Canaries in the coal mine

| 15/12/2008

The vandals who broke into the Cayman Brac High School Thursday night could have done a great deal more damage if they’d had a mind – initial reports from the Education Ministry of “extensive damage” appear to be greatly exaggerated.

While it is not yet known how much damage the foam from the fire extinguishers actually caused, most of the mischief, in this observer’s eyes, seems to be in the setback to getting the school back to normal. Particularly for students in the upper years who will be taking exams in a few short months, the potential damage to their future was significant. However, it seems as if the clean-up crews, as if they didn’t have enough to do, worked all weekend and only one more day was lost.

Which isn’t to diminish the demoralising effect that the incident had on a community still struggling to regain normality after Hurricane Paloma. Education staff, led by our new Learning Community leader Tammy Banks-DaCosta, have been working tirelessly so that students could get back to school, despite the fact that many teachers were also dealing with the effects of Paloma at home; Public Works staff as well as clean up and construction crews have been working long days and weekends to make the facilities functional, not to mention the Cayman Brac Power and Light crews still working gruelling hours to restore power to the island, including the schools.

Having to deal with the huge mess left by the 8 November hurricane is burden enough, but the fact that someone in the community could deliberately add to the destruction at this time is inconceivable to many people here.

Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest blow is that an act of wanton vandalism like this happened at all on Cayman Brac. Crime of this nature is rare here, and there is little real trouble at the schools – certainly no gang activity. As has been demonstrated many times over, students from CBHS do exceptionally well in many areas, consistently shining in debates, Junior Achievement, competitions, and not least, exam results.

But results of our over-achievers reveal only half the picture and paint the Brac as an ideal community without problems – though it’s worth noting that a particularly daft editorial in the Caymanian Compass (17 May 2007) depicting all our young people as binge drinkers on their way to degeneracy and alcoholism is equally ridiculous.

The truth is that the Brac high school has, alongside its commendable academic achievements, a high rate of special needs students (currently about a third of the students) and an unacceptable rate of teenage pregnancy – both markers to fundamental problems in our society or in the education system. Learning difficulties combined with problems at home is the perfect recipe for troubled youths.

The current Education Minister and his team at the Ministry and the Department of Education Services have laid the foundation for real change here on the Brac, as on Grand Cayman, and the focus on Special Needs has been a very positive step in the right direction. The Brac now has a much needed speech therapist and a school counsellor (a proper one), and at long last an education psychologist, not to mention a Chief Education Officer who, as a past principal of CBHS, is very much aware of the issues on the Brac.

However, elections are looming once again and a change in government is possible. Who knows if these welcome changes in the direction of education would survive a new administration under heavy budget constraints. Whichever party wins the majority, the Sister Islands will need representatives who have a real understanding of the problems of young people within our community as well as their strengths so that they can challenge whatever government is in place after the general elections to maintain the current education policy – job creation is not a panacea if the education system fails young people before they graduate.

The questions voters needto ask our candidates are: How many times have you visited the schools? How often have you sat down with the Learning Community Leader, with principals, teachers and special education staff and asked them about the issues they face? What is your understanding of these issues? Have you read all of the schools’ inspection reports? What still needs to be done to ensure help for all students, not just the high fliers?

Once all the finger-pointing and hand wringing over last week’s act of vandalism is done, the incident should stand as a reminder that the Brac is not and never was Shangri-La.

Admittedly, the problems in the Brac schools are not, in many ways, as great as those on Grand Cayman, but if it turns out that the culprits of this latest incident, which targeted the heart of the island in troubled times, are young people from within our community, they are the canaries in the coalmine and the people here and their representatives should take note.




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  1. Nicky Watson says:

    Chris – I did not say "discuss their problems". I was clearly referring to discussion of issues, which is not at all the same thing as making a complaint.

  2. Chris Randall says:

    The challenge extended by your tenth paragraph is unfair.  Civil Servants in general, including teachers, are not permitted to ‘sit down’ with politicians and discuss their problems.  Whether one agrees with it or not,  under present rules any civil servant bypassing the official complaints system will find themself in hot water.