The Hot Prison

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 16, 2020

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIt was a polite letter. It was sent to me after my article appeared in last Sunday’s Express. It read: “My name is Denise Brathwaite. I am the Vice President of the South East Port of Spain Secondary Teachers’ Association. I came across your article last night. It was quite an interesting read. But I am eager to discuss it with you further.”

I returned to South East Port of Spain Secondary School (South East POS) on Wednesday to continue my discussions with the school’s community. I met with Denise, Meadeien Hagley, (MTS) maintenance technician 11, Richard Dickson, president of the PTA, Donna Dixon, and Marlon Phillips, VP. Three teachers also shared their views with me.

These stakeholders emphasized the support they receive from the community and the school’s alumnae. “The community does right by the school. When students are truant, they reach out to inform the teachers. One resident, Mark, washes down the school walls and the courtyard. He cleans Nelson Street and keeps the students in check. The students can’t carry on any way they want.”

“Mathematics Week” is sponsored by Carver Audain, a retired software assistant from NASA, and Keith O’Brien, alumna. The school upgraded its library with eight computers and is partnering with Dr. Esimaje Foundation that assists schools in need. Their teachers are involved with the Digicel Foundation which accrues important benefits for their students such as underwriting the cost of IT Essentials Course powered by Cisco and UWI Open Campus IT Academy.

The school’s unhealthy surroundings assume more importance in light of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The homeless people who defecate and urinate round the school’s premises remains a substantial threat to the well-being of the teachers and students.

A United States report found that “homeless people often have underlying medical conditions and lack reliable health care….They are far more likely to get sick and die…. One study last year found that 30 percent of homeless people had chronic living diseases” (New York Times, March 10). These homeless people are a health threat to this community.

The PTA requested that the Port of Spain Corporation wash down the surrounding streets on a daily basis. The Corporation agreed to do so but reneged on its promise. The streets remain disease-infected and hazardous to the health of the local people even though the POS Corporation paid out $37.4 million in overtime over the last three years.

The school is a virtual hot house. To keep out the scents and secure the safety of students and teachers, the Ministry of Education (MOE) installed louvre blocks to enclose the building. This resulted in the school having fewer windows and the poor circulation of air throughout the building. There are no fans or air-conditioning in the classrooms.

The suffocating heat brings to mind the crippling conditions of the Black Hole of Calcutta where British prisoners died of heat exhaustion and suffocation in 1756. It’s no wonder that the students call their school “The Hot Prison.” MOE promises to send forty fans to the school to relieve the suffocating heat.

Form four and five students understand the comfort of air-conditioning and what an accommodating educational environment could be when they spent a month at John D. Technical School where they were transferred following the infamous incident of November 27, 2019.

The “state” designation of the school also stymies its growth, development, and respect it receives from the MOE and the general public. A stakeholder declared: “If we were a denominational school rather than a state school, we would have been called a college. This would bring more support and prestige to our institution.”

Although the school does well, it has to be more competitive academically. Raising the students’ scholastic achievement and attracting students with higher SEA scores remain major goals. However, its location and its designation (it’s not a college) prevent it from attracting the caliber of students it needs to raise its academic profile. Its challenges consist of upgrading its offerings in foreign languages, music, the science labs, woodwork and other technical areas. This calls for substantial sums of money.

An inherent bias (call it stigma) attends these “state” schools because we grew up in an educational climate that rewards and respects the denominational schools which we call colleges. Almost invariably the “state schools” are disregarded and ultimately discarded through a false notion called educational respectability. These schools do not fit in with our conception of what constitutes a “prestige” secondary school of higher learning.

South East POS, the first secondary school that was opened after Independence of 1962, was placed in Dr. Eric Williams’ constituency which, at that time, consisted of the poor and downtrodden. Given its provenance, one would have thought it would be one of the more outstanding secondary schools in the country. Today, it stands as a “forgotten school.”

The PTA, the principal and his staff are doing their best to make the school live up to its noble beginnings. But they need the necessary financial support to make it a better place in which to cultivate the minds of young scholars. We can never achieve that goal if MOE, the corporate community, black, white and Indian citizens, do not see the necessity of supporting a strong inner city school in our capital city.

Making South East POS a first-rate institution is worthy of support, particularly in an area that has voted for the PNM faithfully. Some people glory in tarnishing the motives of the messenger. My critics would be better served if they attended to the concerns of the poor black children whose chances in the world are being minimized because of the presence of a less than stellar secondary school in their community.