If there’s one word you might use to describe Heritage High School Leader Steven Clark, enthusiasm definitely comes to mind.
He’s head of one of Cayman’s four new schools within-a-school that have replaced the sprawling 1,000-student George Hicks High School.
‘With the new structure in place, we knew we had a great opportunity to do things better,’ he said.
He set his sights on relationships, teaching and learning.
‘After Ivan, things turned around for a lot of kids who lost a lot and had to deal with getting back on their feet,’ he says.
He thinks that building relationships is a crucial step in the learning process, where respect, and attention, can help the learning process.
‘For one, under the previous arrangement, with such a large number of students on such a spread-out campus, it was difficult to manage the socializing environment,’ he says.
Schoolyard confrontation, unruly behaviour and academic indifference were a real challenge.
‘Already, cutting down the schools to 250-or so student units has helped both student-student and teacher-student relationships – people here now have the chance to get know each other better, and interact better,’ he says.
But Mr. Clark is looking for more than merely passive social improvements.
He made sure Heritage students still have a number of play and gathering areas where they can interact under supervision, including a popular basketball hoop and a new garden-in-progress, planted with the help of the Cayman Islands Garden Club.
‘We want to provide places for them to have some space for reflection, as well as interaction, leading to a more friendly campus,’ he says.
Interest in the students’ well-being is well in evidence in Mr. Clarke’s office, where, along with the requisite schedules and notices, dozens of poster boards showing groups of happy students at various school events cram the walls.
Contrary to typically fearful visitors to the principal’s office, young people who are summoned in for a word are courteous and happy.
‘We really like everything that’s changed,’ says Year 8 student Renee.
‘It’s homey here, and we will really miss it next year.’
Already a Cayman spelling bee champion, Renee has recently developed a keen interest in math, and thinks she’d like to be either a defence or family lawyer.
‘We just don’t want to leave,’ adds fellow Year 8 Brian.
Since the start of this year, Brian, who wants to be a pilot, has been helping out a lot around the office before school, as well as organizing information on the school’s computer system.
Chatting with these two, it’s easy to see the budding sense of engagement students have with the school.
Mr. Clark wants to nurture that sense of belonging.
‘For example, when it comes to feeling part of a group, recreation and sports are always up there,’ he says.
And while the school’s athletic achievers are encouraged to hone their skills and compete at inter-school events, the less athletic are not passed over.
At the school’s sports day, for example, care is taken to include events every student can take part in, like tug-of-war.
Another bonus of the smaller campus is that students have slightly longer classes and less down time spent travelling between them. A 10-minute walk between buildings has been cut down to three or four.
‘We have been very lucky with the inclusion of technology in the learning process,’ says Mr. Clark.
That includes, for example, a revolutionary smart board learning tool in Social Studies teacher Maxine Eldemire’s classroom.
The ingenious device is a blackboard-size screen that projects a computer display at the front of the class like a standard power point projector – with an amazing twist. It’s interactive, so during class, students can also draw on it, click and drag pictures and words around, and manipulate the images on the screen. The resulting work can then be saved and printed off.
In addition, each classroom has at least one computer, and students take a computer class as part of the curriculum.
Mr. Clarke is open to trying all sorts of new ways to interest students in doing well.
The focus on achievement is not purely academic, either. Prizes are also given for collecting Way to Go! points, which are earned for classroom effort, behaviour, achievement and good citizenship.
But achievement comes in other forms, and those students who experience difficulties now have the benefit of six on-site teacher support staff, and a full-time reading specialist.