Determined to make a differenceMonday, September 13, 2021
BY AKERA DAVIS
At age seven she lost her father and, soon after, her mother became mentally ill, leaving Phelisia Ricketts-Graham in the care of an ailing grandmother whose very best efforts were sometimes not enough. There were days when the youngster had nothing to eat, and other children often teased her about her destitute existence.
“Growing up was a very dark period in my life because I saw other children with their parents and I never had that,” said the now 24-year-old. “The first time I remember getting a hug from my mom was when I was 23 years old. The mental illness made it hard for her to really be around me.”
Determined, years ago, not to be defined by her childhood years in Jackson Town, Trelawny, Ricketts-Graham is now principal and founder of Western STEM Academy and she is determined that she will make a difference in children's lives.
The young educator's passion for the profession stems from being a student at Westwood High School where, she said, her teachers did all they could to make a positive change in her life.
“After meeting some teachers and seeing how much they loved and cared for me in my [darkest] times was when I realised that teachers are really heroes. A special teacher, Miss Lawson, believed in me even when I was unsure about my worth,” said Ricketts-Graham. “She gave me all that I needed for school — lunch money, books and all of that — because my grandmother simply could not provide it. She was more than a teacher and more like my guardian angel.”
“That's when I decided that I want to be able to change someone's life and inspire them just as my high school teachers inspired me,” she added.
She knew she would need the right tools for the job, so Ricketts-Graham got a bachelor of education degree in secondary education with specialisation in chemistry and integrated science from Church Teachers' College.
“After leaving college I taught in public and private schools but I never felt that I was giving enough. I knew I could offer students more quality education and a place to make them feel loved and comforted,” she told the Jamaica Observer. “Some are coming to us from [challenging] backgrounds, some may just not be sure of where they are going with their lives. I can be that guidance and motivation for them, just as my teachers were for me.”
That's the vision behind Western STEM Academy. There have been challenges along the way but Rickets-Graham persisted, building on the experiences gained from four years as a teacher.
“I never [had] the capital or anything to get a physical space and I was scared [at the thought that I would never] own a school. Then came COVID and things moved online. I saw the perfect opportunity to just start my school because it was easier,” she said. “So far I'm pleased with the results because students who came in performing at a 50 per cent average have risen to over 80 per cent. We also just entered students in the CSEC exams last year and we are awaiting results.”
The online-based institution has been in operation since July 2020 and is now staffed with 12 certified teachers providing education to 40 students. Guided by the Education Ministry's procedures, the school offers classes from primary to secondary levels but — as indicated by its name — there is a special emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I realise that there is usually a low performance in maths and science in the national and regional exams so we are trying to grow that passion for STEM in students from a very young age,” Ricketts-Graham explained. “Our students are also exposed to ICT (information and communication technology) along with robotics and engineering. We also try to incorporate some aspects of STEM in other subject areas such as English or social studies class with the aim of enhancing those areas.”
“The tuition fee is now $60,000 per term for prep school and high school tuition varies based on specific subject areas. My aim is to accommodate as many students as possible, not only [to provide them with] a good education but to give them that extra guidance and love where it is needed,” she added.
Looking back, Ricketts-Graham is proud of the woman she has become.
“I had to be strong and change my life because I owed it to myself and those who believed in me,” she said.