A year into the job, John Gray High School Principal Jon Clark says he is “loving the challenge” of transforming the school.
Mr. Clark, who took over Cayman’s biggest high school in February 2016, believes the school is heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know if I could say I’m happy with the progress made. I’m happy with the community support, with the response from the staff to what we are trying to do, with the energy of the kids,” he told the Cayman Compass in an interview.
“I think we have a lot more to push on with. We have to keep raising the bar.”
Mr. Clark said a key goal is to change the mindset of students.
“I want them to set their personal goals much higher than they have in the past,” he said. “There is a feeling that they go to John Gray and they are immediately a second-class student on the island and that they don’t have the same opportunities.”
In fact, Mr. Clark believes there are far greater opportunities and fewer barriers to success in the Cayman Islands than in areas of the U.K. where he has worked.
“The biggest barrier is mindset, and we are working on that. The number one thing is to get these young people to believe in themselves and see that they can be the next politician, the next journalist or lawyer.
“There are a small number for whom the goals will be different; being a good person, a shopkeeper, a waiter, a good father. These are good dreams to have as well.”
He points to a lower number of suspensions and disciplinary incidents and higher attendance at parents evenings as signs of progress. Exam results may take longer to show significant improvement, but he says some new measures, including a schoolwide focus on mathematics, will ultimately make a difference.
Last month the school canceled the timetable for a day to allow Year 11 students to take part in a “maths master class,” focusing on areas of weakness identified in mock exams.
John Gray’s exam results for 2016 show 63 percent gaining a level 2 pass or above in English, with just 33 percent achieving the same level, A to C or equivalent, in mathematics.
“It is the maths that is pulling us back and we are putting a real whole-school focus on that” he said.
“We are trying to have some brave conversations with kids and parents at Year 9. If they are still having blocks, we reduce their timetable slightly and focus on extra literacy and numeracy.”
Making breakthroughs with the weakest students, some of whom arrive at high school barely able to read, is seen as key to raising standards further, particularly in English.
“I don’t want to put a quick fix on this. It would be really easy to come in and exclude a lot of kids and focus on making the results look better. We are trying to make sure everyone makes progress. The lower ability kids are just as important as the top students.”
Mr. Clark cautions against expecting a constantly upward graph of improving results.
He said different cohorts of students have different abilities and their progress should be measured against their starting point.
Every Year 7 student now takes a cognitive ability test when they enter the school, and the aim is to create individual learning plans for each student.
“We have a plethora of data now that we can give to teachers, to students and to parents, and say this is what you need to do to improve. Instead of saying ‘pull your socks up,’ we can give them very specific information.”
Some of the improvements will need to come from work being done lower down in the school system. But Mr. Clark is confident that the necessary programs are now in place and cautions against calls for radical systemwide change.
“I think the structure is in place. I hear people calling for literacy interventions. Well, that is happening now.
“It takes time and it involves work at the primary school level. I won’t necessarily see the benefit of it until those kids come to John Gray in four or five years time.”
He said intervention is taking place with older students at John Gray, and the cohort entering primary school over the last two years will have greater access to literacy support than ever before. In theory, that will mean that when those students go on to high school, they will be better equipped to access the more diverse high school curriculum.
“Quality intervention has to happen lower down the school system for literacy and for behavior. The system is in place now, but we need to have consistency and buy into it and not chop and change when there are ups and downs.
“We know what works and if we keep pushing on, we will make serious progress that lasts. “Real change takes five or ten years. It is important to be consistent.”