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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

In the Caribbean / The Faces of Children

ASCD Executive Council members discover that learning about education in the Caribbean can inform their work back home.

The ASCD Executive Council has for many years held one of its meetings outside of the mainland of the United States. In addition to increasing our understanding of the role that ASCD can play in international settings, supporting the development of the affiliates, and conducting the business of the Association, these trips allow us to learn firsthand about education in other places. We visit schools and colleges and talk with education officials. ASCD serves educators in more than 100 countries, and visiting U.S. territories and other countries gives us a broader perspective that we can bring to our work.
Last October, we divided the Council into five teams, with each team visiting a different Caribbean site: Barbados, Curaçao, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, and Trinidad and Tobago. All Council members then gathered in Puerto Rico to share our experiences and conduct our meeting.
The ASCD President traditionally writes an article about the Council's trip, and I wondered how I would summarize visits to five island sites after going to just one island myself. Thanks to the multimedia presentations that each team presented in Puerto Rico, the task proved to be far easier than I expected. What jumped out at me was how the schools we visited in the islands were more similar to, rather than different from, our schools back home.

More Alike . . .

  • Policymakers, educators, and citizens in both places recognize the importance of education. Most of the islands in the Caribbean are rapidly making schooling compulsory. In Barbados, the literacy rate is 98 percent—one of the highest in the world. In Trinidad and Tobago, primary schooling is universal and educators are working toward the same goal at the secondary level.
  • Reform movements are reshaping education in the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, for instance, school reform has dramatically changed how schools are governed. Each school has a community council made up of the principal, parents, and teachers instead of a board of education. The council makes decisions about the budget and curriculum and hires teachers. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Secondary Education Modernization Program focuses on continuous school improvement initiatives.
  • The strong emphasis on early childhood education reminded us of one of the national education goals in the United States: All children will start school ready to learn. In Curaçao, all children can attend preschool; in Trinidad and Tobago, we found a major initiative to support early childhood and primary education.
  • Educators see information technologies as powerful tools for teaching and learning, and students are embracing the technologies with enthusiasm. The number of student computers and the availability of Internet access, however, are far more limited than in most U.S. schools. School reform in Barbados is centered on Edutech 2000, a vision that incorporates technology, professional development, and social and emotional learning. In a high school in Puerto Rico, we visited a computer lab where students were producing sophisticated multimedia presentations.
  • Educators recognize the need for teacher professional development because of the changing needs of the world; however, professional development is not readily available to all teachers on most of the islands. Nevertheless, professional development is a key component of Puerto Rico's reform movement, and the office of the superintendent for Puerto Rico now has professional development as one of its primary responsibilities.
  • Most educators believe that their schools are seriously underfunded and that teachers' salaries are not commensurate with their education and responsibilities.
  • As in the United States, many school buildings need repair and updating. The buildings are showing signs of age and were not designed to handle the electrical demands of computers.

. . . Than Different

  • Students in the Caribbean are often bilingual and study more than one language as early as the 1st grade. In Curaçao, for example, students speak a native language, Papiamento; learn in Dutch; and study English and French.
  • Schools are directly and strongly connected to the central government. In most cases, the ministry of education directs reform at the federal level. In Puerto Rico, the secretary of education hires administrators for schools.
  • The role of religion in education is significant in the islands. St. Maarten schools fall into five categories: Catholic, Methodist, Adventist, Protestant, and public.
  • The federal government funds private schools—in part or entirely—as well as public schools. In Curaçao, public funding supports both secular and religious schools. Schools in Trinidad and Tobago are categorized as either government, government assisted, or private.
  • Students of all ages wear uniforms, usually mandated by the ministry of education.

A Commitment to Children

Regardless of which island we visited, we were impressed with the beauty of the islands and the warmth of the people. We learned a great deal about education in five different island sites. But what struck me most about the groups' presentations was that each presentation focused on children, through photographs and text. One group summarized its visit with this statement: Children are children all over the world. This statement contains the essence of our experiences in the Caribbean and of ASCD.
Our visits reemphasized the appropriateness of ASCD's mission as a diverse, international community of educators, forging covenants in teaching and learning for the success of all learners. We visited schools that were humble on the outside, but glorious on the inside. Of course, glorious schools are the direct result of the work of a community of educators unified around the belief that education is the hope for a better tomorrow for the children they serve.
We witnessed such a commitment to education in St. Maarten, where the people were still rebuilding from devastating hurricanes that hit the island in 1995. Most of the schools on the island were destroyed, but education continued. Even under circumstances that most of us cannot imagine, these educators never gave up on their commitment to children.
Our visits to schools in the Caribbean reinforced the importance of ASCD to educators throughout the islands. We were surprised at how many teachers knew about ASCD, often because they had used ASCD publications in their teacher preparation programs or had seen ASCD videos in their professional development activities. We are more encouraged than ever to explore ways to make ASCD resources on teaching and learning available to teachers around the world, regardless of the challenging economic conditions in which those teachers work.
We also proudly noted that professionals in the island education systems highly respected ASCD's Caribbean affiliates—Puerto Rico ASCD, Curaçao ASCD, St. Maarten ASCD, and Trinidad and Tobago ASCD. When educators and policymakers discuss educational issues, the ministries of education look to the affiliates for input and advice. In Puerto Rico, the secretary of education warmly greeted the affiliate leaders by name, acknowledging the work that Puerto Rico ASCD does for education on the island.
Although we almost had to cancel our visit to the Caribbean because a hurricane threatened, we were pleased with our brief stay in the islands. It has added an important dimension to our thinking as ASCD leaders and as educators. We will be better able to understand and address educational issues around the world because we will look at those issues in a cultural context.

LeRoy E. Hay has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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