Jon Clark is feeling optimistic.
Three weeks after taking up one of the most challenging and important jobs in the Cayman Islands, the new principal of John Gray High School sees plenty of reasons for hope.
“I never want to go and take over as principal of a school that is already outstanding. I want to be on that journey,” he told the Cayman Compass this week.
“My passion is for turning kids’ lives around,” he said. “I think if we can harness the energy, resilience and the determination that these students have, the progress we can make will be huge.”
His appointment follows a highly critical inspection report and ongoing concerns about student behavior at the school.
Mr. Clark, a specialist in behavior management, said he has arrived with his “eyes open,” prepared and excited for the challenge.
“I am the sort of guy that prefers to be 2-0 down and trying to come back and win 3-2,” he said. “I like to be the underdog.”
He has actually been pleasantly surprised by what he has seen at John Gray so far: a vibrant school community, a strong leadership team, excellent teaching in some areas and a school-improvement plan in place to lift standards in other areas.
“We have got students that can compete with any on the islands,” he said. “Look at our students in Youth Parliament this week, they are going to set the world alight.
“They have excelled coming through a tough system and their resilience is going to make them incredibly rounded people. We want to increase the number of students like that.”
Some of the John Gray student population come from difficult family backgrounds and bring a variety of social issues to school with them. Mr. Clark, who has worked to turn schools around in disadvantaged areas of London amid multicultural communities riven with gang violence and knife crime, sees nothing so far in Cayman that suggests there are unique issues that cannot be surmounted.
If students have problems at home, school should be a safe place where their eyes are opened to options beyond their immediate environment, he said. “The answer is always education.”
Arriving in the middle of a school year, with Year 11 students preparing for their end-of-school exams, he acknowledged that now is not the time for a revolution.
But, he said, quiet reform is taking place. Simple things like ensuring children are in class on time, have become a priority.
“This week, we have started a real push to maximize learning time. I want teachers to start lessons on time and I want the kids to get to the lessons on time. We have got senior management out around school hustling people and reminding them of our school values – right time, right place.”
Other subtle reforms will follow. He is concerned about attendance at parents’ evenings, often as low as 30 percent.
“In every issue, we are trying to dig a bit deeper. If we want to get parents engaged, we are going to have to do something different.”
One idea under consideration is taking parents’ evenings, also known as reporting sessions, on the road, potentially holding occasional sessions in West Bay to make it easier for people to attend.
“The school is part of the community, so we need to get out in the community,” Mr. Clark said. “We need the support of parents if we are going to succeed.”
After analyzing data on suspensions of students over the past few years, he said, the statistics show a high number of exclusions, but a relatively small number of repeat offenders. “What the data shows is that 90 percent of our students are doing the right things every day. They have a really clean behavior record and haven’t been involved in any issues.”
He said the school needs to deal with the consistent offenders, giving them the additional support and attention, as well as targeting lower level behavior, disrupting lessons.
“My focus is on allowing teachers to teach and students to learn,” he said. “Anybody who disrupts learning in a classroom will be dealt with severely.”
Another immediate focus is on improving reading and math skills for those students who come out of primary school, ill-equipped for a high-school curriculum.
“If we put resources into those students early on, then we will see the benefits throughout their time at the school and we will have happier students who can access the curriculum and are less likely to misbehave.”
Many of the building blocks are already in place, he said, in what he described as a strong school improvement plan implemented by officials in the aftermath of last year’s inspection report.
“I need to speak to students, speak to parents, speak to staff and really form a vision that complements that plan,” he said.
For the students who do seize their chances, he believes the Cayman Islands is a place of enormous opportunity. In the past few weeks, students have been involved in learning opportunities at Health City and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, the Youth Parliament and an international underwater robotics challenge.
Employment and further education opportunities in the Cayman Islands and overseas are accessible, and scholarship funding is in place. “In many ways, this is an amphitheater of opportunity. We need to equip our students to make the most of those opportunities.”