Regional

Morant Bay Primary literacy up 33 per cent 

School establishes initiative to help slow learners

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, June 09, 2014    

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THE literacy rate at Morant Bay Primary School in the St Thomas capital has moved from 54 per cent five years ago, to 81 per cent.

This, according to Principal Esther McGowan, is a direct result of the decision to hire a literacy specialist to help the hundreds of students who were struggling with reading. It is not mandatory, but given her school's own experience, McGowan swears by the skill of the specialist educator.

"A couple years ago I realised that literacy was not where we would have liked it to be and so we came together as a staff and decided we had to do something," she told the Jamaica Observer North East.

So, despite limited resources, McGowan and her team got creative and transformed a vacant teacher's cottage into a resource centre and engaged the services of a literacy specialist in 2008.

The intervention has been so successful that the school is projecting its literacy rate will move up to 90 per cent when this year's Grade Four Literacy Test results are announced.

The literacy specialist Fay Lindsay told the newspaper that the class size of 40-plus students was too large for some of the students.

"So, we decided that a pull-out session would be better so I could work with smaller groups," she said.

Explaining how the programme works, Lindsay said class teachers of grades two to five are asked to identify students who are really struggling and refer them to the resource centre. At least 36 students from each grade are enrolled in the programme.

"We would try to keep each session small with no more than 12 students at a time, as taking them out of a bigger group helps to cater to their different learning styles," Lindsay explained, adding that the students are exposed to 50-minute reading sessions three times weekly.

Diagnostic testing, according to Lindsay, has revealed that some of the students have serious learning disabilities, including autism. But, she said, even those who have been so diagnosed are doing well, even if they are not succeeding in standardised tests.

Another major problem, Lindsay said, was that some of the parents themselves are unable to read and so are unable to help their children. As such, the literacy specialist said she was asked by the guidance counsellor to host individual sessions with parents to help bring them up to par.

Out of this, they have come up with a plan to establish a parents' centre which will be funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The parents will have access to computers and will be able to borrow books, while others will benefit from individual reading sessions. The centre, which will be open for the new school year, will also be accommodated in the former teacher's cottage.

The principal said although 75 per cent of the students are from the low-income backgrounds, the school has generally been doing well, with one student copping the coveted Paul Bogle scholarship for top marks in last year's sitting of the Grade Six Achievement Test.

"That has been a plus for us with the literacy rate going up and the GSAT rate has also been positive," McGowan said.

Regarding attendance rates, the principal said everything is done to ensure that students attend regularly. One strategy she employs is to provide Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH)-funded lunch for four days of the week instead of the required three.

"We do everything to ensure that we can provide PATH lunch on a Friday, as well, and that really helps to ensure that the children are not kept at home on a Friday," McGowan said.

The principal said the entire teaching staff has bought in to the literacy thrust as they have since been exposed to regular staff development where literacy is concerned. Teachers from other schools in the parish have also been seeking to learn from Morant Bay Primary.

"We are not selfish here, so, we invite others to learn from what we are doing," McGowan said. "I myself am learning so much from this (initiative)," she added.

To that end, the institution last month hosted its largest literacy fair ever, with participation from 10 other primary schools. The fair, the principal explained, demonstrated the need to take the business of literacy seriously, as too many children are leaving primary school without being able to function at the requisite level.

It involved the viewing of exhibitions and displays as well as interactive activities such as a reading garden and literacy games, among various other activities. There were also reading theatres for both the students and adults.

"Everything was linked to literacy," McGowan said, adding that they also distributed books to parents and hosted a conference in collaboration with personnel from various agencies.

The distribution of reading material was necessary as McGowan said a lot of the parents do not have books at home for their children to read.

Meanwhile, McGowan said the school will soon be ramping up the focus on numeracy, but it wants to master literacy first.

"If we get it right with the literacy, we can get it right with the numeracy," she said.

In previous years, teachers, McGowan said, did not know the correct way to teach reading, but now there is a new enthusiasm for teaching literacy.

"Reading is one where the foundation has to be strong because it is about understanding and applying what is read," she said.

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