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Mark Wignall | High schools or sporting academies?

Jamaica Gleaner / Dave Myrie was the picture of sartorial elegance as he stood at the entrance to the principal’s office at Kingston College (KC), one of Jamaica’s most renowned and successful high schools doing what high schools ought to do: transform children/adolescents into viable adults so that they may have a fighting chance with advancing their lives.

When I left KC in the late 1960s, it ruled the roost in academic excellence and sporting prowess. Some students from other schools transferred to KC’s sixth form (grades 12 and 13) for its well-known and successful maths programme.

I was not on a fashion hunt as I spoke with Mr Myrie, but his blue suit was perfectly cut and his red tie exuded ‘authority.’ Or was it a red shirt?

“What is your position on the matter of traditional high schools like yours trading in – sorry – recruiting students athletes from other high schools who are not as well placed as yours?”

Dave Myrie gave me the answer I expected. “Any boy who leaves another high school and comes to KC does so because it is his choice; he wants to come here.”

As we spoke, he also said, “We are a high school that does sports, not a sporting school.”

At another campus not necessarily far from, nor near to KC, another well-known principal of a high school with the same KC designation – brand-name – said to me, “This has to be totally off the record. We have had much success in sports. But, if it was left up to me, I would cancel Champs and Manning Cup for about three years. We have to get back to our core values – building our kids, and not making it seem as if high school is nothing more than a sporting venue.”

At another brand-name high-school campus, I spent close to half an hour waiting for the principal. I walked outside the office simply because my feet were impelling me to move. In another three minutes, I was in conversation with a security guard on the huge campus.

“Dem boy here have no manners. Dem talk to yu anyway,” he said. “Me just try and keep outa dem way as much as possible.”

“This school does not involve itself in active recruitment of student athletes, as your question implies. Students are free to come to this school, just as they are free to go, if that is what their parents want. And, as I said before, I would like to keep my name out of this matter,” said the principal.

What I determined, as I spoke to principals of the big sporting schools, was that most of them wanted to give an official response that would not ruffle feathers, while going off the record to paint a picture of their disappointment with what they saw as the lost focus in Jamaican high-school education.

This, of course, causes me disappointment. How could I give attribution to a quote when that very person had an unofficial, but real view that ran 180 degrees to the school’s official position on the issue?

Sports cannot build a country

“Mr Wignall, why yuh want to stir up this ants’ nest now?”

“I don’t think it is an ants’ nest. I think it is a great human interest story. If it can be shown that a young Usain Bolt was actually approached by one of the brand-name sporting schools in its recruitment drive and he refused, that would prove his mettle from early on, and probably explain his eventual conquest of planet Earth.”

“OK,” the lady from William Knibb Memorial High School said, “but please keep my name out of it.” Then, she told me the name of the big St Andrew high school with the driveway outlined by signs of the most impressive attributes of nation building. “Usain Bolt and his parents rejected the offer. Plus, you have to remember that in the early days, he fell under the guidance of Pablo McNeil and Norman Peart. The young man’s personality said strength from early on.”

One cannot help but conclude that had a young, wiry Usain Bolt been snatched by one of the big sporting high schools in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, whatever glory that could be attributed to his dear William Knibb Memorial through his near-superhuman athletic prowess would have been totally absent.

The chance that the next budding student athlete will make it to the level and financial success of Bolt is totally off the charts.

Students need to succeed at acquiring all that a high school offers, including sports, but, as the matter has just played out in high school football competition, it appears that in reality, the big high schools are being controlled by their powerful old students’ associations, and, perversely, these bodies are playing dangerous games with the lives of the current students.

“Long after the individuals making up these old students’ associations secured their education the standard way, that is by academics and a healthy touch of sports, they have now turned back and moved the focus to sports, and more sports,” said a medical doctor who is close to the sporting fraternity. Again, no names.

Keeping down the ‘lesser’ schools

Margaret Brissett-Bolt is the principal of Holy Trinity High. The school has about 1,300 students, while the big powerhouse nearby, KC, has about 1,800. She tells me the name of a big sporting school that made after her football captain in the last two years. Plus, it is no secret that JC made good use of more than a few footballing student athletes from Holy Trinity.

“I really do understand why our student athletes switch and make the move to these bigger schools, but what it really does overall is make the playing field so much more uneven for us. You see a student athlete on a Friday, and then you never see him again. This surreptitious way is bad for the children. If it has to be done, I would much prefer it be done teacher to teacher, school to school, and all to the long-term benefit of the student.”

Acting principal of Vauxhall High, Prudence Brown Pinnock, said, “They made off with our top track and field male and female athletes,” as we spoke by telephone recently. She was, of course, referring to one of the well-known high schools poaching her student athletes.

“We work and we build these student athletes. We know that we have little resources, but after we do that, then they come in and take them away. As I explained to you, I understand that these poor parents cannot refuse the offer, but, overall, that is not where the focus of education should be in Jamaica.”

It ought to be obvious that for too long, our big, traditional high schools in Jamaica have, by the fury of the sporting competition between their schools, made it seem as if that is all that education is about. Many of the principals of these sporting schools want to move towards the educational models tried and tested in countries like Singapore and in Europe.

The bugbear in this is the old boys’ associations that are doing a disservice to education in Jamaica by encouraging this poaching contest, and making it seem that after the track-and-field and football competitions are over, there is nothing much of interest in the schools apart from the next photo op for one meagre scholarship handout.

A high-school student playing his football. A high-school girl shooting her netball. A young speedster burning up the tracks in high school. All very good. But that ought not to be the real focus, and the principals of these schools need to stand up and speak out, especially as our high schools continue the low performance in academics.

– Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to [email protected] and [email protected] .

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