Island Soul City Dreams

I love New York, but my heart has a Caribbean beat. It pulsates to the traditions of my people. Attuned to the rhythms of this City, I stay West Indian to the bone. I reflect. I analyze. I speak my mind. ~ I Keep it Irie ~

Children And Testing – The Bajan Edition

At Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados 2013 getting goodbye kisses from my nephew Nicholai before I returned to NYC.

At Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados 2013 getting goodbye kisses from my nephew Nicholai before I returned to NYC.

My sweetheart sister Sancia pissed me off this past week. And if you know me, you know she’s my world. Born on the day I turned 4, I consider Sancia my best birthday gift ever! I’ve loved her from day one, and growing up, even though I was always the smaller one between the two of us, I always felt like her protector, like a big sister. She has always been a darling, thoughtful, generous, bright, one of the most naturally intelligent people I know, highly intellectual, compassionate, she possesses a sharp wit, and just like our mother, is fortitudinous beyond imagination. Like me, she loves a good laugh. Unlike me, she’s tolerant of people and their BS. Whatever our similarities or differences, my mom constantly says we have made her extremely proud. One of us has also made her a proud grandmother – my sister, with her gifted son, my beloved nephew, Nicholai. I’ve previously blogged about Nicholai in “I Got Mail – A Handwritten Letter”  and in “My Little Track Star.” Just like his mother, Nicholai is tied to my heartstrings. There is very little either of them could do wrong by me. Over the years, as siblings do from time to time, my sister and I have had our differences, but whenever it came to her differences with anyone else, be it our mom or Nicholai’s estranged father, or whatever challenge Sancia has had to face, I’ve always found myself in her corner.

On Wednesday, the results came back for the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination, popularly referred to as the Common Entrance Exam or the 11+. The exam is taken by primary school students for placement at any of the island’s 22 secondary schools and tests their skills in English, math and composition writing. Here in New York, the equivalent (of sorts) to the 11+ might be considered the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test taken by academically and artistically gifted students. Unlike this select group of students, in Barbados, however, every pupil that turns 11 by August 31 of an academic year must take the 11+. The higher their test scores, the better their chances of securing a coveted place at one of the more prestigious schools. Again, for my New Yorkers, consider the competition for and prestige of schools such as Brooklyn Latin School, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, Staten Island Technical High School, and Stuyvesant High School etc. In Barbados, the elite or older secondary schools as they’re called include: Christ Church Foundation School; The St. Michael School; The Lodge School; Combermere; Queen’s College (QC), and the institution that has traditionally been number one – Harrison College (HC) a.k.a. Kolij. Harrison College has produced five of Barbados’ seven prime ministers and its students hold the record for winning the most government scholarships and awards to pursue tertiary education. Nicholai gained entry, or as we say in Barbados, “passed” for Harrison College. He is disappointed. My sister is depressed.

In Barbados, the issue of which secondary school one attends has always been a contentious one to say the least. Our society has long been known to judge a student and their potential for excellence by just the school uniform they wear. Unfortunately, some schools that fall into the “newer secondary schools” category have often suffered from this stereotype. Many students at these institutions have occasionally struggled with morale issues when compared to their peers at older secondary schools, so named because they were established in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. Most of the newer schools were opened in the mid to late 20th century. Older secondary schools arguably boast far more illustrious histories and prominent alumni than newer secondary schools. But they all provide pretty much the same education, similar syllabi, equally qualified faculty, same extracurricular activities, same exams to graduate and ultimately the same opportunities for a successful future. Perhaps, the biggest difference is the seemingly high “pressure” placed on students at older secondary schools to uphold the reputations of their respective schools.

When I was my nephew’s age, I was among the top students in my primary school class. I was also a champion track athlete. Like me, Nicholai consistently achieved high academic success and was a star athlete throughout primary school. He surpassed my accomplishments by going on to represent and medal for Barbados at the Caribbean Union of Teachers Track and Field Championships. Unlike his, my Common Entrance results shocked my teachers, family and me. Everyone thought I would have passed for Kolij, and I had dreamt of going to QC. This was also Nicholai’s dream. My scores were good enough to get me into The St. Michael School, but miraculously, I passed for a newer secondary school – Roebuck Secondary School (RSS), later renamed The Louis Lynch Secondary School.

