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McGrath students shine

Make school proud despite non-traditional high school stigma

Monday, April 21, 2014    

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WHENEVER Penda Honeyghan tells someone that she passed 11 CSEC subjects, with nine grade ones, and nine CAPE units, it often triggers the question: "Which high school did you attend?"

When she responds it often leaves an enigmatic expression on the face of the curious questioner. Perhaps it is because some may never have heard of the school; however, more often it is the stigma that has been affecting non-traditional high schools, including Honeyghan's McGrath High in Linstead, St Catherine. People oftentimes, she said, knit their brow as they perhaps, ponder: "I never knew that McGrath produced such brilliant students?"

It is a perception which often infuriates the 21-year-old who is completing her second year of undergraduate studies in journalism at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

"Although we are a non-traditional school it doesn't mean we are less capable than others," she stated as she sat down for an interview to talk about her own achievements and the impact of the Centres of Excellence programme on her school.

McGrath was one of six rural high schools which participated in the five-year, $100-million programme, funded and implemented by two mortgage rivals -- Victoria Mutual and Jamaica National -- under the Mutual Building Societies Foundation, and which has experienced immense change over the course of the programme, particularly in its use of data to inform instruction in the classroom.

"My mother believes that anywhere you go you can achieve," Penda related. She scored an 80-plus average in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), but McGrath was the first of the five choices of placement. "My aunt was upset, my principal was upset, but my mother was adamant that I would go to McGrath, which was her alma mater," she recalled. "It was to be my destiny."

Starting out was a little difficult, she recalled, as other students were intimidated by her high GSAT score and her tendency to be out-spoken, but with the encouragement of teachers, such as current vice-principal Aretha Bingham she adjusted and instead of conforming, became an inspiration to other students.

For Rushard Blake, the GSAT experience was, however, a little different. McGrath, with all its negative stories, was not the first place of choice for the aspiring teacher, now pursuing his undergraduate studies in Modern Languages at Shortwood Teacher's College in St Andrew, but it became his place to shine.

His starting year at McGrath was not easy either as, unfortunately, he became sick and had to go live with his mother in Kingston. His mother wanted him to transfer to a school in Kingston due to the long distance; however, he had already grown to like the environment at McGrath High and was willing to go a few extra miles each day.

"I had appendicitis which caused my appendix to burst, so that set me back for some time," Rushard recounted. But with the assistance of teachers, particularly his language teacher, Ainsley Reid, he was back on track and he developed a love for foreign languages, particularly Spanish. "I developed an appreciation for Spanish because of the way he taught and he became my mentor. He realised I was very good in the discipline and he encouraged me to do well," he said.

Ainsley Reid would become a common factor in the lives of both Penda and Rushard. As the teacher with responsibility for the Debating Society, he would also play an important role in Penda's academic years.

"He saw something in me. He realised that I had a gift and he respected my spirit," she said. The encouragement would propel her to achieve some of the highest honours, including best speaker in the Burger King Inter-School National School Debating Competition; the Jamaica Information Service National Heritage Debating Competition and the KLAS Sports Schools Debating Competition. The McGrath team also placed highly in all three competitions.

The advent of the Centres of Excellence programme in 2008 would also shift the school in another positive direction and influence the lives of the two students.

"The Centres of Excellence was about change, but not just any change. It was a programme that was going to take McGrath from where it was to somewhere that it is today," Rushard explained. And where it is today, according to him, is a school where students are more confident and teachers more strategic in their approach to education.

"The way students were being taught was different. There was more attention to their individual needs and I even saw changes in the way Mr Reid taught," commented Rushard.

An evidence-based approach to learning is among the major improvements, independent evaluators, Harmonious Solutions, cited in their review of the implementation of the Centres of Excellence programme in the school. They said the use of data to develop lessons and curricula at McGrath was impressive.

"And, we are sure the teacher development training played a part in one of our coaches, Miss Tracey-Ann Beckford, being named the 2011 Lasco Teacher of the Year," Penda surmised.

Evaluators also pointed to a dramatic improvement in school culture, which increased by some 80 per cent, as students became excited about learning and attuned to the fact they could also succeed.

"The students were more competitive," Penda reflected, pointing out that several classes were diligently monitoring their progress on the student improvement charts provided through the programme, which were updated each month and placed in locations on the school compound where students could see them.

"They worked together as teams trying to outshine the other classes," characteristics Penda deduced helped to strengthen team spirit and lift their performance in the National School Debating competitions. "We were no longer doubting ourselves, we knew we could be victors," she said, as Rushard noted the improved student participation in school activities as students "were not hiding in their shells," and shared their opinions and ideas about various issues affecting their school.

"I've adopted the Centres of Excellence core values commitment, responsibility and respect, and now I'm at Shortwood Teacher's College," Rushard stated proudly, to which Penda quipped: "With eleven CSEC subjects, nine grade ones and nine CAPE Units, I am proud to be a past student of a non-traditional high school."

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