Features — 20 June 2014 — by Adele Ramos
High schools merger casualty – 12 teachers terminated!

Twelve teachers from three Belize City high schools will not return to their jobs at the start of the new school year, after a decision issued from their school managements – in one case with an agreement to proceed on early retirement – in which it was ruled that their services would be immediately discontinued.

Kathleen Flowers, president of the Belize City branch of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), told Amandala that several teachers have received similar letters indicating that their posts have been “abolished.”

Flowers said that the union will investigate, because they want to be assured that due process has been applied. We understand that some of those teachers were meeting with BNTU’s national president, Luke Palacio, this evening, to review their cases.

Earlier this month, a cadre of officials from the Ministry of Education sounded the warning that restructuring at Sadie Vernon High School, Maud Williams High School and Excelsior High School was necessary due to alarming dropout and repetition rates, and this would mean some teachers would become “redundant” under a new program which will see the merger of programs across the three schools – an initiative which the Ministry has said would give students at all three schools the opportunity to take more of the classes they need, since course offerings at some schools have been limited due to population attrition.

The officials also said that the schools were, for the most part, overstaffed and some teachers had not even bothered to qualify themselves with pedagogical training – a point of contention today, though, since some teachers are alleging that they were not terminated on the basis of lack of professional qualifications but that they were “targeted” for termination for other reasons which are not being disclosed.

Excelsior High School lost only one staff member, and its principal, Gayle Thompson, told Amandala today that the teacher in question, who taught a clothing and textile course, for which they received no expressions of interest from students, had intended to retire and will therefore go off on pension.

However, the beleaguered Sadie Vernon High, which is in the process of looking for a new principal, lost 6 staff members earlier today, after a decision was handed down from its board of directors that they should not be retained. Only 12 teachers will remain, we were told.

Whereas Education Minister Patrick Faber had said that teachers declared redundant would be put on temporary pension pending their reemployment in the public service, Cruzita Castillo, principal of Maud Williams High School, told our newspaper this evening that only one staff member of the five who are not returning will qualify for that pension, because only that person meets the minimum requirement of having 10 years of service. The others will only be paid for the remaining two summer months, she told us.

In the case of the Sadie Vernon teachers, chairman of Sadie Vernon High, Pastor Ashley Rocke, told us that one teacher is being put on temporary pension and 5 others, who have as many as two decades of service, qualify for full pension and gratuity.

One Maud Williams High teacher who had been on a second year of probation faced challenges with classroom management and was given a letter indicating that that teacher would not return to Maud Williams High, Castillo indicated.

Another teacher who has a Master’s degree was given a termination letter indicating that she would not return, and when we asked for an explanation of why that teacher, who lectured in business and had her graduate degree in leadership, was released but a lesser qualified teacher was retained, we were told that the rule of “last in, first out” was applied.

Castillo told us that if a teacher does not lecture in the field in which they received their qualifications, they are not paid for that degree. She told us that there are teachers at the school who have a Master’s degree but who still get paid on pay scale 16, the same pay scale applied to teachers with a Bachelor’s degree.

There is a further development, though. Amandala was made to understand that there are wider concerns even among the teachers who remain, because they are being given two weeks to indicate whether they will accept new contracts that are being offered to them by their administration.

In some cases, teachers will be required to sign contracts every year, and some have expressed concerns that this could open the door for victimization if they don’t fall in line with certain expectations, including offering political patronage to the ruling party.

We are advised that there are three tiers of contract terms, rooted in provisions which were introduced in 2011 but which are just now being implemented in the sector. Teachers who only have a provisional teaching license would be up for annual renewal for a maximum of 5 years, and this, some say, may spell trouble for teachers in the vocational and technical field who have no institution of higher learning in Belize to attend. It means that by 2016, these teachers could find themselves out of a job if they fail to acquire the requisite education qualifications.

In the second tier, new teachers with a full license will have up to two years to become established, and those established staff with full licenses could lose their jobs after 5 years if they do not receive 120 hours of continuous professional development. Even their contracts would be for a maximum of 5 years, pending re-evaluation and approval.

The changes form part of a wider education sector reform, and we were told that the contract terms, which are now being enforced, would apply for teachers who indicate by the June 27, 2014, deadline whether they will continue in their current posts.

School managements indicated to us that officials from the Ministry of Education had provided them with specific guidelines on how they should proceed to evaluate teachers, in determining who would be retained. One of those ranking officials, who did not want to be named, told us that the three measuring sticks were the qualification level, performance on the job, and the years of service.

The official told us that the student-to-teacher ratio at the three schools combined was 8:1 but the desired ratio is 16:1. With 12 teachers gone, the amount of teachers employed is down from 61 to 49, which works out to a student-to-teacher ratio of about 10:1.

Few applications have been received by the schools in question. Rocke told Amandala that only 18 primary school graduates have applied to attend Sadie Vernon in the new school year – obviously a figure so low that they may only be able to have one first-form class.

Rocke said that the recently announced initiative which will see a merger of programs at the three Government high schools in question would mean that better programs will be available to students.

Meanwhile, Maud Williams High School reports that after two tours across feeder schools, they have received approximately 30 applications, but expect that applications will keep coming in well into September and October, when students realize that their options are limited because of very low performance on the Primary School Examination (PSE). Castillo emphasized that the students can still apply to attend the school for the new school year.

The three schools in question, all Government schools under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, have, in fact, maintained an open door policy of accepting graduates who are rejected by other schools because of poor PSE performance, and Castillo told our newspaper that these students, many of whom fall below the poverty line, also battle with major socio-economic problems, which bring their own challenges into the education environment.

In speaking previously with Pastor Rocke, we were given an appreciation of these sorts of issues that have, likewise, confronted students at Sadie Vernon High School. That school has seen the most drastic dropout rate and at the close of the 2013-2014 school year, they were down to 6 classes and a student body of about 152.

However, a parent with whom we spoke told us that the social dynamics at the school have been problematic, with some teachers unable to properly manage their relationship with students, and furthermore, with an ongoing schism between the outgoing principal, who is retiring for personal reasons, and her staff.

Amandala understands from the principal of Excelsior High School that 10 teachers will remain at her school, which has a population of about 100, for the next school year. Those students who need to move from that school to any other school to take classes will be shuttled by bus at no cost to them, Thompson said.

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