I cried for days. I felt like a total failure. All my friends were going to Queen’s College, St. Michael, Foundation etc., and I was going to what seemed like a no-name school. My mother reacted like how many moms do when 11+ results are less than what’s expected. She was angry, disappointed and because of our stereotypical Bajan society, she was embarrassed that her daughter – known as a bright girl in the neighborhood – did not pass for a “top” school. She initially wanted to send me to a private school called Codrington College, but my uncles and family friends convinced her that with my ability, I could excel at any school.

Roebuck turned out to be the crème de le crème of newer secondary schools. Known for its well-respected principal Linda Jemmott, a strict disciplinarian, RSS students boasted impeccable deportment and rose “From Strength to Strength” to rival the academic success of some older schools. I ended up in one of the most competitive classes ever, with peers who just like me, had scored well on the 11+ but missed out on the older secondary schools. So for my first five years of secondary school, my classmates and I fought to outdo each other academically, some of us performing well enough to move on to older secondary schools/sixth-form or Barbados Community College for two years of Advanced Level studies. But my time at Roebuck was perhaps the best of my life. I excelled academically, represented my school in quizzes, debates, youth parliament, spelling Bee’s, I was a member of the school choir, photography club, foreign language club and a winning track athlete. In the latter capacity, one of my biggest achievements was being part of an under 13-girls 4X100m relay team that set a record at the Inter-School Sports Athletics Championships, a record that stood for almost 20 years.

It was at Roebuck, a newer secondary school where: I made some of my most cherished and lifelong friends; had some of the most caring, motivating teachers; where I learned to accept defeat, celebrate victories; where I built the discipline for which I’m known today; where I learned the value of a good education; and where much of my character was molded. Today, I’m a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa college graduate and hold a master’s degree from an Ivy League – Columbia University. Today, among those from my graduating class at Roebuck who are making things happen are medical doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers, marketing executives and at least one gutsy journalist.

Just like my own story, I believe any 11 year-old starting secondary school should be made to understand that it’s not the institution that will determine their success. It is how he/she applies himself/herself; it is about having a supporting and loving parent/guardian to help guide them along. My sister, a single mother for most of Nicholai’s life is one such parent and more, a super woman, I call her. And that is one of the reasons why her reaction annoyed me. Nicholai passed for the country’s most illustrious secondary school. Sure, because this little boy’s heart was set on QC, he’s disappointed; I can understand that.

Within the past couple of years, an increasing number of Barbadian parents have been opting for QC as first pick over HC when submitting the schools of choice for their children. This growing demand has apparently now made the scores to get into QC higher than those to get into HC. Some Bajans think this is just a current trend and not an enduring reality. Nicholai’s high scores made him eligible to get into QC. My sister, however, had submitted HC as first choice. She made this decision for a few reasons: HC’s status; Nicholai’s abilities; HC’s proximity to both where they live and my sister’s job as a teacher, which makes it easy to pick up or drop off Nicholai; the fact that HC is located in the heart of Bridgetown in comparison to QC which is further away to the west of the island and requires a bus transfer – she had reservations about this should Nicholai sometimes have to take public transportation.

I’m no parent, but I can imagine that any mother or father would share their child’s disappointment. My sister said she felt as if she’d committed a crime by not putting QC first. I wanted to empathize with her, to be in her corner as always, but all I could see as a realistic Bajan looking in, as someone who’s been through my journey, was that she made a conscious decision about HC. All I could see was, if she regretted her decision then she should take action to try to get Nicholai a transfer to QC, if possible. All I could see was, that she was depressed about her son going to Harrison College – the Eton of the Caribbean! Who gets upset at a thing like that?

