Education officials say some children are entering the primary school education system with a total vocabulary of just 100 words.
These youngsters are looking at an uphill climb but help is at hand.
‘If a child reaches school and they have no idea what reading is, then they are going to be very substantially delayed in learning,’ said Chief Education Officer Shirley Wahler. ‘Kids have got to have had some exposure to the concept of text.’
It will be a struggle but, according to education officials, they can still learn to read and write reasonably well.
‘Literacy starts with the words you know,’ explained Kate Marnoch, head of Education’s new Early Childhood Services Unit. ‘Kids need to be talked to, they need to play, they need to sing, to move, to be creative, and they need to be excited about the world. To improve reading skills you need lots of practice on what comes very easily – the things that engage children.’
The Early Childhood Services Unit, which has been operating since September, is now working aggressively with pre-schools and parents to make sure there is adequate assistance.
‘We also have an early intervention programme, which works to identify kids where we can see that there are going to be problems down the road and to do an intervention,’ she said.
Last year the Ministry of Education put a reading specialist in every school, which has already made a significant difference, said Corporate Communications Manager Louis Payne. ‘We also put in a large number of teachers’ support assistants and we increased the number of language pathology staff.’
Their expertise is in the development of speech and language skills.
‘In the past, language pathologists were just used for the Lighthouse School; they were employed as clinicians. Now they go to all the schools,’ he said.
If a child is not performing, it’s vital to find out why, said Mrs. Wahler.
‘It could be a whole range of issues,’ she said. ‘Is this a child who has special needs, a functional disability? Are there social issues that are affecting performance? Or is the child perfectly capable and simply sending us a message – and this is a big warning sign that there may be other issues. Some of them we can fix and some of them we can’t.’
That is where the educational psychologists come in.
Brent Holt, head of student services, says the number of educational psychologists has doubled in Government schools and support for children has become much more systematic than it was a year ago.
‘In the past we were waiting until Year 4 to determine which children had disabilities or were struggling and this presented challenges. Now we are addressing the problems earlier. We are looking at the charts and doing evaluations and figuring out which kids are falling behind and doing early interventions for children at risk and focusing services at them.’
There are no intensive reading, mathematics or computer classes specifically for those who are falling behind in these key subjects in Government schools.
The core management of the Department of Education has not ruled out the concept of after-school classes or summer school, but they currently favour a different approach.
‘We are pursuing a system called differentiated learning,’ said Mrs. Wahler. ‘We don’t think it is necessarily right to pull children out and give them extra hours outside of the regular schedule. What we are trying to do is identify those students who are falling behind and give them the individual support they need inside the classes. During the hours of provision you give them more of what they need – focused intervention.
‘Someone dropping behind on reading needs support. When we talk about the new curriculum one of the things we will be talking about is differentiation. Teachers have to recognise that within a classroom kids don’t all need the exactly same thing. You may all be studying Aztec, but within that umbrella different people will have different learning needs and we have to build in the capacity to do that and that is what our teachers have always talked about.’
Many new programmes and initiatives are under way at the Department of Education and in education in the Cayman Islands as a whole. There are new schools, new leaders of schools, split campuses and a new curriculum is being developed. There is a new student tracking system along with additional educational psychologists and teachers’ assistants. Many of these new initiatives evolved from the National Consensus on Education and have benefited from the support and encouragement of Education Minister Alden McLaughlin.
One of the key tools in identifying the needs of individual students is the SIMS tracking system (Schools Integrated Management System).
‘New software is being installed right now that will allow us to track each individual student in all aspects of their education, from Kindergarten right through to the workplace,’ said Mrs. Wahler.
‘Teachers will use this programme to generate students’ grades for the week, as well as term reports and teachers will have access to it all on their laptops. The student tracking system will make it easier for the teachers. Technology doesn’t work when it is an additional burden on people, but this makes the job simpler.’
SIMS has been used in various Government schools since the 1990s but the software for the original system, purchased from the US, had little relevance to the Caymanian education model.
It made inputting the information challenging for the teachers and it didn’t really work. Mrs. Wahler said demo versions of the new system are already being used at George Hicks and John Gray and they are proving to be popular with the teachers.
Mrs. Wahler said there are signs that changes are occurring. ‘In the primary schools we have seen significant improvements. Literacy has moved into the average range. The proof will be in a couple of years because the process is constantly evolving and we are still trying to improve it. There is no one answer. It takes a lot of actors coming together, a good and relevant curriculum, good resources and schools and good school leadership.’
According to Mr. Holt the literacy situation in Cayman is challenging, but not desperate. ‘We tested the reading levels for Year 2 kids, so last year 06/07 kids are in the average range. Our average is about the same as the United States levels. Our kids are performing at statistically the same overall.’
Mrs. Wahler noted, historically, the system has had significant literacy issues.
‘We see some improvements, but we do still have problems.Having testing is one thing. Using the data to actually change what you do for kids is another, so we are trying really hard to work with schools to match the children to their actual needs. Literacy specialists go into classes and help support teachers doing literacy instruction. They will teach some classes and work with some children directly.’
The Education Department is now in its first year operating under the new governance of educational model. The new look is supposed to make the Department more accountable. It is no longer meant to be a remote organisation. It is there to provide services. According to the chief education officer, ‘the schools are now the clients; they have the say. It is not as top down as it used to be. The Education Department is here to provide services. We want to actively help and assist the schools and the teachers.’
Mr. Payne said the Ministry would be putting together a list of all services provided by the Department, including contact names with phone numbers and email addresses and these would be made available for every teacher in all the schools.
‘We are seeing measurable differences, but are we going to see a whole lot of differences when we do the literacy testing in May? I hope so,’ said Mrs. Wahler. ‘But educational problems that took years to develop will take time to fix.’
For those adults who may feel the old Cayman Islands education system failed them, or they came away with marginal reading and writing skills, there is hope. The University College of the Cayman Islands now offers low cost evening classes at the college. These classes start at the very basic levels and work up. Some of the classes may also be useful for people who do not speak English as their first language.
They are open to anyone of any age and there are no academic requirements for entry.
The courses, which also include other areas such as mathematics and instruction on computers, typically run for 14 weeks.