BY DENISE DENNIS Career & Education staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
"SOMETIMES when I am at home, I miss it here," said Pavel Williams, one of some 450 young men who are boarders at Munro College in St Elizabeth — one of the few remaining boarding schools in Jamaica.
Despite the persistently chilly weather at the school, located in the cold Malvern hills, and the challenges that come with being at an all-boys institution far from home, Williams has grown to call the college home, like many of his schoolmates who also board.
"Up here we learn everything, streetwise and academically," said the 16-year-old, whose first choice had actually been Campion College in Kingston.
"And we learn something that most people nowadays don't have — common sense. So for me, being away from home isn't really that bad," he added.
Williams, who was a ninth-grade student at the time of the interview with Career & Education, is one of the top-achieving students in his year and exudes the pride and positive outlook for which Munronians are known.
Vice-principal Alcia Bromfield attributes these traits to the discipline and culture of confidence cultivated at the institution and reinforced by the boarding system.
While not claiming that boarders perform better academically than the roughly 600 students who commute daily, Bromfield noted that the boarding system is so structured that it allows for greater focus on schoolwork.
"We find to a large extent that our boarders, whereas they may not necessarily supersede the day students, they do extremely well. This is particularly because of the order of the boarding school," she explained.
The school is run by a bell. Boys are awakened at 5:30 am and are expected to leave the dormitories by 6:00 am. They then head to the dining room for breakfast. After breakfast, there is devotion and then classes. In between, they have their lunch. In the evenings, they get a break from the rigours of the classroom and are allowed to interact or engage in extra-curricular activities, play games or participate in sports or even study, if they so desire.
They are then expected for supper which ends at 6:30 pm. At 7:15 pm, they have a programme known to all Munro boarders as 'prep'. This is a compulsory two-hour study session during which time each young man is required to study, complete assignments or read material related to his subjects. The session is supervised by prefects and overseen by a teacher on duty.
"They are not encouraged to do group work or to talk at that point. That level of preparedness helps them to produce work of a high quality," Bromfield noted.
According to Williams, 'prep' has served him well over the years and he considers it a good feature of the institution as many youngsters oftentimes do not know how to manage their time effectively.
"For me, boarding is not as bad as some people want it to sound. The good thing about it is that unlike those who don't board, we have some time to get extra work done. If we didn't have it, we wouldn't know how to control our time," said the youth, who had an 85 to 95 per cent average in grade nine and who has his sights set on becoming a surgeon.
The vice-principal said another feature which accounts for the high performance of Munro students — boarders and commuters alike — is frequent assessments.
Outside of external and end-of-term examinations, they are tested every six weeks and the results account for what are known as their form order grades. She explained that students are placed according to these grades and as such, it is highly competitive.
Bromfield also alluded to the low turnover of their teaching staff, which she thinks has contributed to the high performance of the students. The lowest Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) pass for 2011 was 84 per cent in geography, she said.
Ministry of Education statistics show the school received 76.2 per cent passes in mathematics for the 2012 sitting of the exams and a 91.4 per cent pass rate for English language.
Bromfield said students whose grades fall below 60 per cent are placed on a three-week programme known as SATIS, where they have to use the evenings to work on their weaknesses. If changes are not seen within that time, they remain in the programme until their grades begin to improve.
At the same time, she said the school prides itself on discipline.
"We refer to our students as young men. We help them to understand their own self-worth. We want them to recognise that it's not just academic excellence that makes the whole person; it's something like their emotional intelligence, it's something like character building," she said.
"We [know] that we are not just teaching students, we are teaching boys with a different learning attitude. Most of our [national] curriculum is geared towards teaching girls, but boys learn differently, so it's the approach that you take developing an enquiring mind, giving them the work to do, putting them in groups that cater to their needs," Bromfield added.
The 156-year-old boarding school was established through a fund left by benefactors Hugh Munro and his nephew Caleb Dickinson, who wanted a school for the poor boys of the parish. It was first sited at Black River, but later moved to Potsdam where it now stands.
Munro College started with seven students, but since then has attracted youths from across Jamaica, as well as from other countries. In fact, some two per cent of its current population is comprised of international students from countries such as the Turks & Caicos Islands, Bermuda, the United States, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and Canada.
This, Bromfield said, speaks to the reliability of Munro as a boarding school.
"One of the pluses of being in a boarding institution is that you learn to be independent, to be sociable. You learn to be in a communal setting, you learn to appreciate the highs and lows of life. You learn to give thanks and you learn to give back. You also learn the true bonds of friendship. The bonds that have been forged here over the years are indelible; they do not break, they cannot be broken," she said.
Bromfield explained that while there are sometimes difficulties with parents paying the boarding fees, arrangements are made and the fees eventually come in. The boarding fee is $67,000 per term and cover two meals per day, laundry, extra-curricular activities, utilities and all other facilities provided.
Despite the costs associated with running the institution, Bromfield said they would never consider rescinding their boarding offerings.
"For the few boarding schools we have here in Jamaica, I think for the most part, they wouldn't want to give it up," she said.
Further, Bromfield noted that the behaviour of the boys over time serves well to make the case for the retention of boarding.
"For Munro, the moment a student enters the driveway, it's like he is taken into a whole new world. If you are driving along the pathway [onto the school campus], you feel the air and you know that there is a distinct difference," she said.
"You are driving into the schoolyard and you are passing young men, and these young men are going to say 'Good afternoon, miss' or 'Good afternoon, sir', they are going to offer to help you, they are going to take you where you want to go," Bromfield added.
"Munro has no distinct mark on their uniforms, except for the sixth formers, and yet if you see them on the street, you can tell they are Munronian," she said further.