All I could see was that my sister was making a pity party out of what should have been a celebration and a teaching moment for Nicholai. But what I saw most of all, what pissed me off most, is how some parents allow the 11+ results to consume them. The Common Entrance is not the end. The work now starts for these children. So parents, buck the heck up, encourage your children no matter what school they pass for, no matter society’s stupid stereotypes. Because one guaranteed thing in Barbados is that no matter if it’s a newer or an older secondary school, your child is going to get a damn good education!

 ~ I Keep it Irie ~

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24 thoughts on “Children And Testing – The Bajan Edition

  1. Sandra G on said:

    Well said. I wholeheartedly agree with you. My philosophy is “it’s not the that school that makes the student but the student’s ability to achieve at the school”. My son had many challenges in his young life and was absent from school a great deal but he still achieved placement at one of the older less recognized Secondary Schools and I am proud of his achievements. We, the parents, need to stop stereotyping and make sure we are behind the children and encourage them to succeed.

  2. Janice Linton on said:

    Ma Quita, I write this with tears in my eyes. Not only because I too, attended Louis Lynch Secondary (LLS), formerly Roebuck Seconday School as you did but I’m honored to have been your Prefect in your first year at LLS. Although you were very tiny, I always saw a bright spark about you and knew that you would excel at everything you did. Although, the LLS is defunct you’re definitely among the bright sparks that came through the corridors of LLS and that have done well professionally. This is why the name of LLS will still live on even though the physical structure of the LLS is no more.
    Like you, when I did the 11 plus in my time I was expected to pass for one of the older secondary schools. Actually, I got the marks for the Lodge School but because of how my parents listed the schools it turned out I was placed at the LLS. I was so disappointed as some of my classmates were attending the Lodge School and it was very close to where I lived. My father hit the roof and was very disappointed and made calls to his contacts at the Ministry of Education. The news was that I could only get a place at the Lodge School after I completed the entire first form year and that I achieved top marks in that class consistently over the the 3 school terms in the first form. Well, with a heavy heart I had no choice but to go to this “no name school”. I buckled down and did what my father wanted and I used to place either come 1st, 2nd or 3rd position in class scoring overall at least 80%-90% scores. But something happen to me during that first year, the school grew on me, I like the dedication of the teachers and Ms. Linda Jemmott as a caring Principal and best of all I made a lot of new friends – I didn’t want to leave.
    So by the time the 3rd term of the first year came to an end, my parents and I meet with Ms. Jemmott and Ms. Jemmott thinking that it would be the last time she would have seen me gave me my report and told my parents that she is going to miss a bright spark from her school. My father shock Ms. Jemmott by telling her that even though the Ministry of Education had a place for me at the Lodge School, he’d had a change of heart and decided to let me stay on at the LLS. I too was shocked at his change of heart and I thanked my father for letting me stay. Sorry to make this a long story but I know that being at the LLS has helped to shape me academically and professionally. As I’ve come to discover, no matter what school you go to everyone pretty much ends up at either the Barbados Community College, the UWI or any other place of tertiary education!

    • Janice, you got me all sentimental! That was really sweet! Very touching. No reason to apologise for the length, I was happy to hear your story. I think parents ought to share more of these stories with their children in helping them deal with 11+ results, starting secondary school, and over all, as life lessons. I’m glad your shared this. And I really appreciate your kind words. Thanks so much for reading, commenting and your support. Much love sistren!:-) xx

    • And how remiss of me not to mention you were the “bestest” prefect ever! You left a lasting impression on me, and the rest of the class for that matter. I remember us in 4th and 5th form still talking about you – long after you’d graduated – and comparing our subsequent prefects to you. None of them ever matched up! You were a tough act to follow. Thanks for such a warm welcome to RSS. I stole a bit from your style, when I later became prefect/year prefect!;-) Let Jason Prescod tell you all about it lol!

  3. Natalia on said:

    I swear the 11+ is geared for some children to fail. It’s time for the ministry of education to realise all children don’t learn at the same speed. After doing Psychology at UWI this last semester, and learning about different intelligence tests, we as a people really need to wake up and realise going to HC or QC is not the be all and end all. You know I went QC and Cindy Reid went HC- wherever we went we would have learned- as simple as that. I say set up for them to fail in respect of the way the world is moving, what children from different socio-economic backgrounds have access to, that kinda thing. Enough schools aren’t doing remedial teaching here either.

