BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
THE once-abandoned classrooms and the spacious schoolyard at Mahoe Hill Primary now resonate with laughter and chatter as life returns to the community in Broadgate, St Mary.
Five years ago, the institution was forced to relocate to a much smaller space at the nearby community centre after the bridge which provided the sole access to the riverside community collapsed. But the school has reopened, thanks to the Bailey bridge installed two years ago.
The 65 students and four teachers are the only inhabitants on that side of the Wag Water River to date, since the bridge, cannot accommodate vehicular traffic to facilitate the return of landowners, but residents have expressed delight that the school is now back at its original location.
The school was originally located high in the Mahoe Hill community which once had a large population, but was later moved closer to the river, which separates it from the Junction main road. In the late 70s, Mahoe Primary was amalgamated with Broadgate All-Age, leaving the community with only one primary-level institution.
"When the schools were amalgamated, here was chosen because of the big schoolyard and this was one of the reasons why we wanted the school to return over here," acting principal Alvin Parker told the Jamaica Observer North East during a recent visit to the school.
Parker said in addition to the limited and cramped space, there were also safety concerns because of the close proximity of the community centre to the main road.
Stacey-Ann Fray, parent of a fourth grader, said the return of the school is a welcome thing for the community and hopes that the vacant lands surrounding the facility will be better utilised in the future.
"The students have a good playground and they are not near the street to run out in the road and so I am happy that the school is back down here," she said.
But the relocation of the school is not the only thing being celebrated as the institution recently received piped water.
The principal, who has been at the school for the past 16 years, recalled how difficult it was to operate over the years without running water. He explained that a pipeline had been installed from a spring in the mountain, but it did not work very well as it often got dislodged or clogged during heavy rains.
"When that happened we had to carry water directly from the river to take care of everything," he said.
And with the school situated very close to the river, Parker said the staff is always vigilant concerning the children's safety.
"We keep begging them not to go down to the river and we are very watchful of them and they also watch out for each other," he said.
Teacher Winnifred Thorpe, who has been at the school for the last 14 years, and who also resides in the community, said they have always found innovative ways to source the commodity to meet their needs.
"It was a nightmare because many days we never had water, but the school has never had to close for one day because we always find innovative ways to deal with it."
Having piped water, Thorpe said, has taken the pressure off the teachers to find ways of getting water.
The institution, meanwhile, has been recording a steady decline in the school population over the years. This, Thorpe has attributed to fewer children being born in the community.
"We know this is so because every year the number reduces from the one feeder school that we have in the community and so we know that it is not that children are going somewhere else, but just that there are not that many children in the community," she said
The small population does have its advantages as, according to Thorpe, it has helped the school maintain a very good rapport with parents and the wider community. She explained that even those students who do not benefit from the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) get assistance from the school's feeding programme, which helps to drive the attendance rates.
"Our attendance is always very high and this relates to our feeding programme because even those who are not on PATH are given lunch and so they come every day," she said.
The school, which has a 4H and Scout clubs as extra curricular activities, faces a number of challenges, among which are a lack of Internet access and no landline.
"Even keeping in touch with the education ministry is a problem because we don't have the Internet," he said.
The principal also pointed to the need for perimeter fencing to keep stray animals away.
"We have tried more than once to have a school garden, but the animals always stray on the compound and destroy it," he said.
With no active past students' association or other financial help, Parker said the institution has to rely solely on the subvention it receives from the ministry and this is often inadequate.