this tabloid. I cannot imagine how the Ministry of Education has allowed things to get so bad with a new school like this. It's not like this school has been around as long as Manning's or JC (Jamaica College) or Cornwall (College). This school is less than 10 years old and it full a so much crosses," the parent said.

Irving, 58, has been the first and only principal of the co-educational school since it opened its doors to students, offering tuition from grades seven to 11, on September 4, 2006.

At the time, the school started with 400 students (207 girls and 193 boys), and 19 members of the academic staff.

The school population has now improved to 900 students, with 56 academic staff members.

Irving was suspended in January of this year, after she refused a school board request for her to step aside while it conducts an investigation into financial irregularities at the newest high school in the parish.

When Irving was suspended, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said that the board acted "within its competence in accordance with the Education Regulations", and expressed the hope for what he determined a quick resolution of the matter.

"The purpose of the school is student achievement and if there are administrative or governance difficulties, we would like to settle these quickly and get ahead with the task of running a good school," Thwaites said.

The board removed its vice-chairman earlier this year, citing conflict of interest when it emerged that she was the sister-in-law of the suspended principal, and had served on the personnel committee, which conducted the preliminary investigation.

Among the matters in contention are irregularities in respect of the administration of graduation fees, the management of the tuck shop, abuse of telephones, travelling allowance breaches, administration of the breakfast programme, and use of government subsidy.

One informant in an e-mail to the Sunday Observer summed up his perception of the institution.

"A school in the bottom 10, students leaving by the droves, two principals who can't manage so far, a bursar who is not qualified for the job, questions about handling of school monies, and no answers from the school board or the MoE.

"Who will do something about this school? Is it because it is a school populated with poor people's children? This school belongs to us here in Hopewell, who will help us? Who will provide the answers?" the individual asked.

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