Since independence in Bahamas, education 'miracles'

The one-room school here on Man-O-War Cay, an out island in the Bahamas, is surrounded by Hibiscus and Coconut Palm trees. Breezes from the ocean, just over the sandhill in back of the school, blow through its shuttered windows.

Students inside are carefully doing copy-book work under a sign reading, "Be Clear, Accurate, Complete, Polite, and Brief."

This seemingly serene school, typical of many in the Bahamas, has weathered its share of storms. Some are physical: a year and a half ago Hurricane David brushed past the island, sending high water and wind rushing over its coral shores.

More important however, may be the recurring social/political storms. Man-O-War, a conservative British Loyalist settlement, has now taken the first steps toward school integration, with a head teacher of one race and students of another.

Beyond that, however, are the even more difficult political storms the school and others like it have endureD. Man-O-War school was closed recently in a three week nationwide teachers' strike serious enough to threaten the government of Hon. Lynden O. Pindling, who led the Bahamas to independence and has served as its prime minister for the past 14 years.

In 1967, when the British left after almost 200 years of colonial rule, taking with them many technicians and businessmen, the Bahamas set about transforming its mixed racial and social groups into a democratic society, and doing it largely through the schools.

A good part of the resources of this relatively poor nation were committed to establishing a school system which would help funnel its citizens into necessary jobs: electricians, radio announcers, government workers, doctors, and, of course, educators to teach teachers.

In this current school year, some one-fourth of the total revenues of this tiny nation are budgeted for education.

Within the short time since independence, Bahamians boast that the following educational "miracles" have been brought about:

* Scores of new primary schools have been built and old British schools remodeled, particularly in New Providence, some with auditoriums, classroom libraries, and up-to-date teaching facilities.

* High school for all has become a possibility. In 1966 only a few fortunate Bahamian young people (1,000 a year) hoped to go abroad or attend the private boarding schools or the government school in Nassau. Today more than 19,000 students are attending high schools in such remote places as Old Bight on Cat Island and Deadman's Cay on Long Island, as well as in Nassau.

* The College of the Bahamas, a longtime national dream, was established in 1974 and is now providing a two- or three-year associate-degree program which includes teacher training. Vocational schools are turning out electricians, masons, and other trained people for the trade needs of the country.

* Special education programs, guidance and counseling services have been set up to meet the government's mandate to educate each student to the highest degree of his/her potential.

All of this in a country whose entire population is not even as large as that of Evansville, Ind., and which does not even have an income tax to finance its schools. The Bahamas must depend largely on revenues from customs duties and license fees to pay teachers' salaries and build additions to schools.

The recent strike, however, has focused concern on several areas of the educational "dream" which all parties agree need much more rapid implementation.

First of all, the need to rush hundreds of native-born teachers into the profession has resulted in problems in certification -- teachers are poorly prepared. Less than half of the present teachers were trained in four-year colleges (the percentage is higher for secondary teachers than for primary).

Some teachers are teaching with no training and some are barely out of high school themselves.

Only 24 percent of high school seniors taking the General Certificate in Education tests received passing grades in the last few years. All sides consider this woefully inadequate, because hiring for most jobs in the Bahamas is done on the results of this qualifying exam.

Something is the matter; the Ministry of Education is assuming it is not the validity of the British curriculum and test system, but the present inability of the teachers to teach the material involved. The ministry is stepping up efforts to train teachers better, pay higher wages, and increase professionalism.

For most parents and students, though, the major concern is the condition of the facilities here. Old, weather-beaten colonial wooden buildings with leaking roofs, poor lighting, and no toilet facilities still serve as schools in some out islands.

Water floods the restroom floors in some Nassau schools where broken plumbing fixtures and poor maintenance are too often the rule.

Teachers complain that they are isolated in remote settlements, without proper health or professional facilities and with salaries too low to support their families.

They claim they are as devoted as anyone to the educational vision in their new country, but they can't live on conch chowder and the beauty of the beaches. The financing of improvements is one of the major problems the Ministry of Education and Culture is attacking.

The Man-O-War school represents both the strengths and weaknesses of the Bahamian system. Its single room has been divided into three sections with piano, play equipment, and desks for students grades 1-9.

The government could afford to send only two teachers for these nine grades, but the island's people funded the hiring of a local woman Jan Albury, who teaches just as she was taught here, with firmness, individual attention, and a lot of rote practice.

Head teacher Anthony Green and another young teacher educated in Nassau teach the older children (most of whom will not go past ninth grade) in a variety of subjects, including religion, an all-important subject in the Bahamas.

It all works surprisingly well. And although there are fading pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the wall, it is obvious that the real loyalty is t o the Bahamas and the future.

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