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School bus service for rural Jamaica?

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicobserver.com

Monday, September 03, 2012    

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — He has no timeline and shortage of money is an obvious constraint, but Education Minister Ronnie Thwaites says Government is actively contemplating a bus system for schoolchildren across the island.

"At the last Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Simpson Miller enjoined (Omar) Davies (minister of transport) and myself to begin to work out a programme to assist transportation of students," Thwaites told a student awards ceremony in Myersville, South East St Elizabeth recently.

But he added a qualifying note, saying that such a programme "will take some time".

In a subsequent telephone interview, Thwaites told the Jamaica Observer that while need for a comprehensive school bus service was "obviously urgent", it was "impossible" to provide a timeline given the various considerations which include scarce resources.

The education minister's comments at the ceremony were in response to a strident appeal by Member of Parliament for SE St Elizabeth Richard Parchment for greater attention to the transportation needs of rural-based high school students.

"... when all is said and done we (should) not expect the hard-working parents of South East St Elizabeth to continue to work and pay taxes, to support a bus system that takes Corporate Area children to school, and we can't find the money to send our children to school," Parchment told parents, students, teachers, and guests at the awards ceremony.

"We as a nation will have to work to develop a rural bus (system) even (if it is only) for the schools," he added.

Parchment's Constituency Development Fund provided $1 million for the back-to-school event, which saw 50 Grade Six Achievemet Test (GSAT) high achievers from primary schools in the constituency each receiving $20,000 to assist with expenses as they enter high school. The awardees were selected by their school principals according to criteria including academic performance and perceived need.

Parchment's constituency encompasses Nain on the St Elizabeth border with South Manchester, the fast-growing town of Junction, and a number of farming communities including Southfield, Malvern, Leeds, and Myersville. The high schools located there are BB Coke, Munro College and Hampton (for girls), but many children from the constituency also attend St Elizabeth Technical High in Santa Cruz and other high schools further west as well as schools in Manchester, to the east.

Parchment, a first-time member of Parliament who represents the ruling People's National Party (PNP), painted the picture of his vision for a comprehensive school bus system in his constituency.

"I would want to see one of the jolly bus [large bus] leaving Junction going to Black River, one going to Santa Cruz, and one going up to Malvern hill and the final one going into Manchester," he said.

And he pledged to get it done.

"I intend to work... and parents you are here, mark my words..."

The need is urgent, he said, given the high cost of taxi fares, the remoteness of some communities and the two-shift system in some schools which lead to children leaving and returning home very early or very late.

However he noted that "as an MP I can't do it alone, I need every hand [to help]. I will be calling on the church, the community groups, the business leaders, the teachers, parents, and also the political opposition". He noted that some have already started to answer the call, with business people and some organisations, including the Alpart Community Council led by former MP Lenworth Blake, assisting with the needs of some students.

Talk of a properly managed school bus system to serve rural Jamaica last peaked in April 2011 after three Holmwood Technical High School students travelling to school in Christiana, Manchester from their homes in South Trelawny died when the speeding minibus in which they were passengers crashed.

Then Minister of Education Andrew Holness said at the time that within a year a national transportation plan for students that would have been part of the Ministry of Education's Safe Schools Policy.

"We hope within the next 12 months we should be able to roll out a national transportation plan for students," Holness said then. "It will mean that the buses that will transport students will be governed by a higher standard than normal, the people who drive those buses will have to be well trained. They will be under the safe school legislation regarding how students are transported in public vehicles and we believe that will have a significant positive impact on the discipline of our students in our schools," he added.

Turning to the plight of primary schoolchildren in SE St Elizabeth and the wider parish, Parchment urged the Government to speedily implement the long talked-about zoning system in order to bring to an end to the practice of children travelling long distances although there are primary schools close to home.

He identified two schools in SE St Elizabeth — Hopeton Primary in the community of the same name in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and St Alban's Primary in Stanmore, high in the mountains close to Malvern — which, he said, had only about 30 children enrolled, simply because parents in surrounding communities had opted to send their children to other schools at longer distances.

"We have to set up a system so that if you live in certain areas, you not going to leave from there and take taxi to go to Santa Cruz Primary, and then parents find themselves in situations where their children go to school Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday they can't find the taxi fare," he said.

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