From ‘war zone’ to model school
Headmaster looks to keep building on successes in St James High transformation
The Montego Bay-based St James High School was once considered a den of lawlessness, where future gangsters and young criminal minds passed the time.
The wanton disregard for authority in the many inner-city communities surrounding the tourist capital – from which many of the students came – would be mirrored on the school compound, creating a nightmare for administrators at the then Montego Bay Secondary School.
The police were always on speed dial to respond to the next act of violence, which could be triggered by even a simple look.
But today, the school is shaping up as a model institution, slowly shedding its dreadful reputation as it produces top performers in academics and sports, winning multiple competitions as bloody clashes become a thing of the past.
“The school was like a conveyor belt for young criminals from school to the Barnett Street police lock-up when I joined as a young teacher,” said veteran journalist Adrian Frater, who began teaching at the institution in 1980. “People were afraid to send their children to school.”
Some of St James’ most wanted criminals, including Delano ‘Bigga Crime’ Williams, the much-feared Stone Crusher gang enforcer, and Garfield ‘Don’ Sawyers, the alleged leader of the Fresh Roses gang who was fatally shot by the police, were students there in Frater’s time.
But since the arrival of Joseph Williams as principal in 2004, there has been a noticeable turnaround, said the school’s head of security, Andrea Hamilton, who has been a member of staff for the past 22 years.
“When I first came here, it was like a war zone with students fighting with knives, machetes and even guns,” she told The Sunday Gleaner as she recalled one incident in which a security officer’s left hand was severed by the associates of a student.
“I now come to work more at ease than I used to 18 years ago because the school has totally changed and is now a safe place,” she added, crediting Williams’ leadership for the improved environment for learning.
“Now, you have students passing 11 subjects and 12 subjects,” Hamilton boasted, happy the school was making strides in moving away from past dismal performances in external examinations. “You can now rest assured that your child is at a good place for learning. It is secure and the results are showing.”
BUILDING A MODEL SCHOOL
Conduct, content, and communication are the three pillars of success at St James High, noted headmaster Williams even as he paid tribute to his 130-strong staff, who he said are largely responsible for the transformation.
“When I came, it was chaos, as everybody down here in the west knew about the school and thought it was irredeemable, but I came knowing ‘I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me’,” the born-again Christian said, quoting Philippians 4:13.
“What I saw was like permanent recesses – students refusing to attend class – [as well as] fights, conflict, and total disorder,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
The task was to restore order with the support of staff, and using the school’s motto – ‘Towards Better Living’ – to guide his philosophy, Williams challenged the parents to initiate the change.
“The fact that the school is named after the parish meant that parents, staff, and students had to represent in a positive manner and we had the school’s motto to guide the philosophy,” said Williams, who has designated himself the father of every student while on the school compound and whom they fondly call ‘Daddy’.
Despite successes in sports, the school – which in 2008 won the coveted daCosta and Ben Francis cups and has produced icons such as former national football coach Theodore ‘Tappa’ Whitmore and netball goal-shooting star Jhaniele Fowler – has to rent facilities to host home games. But Williams is hoping to complete a multipurpose sporting facility at a section of the school compound called Alaska by year-end.
This will also allow for the expansion of the school’s infrastructure to house the administrative staff office and additional classrooms to remove the school from the shift system.
Of the 26 subjects offered by the school, only four saw fewer than 60 per cent of the students attaining passes in the 2022 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams, and Williams is forecasting that the pass rate will reach 80 per cent in the near future.
“Most important is to get the school off the shift system,” he stressed, however. “I have the land for it. All we need is the support, and in two years, we would construct another 30 classrooms and supporting offices.”
Williams sees the school becoming a beacon in the island.
“We have everything here for the student – the skills, the traditional subjects, sports, social clubs, and societies – and my dream is for this school to become the model for Jamaica,” he shared with The Sunday Gleaner.
‘HE BELIEVES IN THEM’
Richard Troupe, acting director of the safety and security unit at the Ministry of Education and Youth, told The Sunday Gleaner that the St James High School success story must be credited to teamwork and the leadership of the school administration, but he also lauded the role of the ministry’s regional office.
“A big part of it is the value the principal places in his students and the confidence that he has in the students, irrespective of how they come to the institution, that they have the capacity to learn,” he said.
“They respond to him the way they do because they believe that he believes in them,” Troupe added, in reference to the students calling Principal Williams ‘Daddy’. “There is that level of respect evident because of his demonstrated interest in the students.”
According to Troupe, St James High is among the 25 schools participating in a multi-agency driven initiative for schools located in the declared zones of special operations, where 50 medium- to high-risk youths are selected to benefit from additional support to maximise their opportunities.
Hopewell High working to rehabilitate troubled students
At the Hopewell High School in neighbouring Hanover, Principal Byron Grant continues to employ various strategies to prevent clashes and antisocial behaviour after a bloody brawl involving 52 students suspected of being involved in gang-related activities in May.
The school has allowed 30 of the students involved to return and rehabilitative work with them continues.
“We could have sent home over 50 students, but we found that the behaviour of some was due to poor parenting, so the board decided to expel the leading ones,” Grant, who has been working at the school since it was founded in 2006, told The Sunday Gleaner.
The guidance counselling department has been hosting sessions in social graces and has partnered with businesses to provide meals for students, but Grant remains concerned with the number of students arriving late daily.
Richard Troupe told The Sunday Gleaner that the education ministry has embarked on targeted interventions at the school, which is among six institutions selected to benefit from the installation of CCTV systems.
The school will also participate in a cognitive-behavioural therapy training programme to help students with a predisposition for violence, he further disclosed.
And while some 18,000 students remain unaccounted for under the ministry’s Yard-to-Yard Find the Child initiative, which was rolled out to re-engage students displaced by the COVID-19 disruption to the normal schooling routine, Troupe believes the game-changer will be a Family Connect app, which will enable schools to track absent students.
Many of those students, he said, were not attending school due to community conflicts and other factors.