A parent’s plea to parents
It is important to note that this is my opinion. I am a parent with no voting rights, political-party affiliation or government position.
It would be easy to sit here and say the Government needs to give more money towards education. Believe it or not, the Progressive Labour Party government has done more for education in the past two years than the Bermuda governments elected before them. This is the only government in decades to give financial priority to education.
With that said, we parents have not lived up to our responsibilities. I must lay the blame on us for the present state of public education. We do not advocate for public education or support those that provide it.
We did not even notice the support and ambitious strategies put forth by this government. We have digressed and so have test scores, infrastructure, teacher support and, as a result, so has the Government’s financial support.
In my research, I found that Bermuda’s government was spending 2.88 per cent of its gross domestic product on education in 1973, according to the World Bank. Bermuda’s public schools were integrated in 1971.
As decades passed, the education budget steadily dropped, buildings became decayed and teachers continued to show disgruntlement.
Before the Cambridge curriculum was implemented in the Bermuda public-school system, the Board of Education chairman at that time quit his post, citing “lack of political will to improve schools”.
Our system has come a long way since then and those powerful words from former chairman Mark Byrne, spoken in 2009, are no longer accurate. Today there is “lack of parental will to improve schools”.
Former annual budget releases have proved that we have had a government for the education of Bermudian children and a government against the educating of our children.
In the 2012-13 school year under the premiership of Paula Cox, education comprised 12 per cent of the budget with expenditures of $134 million. Ms Cox further showed political will in 2014, as the education budget increased to 12.5 per cent of spending or $146.5 million.
To our demise in the 2016-17 school year, Bob Richards, as finance minister under Craig Cannonier and then Michael Dunkley, sliced the education budget to $124.9 million. By 2017, education financing was further decreased to $104 million, making up 10.4 per cent of the national budget.
Education reformation was dwarfed by plans for infrastructure developments in tourism, hotels, Belco, the airport, bridges and wharves.
Parents, we should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing education financing to be brought down to such a low. But we did nothing as parents to voice our dismay; instead, the public fought our fight by voting them out. Even the teachers union began taking stands and we did not offer our support.
Moving forward, in 2018-19 under the premiership of David Burt, our education budget was increased to $146.9 million, 12.3 per cent of the budget allocations — and we teamed up with the Ministry of Public Works with ambitious strategies to repair the infrastructure of schools.
By 2019, finance minister Curtis Dickinson budgeted to decrease education’s allotment to $137 million with no plans for public works to repair or replace the infrastructure of our schools.
Forecasted for 2020, the education ministry received a boost of 0.5 per cent, taking the allotment to $137.5 million.
Our first task should be to promote a standard minimum requirement for funding our schools. It was only two years ago, a forward-thinking government increased the budget of public education and set the standard with financial encouragement and support.
Second, we can no longer ignore issues of infrastructure and teacher support for education reform. We do not need permission to reform, but we do need parent involvement in the form of speaking up and acting.
Have you not seen the writing on the wall? We have had four premiers and nine education ministers, and progress in education has been stalled, passed along and ignored.
If we do not care about the present state of education, we cannot ask anyone else to.
The Parent Teacher Student Association was erected as an organised way of dealing with educational issues, I remember voting for my PTA to have representation.
At the time, my child’s school was engulfed in finding financing to replace the playground and we were a unified force in achieving our goal.
The parents and teachers at the school fully funded the playground without government or corporate money.
It took about four years of fundraising, dedication and hard work from parents and teachers to finally get a beautiful playground replaced and installed for the primary school. It is that type of organisation, tenacity and “parental will” that we need to reform all public schools’ infrastructure.
Bermuda’s teachers have been crying out to the Government and public since the 1980s, showing solidarity in the strike collaborated by Belco.
Recently, the teachers have held demonstrations from 2016 to 2018 because of lack of support, contract disputes and insufficient training for grading systems that were implemented without consultation.
Parents, when do we get involved and say enough is enough? When do we step up, organise and take the education of our children as serious as we take the more frivolous things we prioritise at present?
Being a teacher is such a trying career; these professionals must love the job to stay in such conditions of criticism and scrutiny. They may be employed by the Government, but they are evaluated by parents, challenged by students and are still responsible for their own families.
