Signature schools will be of value only if they prepare students for real life
Signature schools are an old idea.
Well, they were called “industrial schools” in 1881. The Tuskegee Institute, one of the first schools giving complete education to Southern Black people — now called Tuskegee University — still stands today. An “industrial school” such as the Tuskegee Institute gave students general academic education while imparting “practical knowledge ... knowing how to make a living after they had left”.
We can agree that the high school system in place until now was not preparing public-school students as fully capable of improving their communities as active members. As we revolutionise Bermudian education, we need drastic changes in what our student outcomes are. Young people need to graduate ready to thrive and be successful. We need to learn from industrial schools, which successfully prepared formerly enslaved persons and poverty-stricken Black children.
The Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Booker T., born enslaved, earned his education by working as a housekeeper, boat labourer and janitor at the school where he studied. Washington studied and later taught at the Hampton Institute — now Hampton University — which was founded after emancipation in the United States as an industrial school for formerly enslaved Blacks in the South. He eventually opened the Tuskegee Institute to give to other Black students what the Hampton Institute gave to him — a love of hard work, independence and “self-reliance which the ability to do something the world wants done brings”.
Our signature schools should look to develop self-reliant and independent young men and women. Our reality among Generation Z and younger is that we will continue to lose what other generations could depend on — pensions are at risk of collapse here and abroad, basic office or customer-service jobs are being replaced by artificial intelligence and computers, and the wealth gap is becoming a wealth canyon.
The horizon is cloudy and grey. However, there has never been more opportunity for young people to build their own future. You can learn anything with an internet connection, and the social and physical barriers that kept people stuck before are continually falling. If our signature schools do not develop self-reliance, independence and work ethic, they will fail our students as much as the system today.
“He lectures to his advanced students ... not out of textbooks, but straight out of life”.
This was attributed to Booker T.’s teaching style in the Tuskegee Institute. Students will always need a strong academic foundation – without that, their options will be more limited. The problem is that if they don’t leave the signature schools readily employable, or with the skills to take responsibility themselves, our workforce will be the same. Less than a third of Bermudian students will complete university. If you know three children in your family, two of them will be thrown directly off the dock and forced to swim at 18 years old. They should know how to swim alone.
Two examples from industrial schools show us how it should work. Students at Tuskegee were required to learn some sort of trade, relevant to the time. They learnt so well that they produced materials that were sold in commercial markets! Students were responsible for everything in the school — the bricks for the buildings, the vehicles used, the furniture and the vegetables eaten were all crafted, built or grown by students. My first thought was, “All Berkeleyites will grow 4kg of broccoli to graduate”. Probably not. But could we make this relevant to modern day and the present school system?
According to signature school online information, “authentic, real-life experiences” as well as internships and entrepreneurship are key elements of signature learning programmes. How authentic will they attempt to make this experience? For example, how much more would public-school graduates thrive in business when they have already left school having developed their own microbusiness that makes money? Students don’t need to be paid, creating inverse incentives — the money can go to a charity of choice, for example — but this would help make public school the true gold standard in business development on the island.
“There is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.”
Although Washington had to begin to learn reading through self-teaching, and worked in salt and coalmines longing for access to books, he recognised as he led the Tuskegee Institute that the most powerful way to teach is by example. We have so many individuals in Bermuda with talent, experience and character, invested in helping others — as shown in Bermuda Youth Connect’s new podcast episode series — open books of life that students will never get to learn from. The right mentors would inspire students through their greatness of character.
The second key takeaway from industrial-school history is the power of mentorship. Mentors can be extremely helpful in guiding students in specific career pathways. They can give the students a clear idea of what their life could be. I did a physiotherapy work experience when in high school, meeting an outpatient physio for a week. This experience was invaluable in guiding me towards my present profession, and away from a job that I could only then see wasn’t for me. Could signature schools include a mentorship programme with professionals willing to provide small moments of time that could help teach and inspire students?
Signature schools will be successful if they produce students who know how to make a living when they leave; the same goal as the industrial schools. Most of our students will not complete university degrees, so we cannot allow them to graduate without being prepared to contribute to the economy and work towards supporting themselves. With experience in the “real world”, practical life skills, and contact with our best men and women, Bermuda public schools can give students an innovative and life-changing education.
• Evan Heyliger is the founder of Loquat Learning, a Bermudian tutoring service