EDUCATION Minister Ronald Thwaites' announcement last year that the Government would be increasing its focus on early childhood education for 2012/2013 was seen as good news for many teachers at that level already struggling with low pay and underemployment.
The plans included advanced training/retraining for more than 500 early childhood teachers; the recruitment of 200 new teachers and teaching aides under the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP); and the construction of over 60 new infant schools.
However, there are some who have spent their entire lives teaching at that level who have slipped through the cracks and are slowly starving for want of a job.
Thirty-year early childhood education veteran Lourine Brown says she is one of these persons.
The 48-year-old woman has been in the basic school system since age 16 when she left Herbert Morrison High School in Trelawny and took up a job as an assistant to the principal of a church basic school in Portmore, St Catherine.
However, her years in the sector teaching slow-learners and special needs children at kindergarten level seem to mean very little now as she is unable to find work.
"I am not asking for a handout; I am just looking for a job. I have been in the system. I have worked my way up. A lot of people know Lourine Brown because of the slow-learners that I have taught and placed back in institutions," she said.
Brown showed the Jamaica Observer several certificates spanning her years in the early childhood school system as testament to her dedication.
While she did several odd jobs over the years to put bread on the table, including secretarial work, she has always returned to the classroom.
Her formal studies in early childhood education took place at Shortwood Teachers' College between 2005 and 2009, but she didn't receive her diploma because she needed to resit two subjects in the syllabus.
The fact that her qualifications are incomplete, she admitted, is at the heart of her problems finding work, despite all her experience.
"Even if you go to college and you did four years of teacher training, completed the course and you have outstanding subjects, you will not be employed by the ministry," Brown explained from the living room of a relative's Waterhouse home in Kingston recently.
Raising seven children along the way has meant little money for a resumption of her studies, although she did several additional short courses over the years wherever she could find them.
Brown said she attended the University of the West Indies (UWI) Open Campus where she again had early childhood instruction, along with training in practical nursing.
She showed the Sunday Observer several other certificates, including those she received for short courses she completed in early childhood education from the Heart Training Institute and the Ministry of Education and Youth.
Other certificates recognised her contribution to early childhood education, including the Jamaica Child Evangelism Fellowship programme and the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC).
She said she worked as a senior remedial studies teacher at the KRC teen centre, again, teaching school dropouts and slow-learners. According to Brown, she started at that school with eight children and at the end of two years her register had swelled to 314 students.
By the time that programme ended, Brown said the children were so advanced that they were able to mainstream back into regular school programmes.
Brown also taught school dropouts under the Citizens Security and Justice Project homework programme.
But her proudest achievement was becoming principal at Tree of Life Learning Centre in Vineyard Town after starting that early childhood education institution herself. There, she was responsible for the education of 40 children.
Her joy, however, was short-lived.
"I gave it up because of financial difficulties," she said, adding that an end to monetary assistance from her then member of parliament spelled the end of her school.
Brown went on to teach at Alpha Infant School for six years before she resigned to become principal of First Step Kinder-Prep School in Mandeville, where she now lives.
However, three years ago, Brown was forced to take time off from teaching to care for her daughter, who was battling cancer. In August last year, her daughter died. She said that she wiped out her savings to buy medication and pay hospital bills.
Since then, Brown said she has been desperately job-hunting without success. Her circumstances are even more difficult, she said, because she is solely responsible for her late daughter's two children -- ages four and six -- along with her own 15-year-old girl, who is in high school, and her 18-year-old son, who isn't working. Her other four children are grown and working, but she and her husband, a security guard, struggle to take care of those at home.
Brown's two latest ventures to get additional specialist training have been partially successful. She got into the Government's early childhood teacher retraining programme at The Mico University, where basic school level teachers were trained in identifying and handling special needs children. She had hoped that that programme, which ran between September and December last year, would rejuvenate her teaching career, but it was not to be.
"I did not get the certificate because I owe the institution $27,000 and cannot afford to go for it," Brown said.
Last July she also did a brief reading and literacy course and was among the first set of teachers to do the (NCTVet Level 2) courses at St Joseph's Teachers' College. But even this has not improved her job prospects in any tangible way.
"I am really in need of a job, trust me," Brown said, her frustration apparent in her voice.
"Some people who will employ you will only pay minimum wage, so it's like the HEART trainee with level one and level two teachers who can work for that amount of money. But a person like me who has come through the system and has years of experience teaching literacy, then I need to find myself a proper job."
She said the lack of a regular salary has meant her parking her car since November last year, because it is in need of repairs and she can't afford to fix it.
"So now the problem is me getting something to do, whether in Kingston, Clarendon or Mandeville. I have been on several interviews but they can't afford to pay and I have reached so far in teaching. Right now I am at Sommerset Primary School in Mandeville doing some voluntary teaching in reading. I have been there since October," she explained.
Brown lamented that others have been lucky enough to find work under JEEP's early childhood education project, even though they, like her, didn't have formal certification.
"They trained you how to do your stuff as early childhood personnel, but when it came on to the last day (of training) a lot of us were turned back because no papers were in our hands."
Brown said ideally, she would want to reopen her own school, but can't afford to rent a place from which to operate it. She said her appeal for sponsorship to help open the institution fell on deaf ears.
"I wanted to open an institution where I could teach slow learners," she said, citing her special education training at Mico University. She added that she was told by trainers there that if she opened a special needs school -- given the shortage of such institutions in the country -- then there is a possibility that the Government could agree to partner with her.
"If I can't get any work and I can get somewhere to open my school, that would be fine, that is ideally what I would want. Teaching is just my passion. When you teach slow learners and they grasp the concept and they can read, it feels so good," Brown said.
She said she is considering working as a practical nurse, but knows the system is already crammed with nurses who are also seeking jobs. On top of that, teaching is all she really knows.
"Sitting down here in the country and nothing is happening, I think I am diminishing one day at a time," she lamented.