Sir John A. Cumber teachers happy with new curriculum

Teachers say they're hopeful students will meet new standards

Cleodean Cooper engages her students in a discussion at Sir John A. Cumber Primary School.

            Despite some reports that the rollout of the new curriculum in government primary schools has encountered major problems, teachers and administrators at Sir John A. Cumber Primary say implementing the new programme has gone relatively smoothly. They also say the new curriculum is a significant step up from what was previously being taught.

“I think it’s a massive improvement,” said Sarah Crowley, numeracy specialist for the school.

Crowley, who spent her early years in Cayman, but was largely raised and educated in the US, has been teaching at Sir John A. Cumber since 2012.

“I think it’s something we’ve needed in education here for a long time,” Crowley said of the curriculum, which is a slightly modified version of a system being used in the UK. “If we can reach the goal we’ve set for ourselves, looking forward into the future, it will really benefit Cayman.”

In January and March of this year, a team of officials from the Ministry of Education, including Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, travelled to London to tour British schools and see the curriculum in practice. In April, Cayman teachers first got a look at a ‘rough draft’ of the material and were given the opportunity to begin employing some of it before the system was fully implemented at the start of this school year.

The ministry did not provide a requested figure on the cost of the new programme.

Jovanna Wright, in her first year as principal at Sir John A. Cumber, said the new curriculum provides a way for her school to return to the higher standards she experienced as a student there.

“The principal and teachers I had here, they were the reason I went into education,” Wright said. “I cried when I had to leave the school.”

With that, she feels an added sense of responsibility.

“As a nation, we’ve lowered our standards,” Wright said.

She sees the new curriculum as at least a partial remedy to that. It raises performance standards and requires students to have higher skill levels at earlier stages. One of the major challenges, Wright said, is the big difference between what the new standards dictate and how much students currently know. The new curriculum provides a greater emphasis on such things as grammar, reading skills, investigative science and social studies, the latter of which has been tailored for the Cayman Islands.

“Our children are so far behind, we have to fill the gaps,” she said.

Accomplishing that, Wright explained, will be part of what she referred to as a “long, rough year”.

“This will be the most difficult year,” she said. “Once we lay everything out, we should be fine after that.”

In addition to transforming the curriculum, the Department of Education has provided schools with more resources to help accomplish the needed changes, Wright said, adding, “The teachers have never had this much support before.”

Each class at Sir John A. Cumber from reception to Year 3 has a full-time teaching assistant, she said. From Years 4-6, there are three assistant teachers for every four classes. In addition, the school has an occupational therapist — who has an assistant — two psychologists, a speech therapist and a specialist for visually- and hearing-impaired students.

The school has also established learning programmes before and after school as well as during lunch hour for students who need additional help in getting up to speed.

The support that teachers seem to most appreciate, however, is the added resources they’ve been given in the way of prescribed lesson plans, textbooks and workbooks.

“I don’t have to go home and spend countless hours thinking about, ‘What strategy am I going to be teaching?’” Erica Greenridge-Daniels, who teaches Year 2, said. “I can open up the book and say, ‘We’re doing this today.’ At 2am, I’d be doing lesson plans. Now, I can do them in two hours or less.”

It’s also saving her money. In past years, she said, she spent $500 to $700 per year on learning materials for her students. “This year, I only had to buy stickers.” she said.

Providing meaningful and standardised feedback was one of the areas Sir John A. Cumber was found to be weak in during a recent inspection by the Office of Education Standards.

But Greenridge-Daniels is a believer. A 30-year veteran of the classroom, she gave the old curriculum a rating of three on a one-to-10 scale. The new programme, she said, rates a nine.

“Already, I’m seeing the bulk of them making progress,” she said of her students. The majority, she said are working beyond the targeted performance measures.

Of course, the programme’s success will be measured at the end of the year. One of the chronic problems in Cayman’s government schools has been low performance on standardised tests, especially when compared with other students internationally.

“We’re pretty confident that at the end of the year, they’ll be where they need to be,” Crowley said, referring to the targets the school has been given. “Just the idea that there’s hope to get there has done much for morale at the school,” Crowley said.

Conversations she’s had with peers at Prospect and Red Bay primary schools, she said, led her to believe that Sir John A. Cumber is representative of what’s taking place systemwide.

However, there have been anonymous complaints from some schools about problems with implementing the new curriculum.

Two school principals who indicated the new programme was going well at their schools and who agreed to speak on the subject, later rescinded those offers, saying they had been told by Department of Education officials not to speak to the Compass.

Repeated requests for interviews and information on the new curriculum from officials at the department and the Ministry of Education have been either referred to other officials or ignored.

The ministry has hired a public relations firm to put together a media campaign on the new curriculum. It was originally planned to be unveiled in October but was then delayed. O’Connor-Connolly, who has mentioned the curriculum in public speeches, but has provided little in the way of details, said she expects the campaign to be ready sometime in January. She said she would not comment on the curriculum until then.