BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment email@example.com
THE population at Barking Lodge Primary in rural St Thomas has dwindled to a mere 50 students as more and more parents transfer their children several miles away to Duckenfield to take advantage of a fully functional computer lab.
The century-old Barking Lodge has two computers, but without Internet service in the community, all they do is gather dust.
Principal Dahlia Henry said although there is no immediate threat of closure of the institution, which has been at that location since 1965, the numbers have been steadily dropping each year, moving from 72 last year to the current 50.
She said there was urgent need for a computer lab so that the sudents, many of whom have never ventured outside the community, can become more exposed through use of the technology.
"We have two computers in a little room, but because we don't have any Internet one of our teachers will sometimes turn it on so the grades two to six can get a little feel for it but most of the time it's to play games and so on," Henry told the Jamaica Observer North East.
She said further: "If we had Internet the children would be able to explore more, especially the GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test) and the grade four students."
Henry said Internet service would also help to facilitate better communication with the Ministry of Education which uses online correspondence with most schools across the island. The principal, who has worked at the institution for more than two decades, said all correspondence with the ministry has to be routed through Morant Bay Primary School, located miles away in the parish capital.
It is very costly to travel to Morant Bay for letters and this oftentimes results in delays of important correspondence, especially since education officers rarely visit these rural parts, she said.
Lamenting that rural schools like Barking Lodge don't get the necessary attention, Henry said "sometimes the officers don't want to travel to these parts because of the condition of the road".
Meanwhile, the principal said there is an overall need for the students to be more exposed to life outside the rural community which relies on farming or spear fishing.
"I always encourage the parents to take them even to Morant Bay to see the market or to Kingston where they can see the stoplight because there is none in St Thomas, as I find that their level of exposure is inadequate," she said.
She said the lack of exposure has impacted the students' overall performance, as was evident when they recently entered the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's Festival competition.
"We practised them for the Festival and they go to Kingston and when they see the crowd they clam up," Henry said.
There is, however, one exception in the person of grade one student Britney Douglas. The six-year-old, who was the recent second-place winner for the zone in the Jamaica Library Service reading competition and a bronze winner for a solo piece in the Festival, reads at the grade five level.
Chairman of the School Board Odel Felix said the institution would love to have a library and a computer lab and as such, would love to see the school get connected to the Internet in the very near future.
"If we were able to get the building material donated the community people would be more than willing to provide the labour," he said.
In the absence of such a building, however, the principal said space has already been identified for computers could be set up for the students to use if and when Internet access comes to the area.
In spite of the limitations, the principal has big plans for the school as she has sought the intervention of community members to establish a school garden to grow cash crops for use in the canteen.
"The community boys who use the school's play field will be helping us to put it together," she said, adding that they have often helped in other areas such as painting the walls and cutting the grounds.
The garden, Henry said, will come in handy since the majority of the students are on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) school-feeding programme.
"This will be very helpful because other than the money from the ministry there is no other financial help and this is a low-income community where some persons do spear-fishing and when they catch six pounds they have to sell four pounds of it and eat the rest," she said.
Only six of the 50 students are not on PATH.