Our standard of employment is eight-hour days, benefits, perks, and a comfortable, clean and undamaged environment. We expect not to be bullied, to have the tools and materials we need to complete our jobs, and to be compensated for working earlier and later than required.
Yet Bermuda teachers are expected to work many hours with benefits that decrease their take-home pay. They get an award ceremony as a perk with no cash bonus, uncomfortable office space that is usually hot, a mildewed or mouldy environment with extensive damage, limited to no materials or tools to do the job, limited communication with their employers, and are expected to learn new systems without proper training.
Our teachers are bullied, riddled with complaints from parents and students, and could be pulled from their job site to transfer to another site with no notice. We continue to ignore the complaints of the very professionals whom we trust our children to be with for eight to ten hours daily, five days a week, nine months a year.
We drop off our children and do not care at all about the people that are caring for them. Teachers are our extended family and schools are our kids’ second homes. We expect teachers to watch our kids before and after school, and to chaperone them off site or abroad while we work. We seem to forget that they are working, too.
We just pile on more expectations and do nothing to support our extended family of teachers or the buildings that house our children. Let us be real: we upgrade our homes, businesses and restaurants.
Imagine working in a building your grandparents used as children, with paint attempting to cover 40 years of sweat, thousands of people’s DNA, graffiti, mould, lead and asbestos.
Lead and asbestos have effects that can cause learning disability, respiratory problems and cancer. Although, lead paint was no longer allowed in the United States in 1971, this is not the case in Bermuda. There are schools that were built in the 1970s and never torn down and rebuilt without lead paint. Asbestos was removed from some school buildings but remain in some, even today. The result of these conditions will not motivate our kids to “Strive for Excellence”.
The constant changes in ministers, commissioners, the abrupt swapping of teachers, principals, grading systems, threatened closures and actual closures of schools. The reality is the only thing that is steady is the parent — we are a part of the education system from beginning to end until our kids leave.
Parents are involved in education for 14 years from preschool to S4. Some parents have been around even longer because of having multiple kids in the public school system.
“Deeds Not Words” is the motto of one of our public middle schools. We want our children to live by this motto, but what example are we setting? Ask yourself, how have you impacted the schools that your child has attended? What have you done to better the infrastructure or support the teachers at those schools?
We expect others to do for us, speak for us and fight for us, yet we do not get behind them when they take a stance. How many times have you as a parent assisted at the school for clean-ups, repairs or to relieve teaching staff during lunch, drop-offs, and pickups?
Parents, the ball is in our court. We need to show how much we believe in a quality infrastructure for both teachers and students. We can take control of our schools and provide the support that we expect of the Government. It is our children and grandchildren who will benefit from our hard work.
In these harder economic times, it is too much to ask the Government, which has done so much for education in its tenure to give the education budget the increase in funding that was ambitiously directed in 2018.
The time is now, no matter how long it takes to begin restoration of our school facilities. With organisation and hard work, we can persevere.
Your school’s PTA comprises a variety of experts, business owners, corporate professionals and construction personnel. I challenge every school on the island to organise, starting with the very first PTA meeting in September to create an infrastructure committee to help improve your schools.
For the school year 2020-21, forget about fundraising for school trips or organising for social occasions. Instead, identify the infrastructure faults of your school, starting with a surveyor, then send out bids to contractors, as most of us have at least one parent in our schools with such profession.
After you have the cost, create fundraising strategies to finance the project. Money raised can help provide for materials and planning permits to complete the project. The community and parents and teachers working together to rebuild and repair is the only way to get things done.
It will take every parent, community member and alumnus to contribute their time, money and resources. If you start with just your child’s school facility, completion will be less challenging. Our actions will be the catalyst to entice the Government to assist by increasing the allotments for infrastructure and education. Let us not allow this opportunity to pass us by — your child’s health, future wealth and education depend on our deeds, not words.
• Surlena Smith is a parent, wife, local entrepreneur of PondaPits Natural Organic Deodorant, business developer for Kim’s List, an online resource for parents, and creator of Future Freedom Finance Consulting. She can be reached at Partnerships@kncmediagroup.com
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