By Raymond Syms
It’s an easy walk to the school. It takes about five to ten minutes from the bottom of Piccadilly Street, up the winding Laventille Road until you come to the landmark, a flowing natural spring on the corner of Schueller Street. Young men near a parlour nod in acknowledgment as you get a whiff of smoked weed. At the corner of Schueller and La Coulee Streets, you’ve reached the relatively new Rose Hill RC.
The ground floor was quiet, but the din of primary school pupils grew.
As I waited to meet the principal, boys greeted me with a respectful ‘Good morning Sir’. Their trophy case is full and there are inspirational and religious-themed posters on walls.
Charlene Quamina, principal of Rose Hill RC jokes that her principal’s seat is more like a flight attendant’s jump seat—once she’s not sitting there, it folds up out of sight.
Quamina, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, says she tends to shy away from the limelight but was cast into it when she was chosen as the Principal of the Year 2019 by the National Primary Schools Principals Association.
The Principal of the Year Award programme recognises outstanding principals who have succeeded in providing high-quality learning opportunities for pupils as well as demonstrating exemplary contributions to the profession and by extension the community/society.
The Rose Hill RC principal since 2012, she’s overseen its slow but gradual rebuilding in more ways than one.
Prior to 2015, for ten years, Rose Hill shared the compound with Our Lady of Laventille RC School. Classes were held in containers for First Year, Second Year and Standard One, while the other standards occupied another area. It brought limitations: shortened lunchtime, early dismissal, activities were suspended.
On the top floor of Rose Hill RC School, you can look westward and see much of Port of Spain. It’s an excellent vantage point. This is east Port of Spain. Pupils come from so-called depressed communities. The hot spots.
In February 2018, there was unrest in East Port of Spain sparked by the death of a resident, Akeil ‘Christmas’ James. Residents used garbage to block Charlotte Street and confronted the police. It caused the suspension of classes at Rosary Boys’ RC, corner Charlotte and Park Streets. During the unrest, gunshots were heard, and Rose Hill teachers took the pupils to the top floor.
Quamina likens Rose Hill to a Catholic co-ed country school, only it’s in the capital. Pupils come from within the community, but this wasn’t always so.
For a time, parents wanted their children to go to other Port of Spain schools but since 2015, slowly but surely, those in the community with school-aged children are making Rose Hill the first choice.
Good parent support
She’s found ways to get parents more involved. She started a Parent Teacher Association, and organised sessions in Common Sense Parenting and inviting professionals to speak to parents “to give hope”.
“We have a vibrant support group. We get lots of ideas of how to move things forward. It’s just about implementation and sustainability.”
In her few years there, she’s earned the respect of parents. They know they can come and dialogue with her about their child’s education. From early on she told them: “If we don’t pull our resources together, something will be lacking and that is why it wouldn’t function, and it wouldn’t run as it should.”
She’s learnt to listen to the suggestions and ignore the tone. The parents do appreciate the various activities introduced, like Mother’s and Father’s Day functions when the children perform for them. The parents, though resistant at times, look forward to events. Even parents of former pupils come out to support.
There have been very few incidents of indiscipline. She does her best to avoid suspending pupils as “when they’re not in school, they could come back worse”.
Quamina regularly interacts with those in the neighbourhood, especially the young men on the streets. The communication has come a long way from the day when they were upset with her about stopping them from accessing the electricity from the school to play their music. She regularly invites them to school functions, and they look out for the pupils.
The school was known for its excellence in Choral Speaking. “The children are talented. For many of them it comes naturally. They pick up music very quickly.” There’s a plan to introduce dance and music including steel pan, and they have a space already designated as a pan theatre, but which is currently used as the computer room.
Of the award, she sees it beyond personal achievement: it’s a victory for the school, a sign of hope for the community.