    • Thanks so much Nat!
      Yes, there are a few issues with the system, but ultimately it stands tall when compared to so many places in this world.

      My Jamaican friends often tease me about Barbados’ lack of outstanding track athletes, well beyond CARIFTA level. I tell them that several of said junior athletes do get scholarships and go US colleges, including Division 1 colleges. But they’ve grown up in a system that puts much more focus on academics than athletics. So, I find that these athletes do just enough to keep their scholarships, but put everything into getting their education and a successful career outside sports.

      I think the fact that successive Barbadian governments have invested so heavily in our education – free from primary through tertiary -has not only made our high literacy rate one of the world’s highest, but also contributed in many ways to our ranking as a Developed Nation (by the UN). This focus Government puts on our education, has also created a society that views the 11+ almost as an “it’s the end of the world” matter! Lol!

  4. agree with u 100%, parents need to understand that it mainly depends on the child and themselves to set the goals that they want, the school is only 1 of the tools that can be used to gain the success that they want

    • Thanks G!:-)
      True that! I understand that not every child has the type of “focus” as that young lady who was among the top students this year and already knows she wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, but with the right guidance and application, a child going to a newer secondary school can create and fulfill such dreams too!

  5. Neil Ifill on said:

    Maquita… I was reading and laughing at all of the hullabaloo that Barbadians make of the 11+. I went to QC, but was disappointed that I didn’t go to Combermere or the Lodge School. I went to the QC that was across from HC, not the new campus up in Husbands. I remember all of the fuss at my primary school, and who got into where. I can’t believe that that particular tradition still endures in Barbados. The more things change, the more they remain the same, I guess. Great post!

    • Man Neil, one would think by now, that Bajans have moved beyond that mindset lol! Alas, that silly “mentality” re: secondary school prevails. *Sigh*
      Thanks so much for reading and your feedback! I appreciate that! One Love!:-)

  6. J (a man who went to Kolij but credited his award to BCC one year later) on said:

    “…The work now starts for these children…” Being in an environment where everyone is competing at a high level might help or hinder due to pressure, if you believe the B’dos radio-shows. The reality is that in a world where access to the right resources is pretty much universal, it matters not which school your child “passes for”, but what support you provide as a parent to their continued education, their environment, their mindset and attitude and their further learning. Stop seeing your child’s 11+ results as a reflection on you as a parent and realise that these outdated exams were supposed to place your child in an environment that would be optimal for his/her rate and style of learning. But ultimately is is now down to your child (and your support/supervision) how he/she does in life, because clearly, “…the work now starts for these children…”

    • Well said J! You made several pertinent points. It’s so true re: parents seeing 11+ results as a reflection on themselves! I feel that some parents could benefit from professional counseling to help them deal with Common Entrance results lol! Thanks so much for reading and your valuable feedback, I really appreciate that.:-)

  7. Katrina on said:

    What you said is so true there is too much stigmatizing when it comes to the 11+. I see it at school so much, being at what would be considered one of the lowest Secondary Schools in Barbados with students gaining a “pass” with 0 -35% it is truly amazing to see the passes and strides these children make to gain CXCs. These children gain the same CXCs that all Secondary Schools in Barbados and also schools across the Caribbean gain.

    There must really be a mental renewal in Barbados about the status of schools and realise the need to cater to all people with varying deficiencies/gifts. So I would say that some of the newer secondary schools may be more equipped to prepare students for life and gaining jobs especially those in the lower socio-economic bracket. Many of these newer schools have Technical and Vocational subjects in areas that we all need therefore employment can be assured. However how many doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers etc can a small country sustain and how many lower socio-economic homes can afford to pay for their education without disadvantaging the entire family.

