BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
MONTEGO BAY, St James — SALTERS Hill Primary and All-Age School in St James has seen its student population dwindle from 250 in the 1980s to a mere 43 today — a fact that should spell the death of the institution.
However, its administrators refuse to throw in the towel, choosing instead to continue to serve the few youngsters who turn out to be educated while hoping for an eventual increase in erolment.
Principal Applyn Foster-Fray says the school has at least two things going for it — committed members of staff and the creditable performance of students, both in the Grade Six Achievement Test and in the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT), in recent years.
"Our goal here is to do the best we can with what we have. Our teachers Winsome Hines and Bridgejet Barrett, who have been here for 14 years and 10 years respectively, are very committed and dedicated," she told the Observer West.
"Despite our small numbers, we have students gaining places at top high schools; every year, we have several students getting averages over 90 per cent in their GSAT. And we participate in just about everything — academic championships, Bible quiz, the JCDC (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) speech and drama [competition], and 4H Club activities," Foster-Fray added.
She noted that although many of the activities the school participates in are geared towards grade six students, she oftentimes has to use students from lower grades in order to field a team due to their small size.
"Last year, [for example], we entered the VMBS (Victoria Mutual Building Society) under-13 football competition and we just could not find the required 14 students, so we had to use three grade one students and they did very well," Foster-Fray said.
"We did get a beating, but our goal was not really to go and win but [instead] to give the students the exposure and for them to build their self-esteem. If it is one thing, my students are not afraid of defeat. When they lose, they are always smiling; sometimes they even smile more than the champions," she added jokingly.
And they do not always lose. Foster-Fray recalled that in 1997, the school was crowned the St James Under-12 Netball Champions, adding that the institution has also won numerous trophies — including for being the most disciplined team in netball as well as for their performance in football and basketball.
Salters Hill has also excelled in 4H Club activities, Foster-Fray said.
Established in 1874 with funding from Englishman and Baptist minister John Salter, the school is said to be one of the first educational institutions set up after slavery in western Jamaica.
It was relocated to less than a mile from its original location in 1974, after the then existing structure fell into disrepair. The Ministry of Education had to provide a new facility, built to accommodate 400 students.
"At that time, there were students attending the school from communities, such as Guilsbro, Potosi, Pearling Stream, and Hurlock. All of those children used to walk through shortcuts to get to school, but after a time nobody seemed to be using the shortcuts again so the numbers at the school gradually began to dwindle," explained Foster-Fray, who has been teaching at the school for close to four decades.
She added that as the student numbers decreased, so too has the number of residents living in the once vibrant farming community. She blames the poor infrastructure in the area.
"It is now a dying community and the main reason for that is the deplorable road conditions. This does not only affect the school, it has also affected other aspects of life in the community," Foster-Fray said.
"We do not have any public transportation in the community. The two teachers who work here have to hitch a ride with me in the mornings or they have to charter a car from Montego Bay straight to the school," she added.
The school principal, who has turned down many lucrative job offers elsewhere, is of the view that if the roads were repaired — coupled with the improved performance of students at the school — there would be a spike in enrolment.
"The day the road fix and there is transportation, the parents will send their children to the school. The parents are always enthused about the involvement of the students in both academic and extra-curricular activities and they tell me that they want to send their children here," she told Observer Wes t.
Member of Parliament for the area Ed Bartlett, who said he has made available GSAT and GFLT books for students at the school, also anticipates an increase in enrolment.
"With the kind of effort now being made to improve the standard of education at the school, the student population will improve in coming years," he said. "The standard at the school was going down, but I am now confident that the numbers will improve because the school is improving."
Bartlett added that a number of schools in rural communities across the island are experiencing a reduction in the student population due to factors largely outside of their control.
"The standard in the rural areas are falling because the better teachers are not taking up teaching jobs in those parts of the island, the management of the schools are deficient in terms of the personnel, and the resources available and the parents are not spending enough time with their children," the MP said.
It is therefore necessary, he said, for residents of rural communities to play a more active role in the development of their schools.
Salters Hill Primary and All-Age is one of about 200 state-run schools that have seen a marked decrease in the student population over the years. But Education Minister Ronald Thwaites has said there are no plans to close them.
"For some of them, we are looking at bringing in an infant department; some a technical department and for others we are looking at encouraging the students to go to those schools," he told Observer West.