As Cayman continues to develop its modern knowledge-based economy, concern is growing that some are being left behind.
Economic and social disadvantage, in many cases, translates to academic disadvantage. Schools and non-profits are working to break the cycle, but amid the impact of COVID-19 the challenges of poverty and social disruption are becoming greater even as the need for high-level education grows.
During the dog days of lockdown, Michelle Myles kept a close watch on the credit on her cell phone.
She would add 500 megabytes on a Sunday and by Thursday she would be screening calls to ensure she had enough data left for her 8-year-old daughter Miska to attend online classes the next day.
“I have to use it for her,” she said.
“You know if you take a WhatsApp call your credit goes fast, so you have to watch it.”
The pandemic highlighted a digital divide in Cayman, sparking concerns, particularly in education, of a gap between the haves and have-nots.
Children with laptops and iPads, their own bedrooms and computer-literate parents, had an obvious advantage over those who did not.
Access for students to computers and affordable, reliable internet became a priority in the aftermath of the pandemic. Government and the non-profit Literacy is for Everyone have moved to address the issue, investing in almost 3,000 laptops for schoolchildren to aid virtual-learning programmes.
But lack of access to technology – an obvious imperative when lessons are being delivered digitally – is far from the only area in which economic disadvantage translates to academic inequality.
Myles and her daughter went for a time without proper access to power and water.
Their living conditions have improved, but Myles, who works at hotel Locale, which has now converted to cater to long term residents, lost shifts in the aftermath of the pandemic and making rent on her new apartment in West Bay is a monthly challenge.
In those circumstances, it can be difficult to prioritise education, but Michelle and Miska are making progress.
Miska, who was struggling to keep up with her peers at George Town Primary School, has come up two grade levels in reading in the past year.
She has been working with a tutor four times a week as part of the charity Acts of Random Kindness’ Mentor Educate Reinforce programme which aims to lift children out of poverty through education.
The goal of the initiative, says Tara Nielsen of ARK, is to give youngsters from less-privileged backgrounds, who are falling behind in school, intensive support to help them to catch up.
Myles is happy to see her daughter’s progress.
“She has improved in school. In her last exam she did very well.”
Every night, she sits at the kitchen table with her daughter and helps her with her homework.
“I push her because I want the best for her,” she says.
“I want her to get a scholarship so she can go further in education. She says she wants to be a doctor – if you want to be a doctor your education has to be to the top standard.”
Breaking the cycle
ARK currently helps 13 students through the MER programme. But that is just a fraction of the problem, warns Nielsen.
There was a long waiting list of children in need of support, she says, adding, “I would say it is in the hundreds.”
Four out of 10 children in Cayman enter high school without reaching the expected level for their age group in English or maths, according to the 2019 Education Data Report.
The concept for the MER programme began with the work ARK does to support families with housing challenges.
The charity saw children living in difficult situations with parents who were struggling to keep the lights on and lacked the will or the way to prioritise their education.
Nielsen says she has seen many examples of children growing up, falling behind in school, dropping out, suffering the same employment challenges as their parents and coming back to ARK as young adults looking for help with food and housing.
Investing in education early enough, she believes, can break that cycle and prevent greater costs to government and non-profits in the long run.
Some parents, she says, are working hard to provide the best for their children. But their circumstances mean they need a little extra support to keep up academically with families that have better resources.
Fighting for a better future
As a single father of three girls since the breakdown of his marriage, Dennis Campbell is grateful for whatever help he can get.
He wants his daughters to be able to realise their dreams of being a doctor, a vet and a marine biologist. He is hustling every day to put food on the table, clothes on their backs and to ensure they are safe and happy. Education is one more thing to manage.
His youngest daughter, Destiny, 8, is one of the newest students to be admitted to ARK’s tutoring programme. She and her sisters Carol-Ann, 13, and Dejah-Lee, 12, are also involved in the charity’s robotics club.
Dennis and his daughters live in the house where he grew up, across from a barber shop on Eastern Avenue.
It was a busy place during Dennis’ childhood. His mother and grandmother fostered scores of children between them over the years.
“There were always people coming and going,” he remembers.
“There would be a knock on the door in the night and it would be the police with a baby.”
The house is quieter now.
Both his grandmother and his mother have passed. His support network has collapsed around him but, in his own way, Dennis is carrying on the family tradition.
“I’m working hard, holding my job, trying to do everything I can for my girls,” he said.
In the mornings he presses their uniforms, gets their breakfast and makes sure they make it safely to school before he goes off to his own job as a courier at RBC.
“It’s a challenge but it is a mission with a purpose,” he said.
When he comes home, sometimes the girls are there before him. The family circumstances have made them grow up quickly and they have learned to do a lot for themselves, helping with the cooking, cleaning and the laundry.
“I get home and they say ‘Daddy how was your day, did you eat today, sit down, relax’ – they help me so much.”
Sometimes money is tight, but the family is getting by.
“Even if we share one plate of food with four forks – everybody eats and everybody goes to bed happy,” he said.
Amid the challenges of a divorce and money struggles, Dennis says he is happy to have some support for his children’s education.
“Anything to do with education, sign me up for that,” he said.
“I tell them every day that all I want for them is to get a good education.
“Every time I drop them off I tell them, ‘Listen to your teacher, focus on your work.’ They are such beautiful souls. I just want the best for them.”
Positive role models
The programme also provides a mentor, who can act as a kind of aunt or ‘big sister’ to the girls, says Nielsen.
The aim is to give them positive role models and to broaden their horizons about what they can do with their lives.
The core belief at the centre of ARK’s programme is that many of the academic challenges faced by students in Cayman’s schools are linked to social and economic challenges.
Miska, Destiny and her sisters have a head start compared to others, not just because of ARK’s support, but because they have parents who, despite their lack of resources, care enough about their education to seek support.
Nielsen’s biggest concern is the children she can’t help.
She believes the programme is barely scratching the surface of the problem.
“There is so much demand for us to roll out the programme across all schools, but we only have funding for so many students,” she says.
If ARK’s efforts achieve nothing else, she hopes the charity can change the lives of the children within the programme and demonstrate the importance of reading for early years students.
Almost every other problem in the school system and, to a degree, in society, stems, from this foundational issue, she believes.
Children who struggle to read fall behind in other subjects, become disengaged or have behavioural issues. Eventually, they drop out or graduate high school without meaningful qualifications and the cycle begins again.
“We started this because we wanted to get to the root of the problem. Reading at grade level is the number one issue we have to get right,” she said.