    • Thanks for your insightful feedback Kat. That situation you described at that newer secondary school made me sad. I could only imagine how hard some of those students are trying – in every way – to achieve success. You’re so right re: mental renewal! As my bredren Neil said in an earlier comment, it’s unbelievable that these silly traditional attitudes regarding the schools one attends, still exist in Barbados! 😦

  8. Paulette Henry (nee Evelyn) on said:

    I so agree with your comments Maquita. Being in the system I know what it’s like to see children cry and become totally depressed at not making it to one of the “good” schools in the island even though they would have improved in their academic performances over time. The White Paper on education speaks about “each one matters but in no way does the 11+ cater to this. I pray for the day when all of the theories regarding multiple intelligences, constructivism, learning abilities, continuous assessment and the like would be made practical in Barbados so that all of our children can be allowed to perform at their true potential and experience success when they are ABLE to do so. Anthony Griffith in today’s edition of the Nation Newspaper (June 18, pp. 11) puts it aptly…you should give it a read. Keep up the good work!!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Paulette! Yours was some valuable insight. I have no suggestions or solutions for a more effective method of testing, but indeed, I too hope that someday there will be a system that gets the best out of all the children.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have paid membership to the Nation online, so I’m able to properly access any stories there. Unless, someone passes a print version my way, I wouldn’t be able to read the story you recommend. :-/Sorry.

      Thanks again for your feedback and encouragement! Bless up sis.😊

  9. I am so in agreement with you and I am so pleased that you have written on this subject. I can so relate to your story. Being born in Barbados and raised both there and NYC, having spent my Summers in NYC since 1980 and moved to the US permanently once completing secondary school there, I had the best of both worlds.
    I am a proud Barbadian, however there are so many issues with our educational system. It seems that those children with the incredible mechanical minds and suchlike are not considered in these tests. Our system is not about variety and uniqueness. Why not focus on the student’s entire body of work for the past two years?
    When I sat the exam back in 1983, there were only two schools that I was expected to go to, HC or QC. Imagine being the Head-Girl and not passing for Harrison’s College?. The teachers held a meeting to discuss my very disappointing pass to The Alexandra School. It was of little importance that the Alexandra School founded in 1894, was also an older school, at the time, a first class, all girls institution and was my choice because it was closer to home. My class teacher called me to the front of the class and in front of the student body, proceeded to state how very disappointed she was in me. I was embarrssed and devastated. At eleven, being Head-Girl, the fastest track athlete in the school’s history, soloist in the school choir, lead in every school.play and representing my school in hand-writing competitions, I was told that I had let down the entire school. I was made to believe that I was a failure. All of the other outstanding attributes that I possessed meant nothing. Not once was the speech given, ensuring us students that no matter where we went, with the right attitude, diligence and dedication, that we will be poised for success. That experience haunted me for years. Despite my class teacher making such ridiculous comments, uttering such rubbish to me, my parents sang a different tune. My dear Mother was proud of me as was my Dad. I had some of the best years of my life at the Alexandra School and give thanks for the experience.
    I want to take this time to congratulate Nicholai. I thank you for bringing him to my design studio and art gallery to spend time with me. I am so very proud of him and would be no matter what school he had passed for.
    It is indeed a sad day when in 2013, we as a nation is still so focused on what secondary school a child passes for. Don’t they all for the most part study the same national curriculum?
    Continue to share your stories, you my dear write from an organic place and that is from the heart.
    One Love Sis ♡

    • Queenie, sorry my response was so lengthy.

      • Jules, my dear, your response was not at all too lengthy.😊 No apology necessary. I was happy to hear your experience(s). I really appreciate you reading and commenting. It’s great to have these conversations. Thanks so much for always offering your feedback (on and offline)!:-) xx

    • Julie, my dear, you always say the most thoughtful and thought provoking things. Thanks for your truly beautiful sentiments. I enjoyed reading your story and it’s good to know that you can relate to my experience. How could that teacher discount all your star qualities like that?! It’s easy for anyone within the first few minutes of meeting you to see and feel the star that you are. Thanks for sharing your story, your well wishes to Nicholai and your unrelenting support and love. One Love sis!😊

  10. Duane on said:

    this was a great read Maquita. i teach at primary school and i always tell my students to give of their best. i let them know it’s not where you start but where you end up and how you go about getting there.

  11. I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!

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