The glitter, glamour and grief of sending children away to school

Fairfield International Academy a social game-changer in western Jamaica

Executive editor – special assignment

Sunday, September 09, 2018

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Buju Banton says it best: “Many see the glamour and glitter the glamour so they think (it's) a bed o' rose…Who feels it knows.”

For decades, generations even, many parents from Jamaica — wanting an international education for their children — would dispatch them across the globe, mainly to North America or Europe.

The notion was that students who study for a prolonged period of time in an international setting develop critical links with influential people from across the world and their thinking will be challenged by the norms in different cultural, social and economic settings.

“Undertaking your formative schooling years immersed in an environment known for pushing established boundaries, alongside contemporaries that want to solve some of the world's greatest problems, will set you apart in future employment markets,” said one international educator.

It seemed elitist and glamorous and many well-off Jamaicans went overboard. That was not difficult. The desire of parents, especially Jamaicans, to give their children a better life than they had, is legendary.

Every other student completing fifth form at the top high schools felt that if they did not go overseas to study “dem naah seh nutten”. But there was often a devastating sting in the tail.

Familial bonds stolen forever

Numerous families were torn apart as children and parents grew away from each other culturally and emotionally, their bond oftentimes irretrievably broken. And even when some of those children were forced back home as adults, kicking and screaming at times, those families never fully recovered.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were expatriates and diplomats who had young children needing education and were forced to leave them home to take advantage of lucrative opportunities or posts overseas.

But many still wanted their children to be educated in systems compatible with those of their home countries, sometimes out of dissatisfaction with the quality of national education in their new domiciles or just a desire to prepare them to live and work in a globalised world. But the consequences were the same — familial bonds stolen forever.

All this explains the new found buzz of excitement, the emotional outpouring and the passion of a group of mostly young parents in Montego Bay who have thrown themselves behind Fairfield International Academy (FIA) at picturesque Spring Gardens in Reading, west of the second city.

The international school kicked off last Monday, not unexpectedly, with 20 students whose parents could not wait another day — an unmistakeable sign of the demand in Jamaica. Many of the world's international schools, numbering over 8,000 and growing rapidly, started with much fewer students and now have hundreds on roll.

“Parents should not have to make a choice between family life and their children's education,” said Lisa Lake, the pioneering chairman of the FIA board at the official open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony last Thursday. “Today, we are celebrating the power of an idea.”

That powerful idea had burned for a long time within the breast of Madhu Mahtani, a Jamaican-born educator in Miami and Mount Alvernia Preparatory School past student who returned home with her businessman husband, Ranjeet Mahtani, to Montego Bay, St James.

Mahtani could not hold back the tears in the sweltering morning sun Thursday as others related how the spark she had lit quickly spread to engulf a group of people who have several things in common.

They are young, bright and successful parents and their names and social profiles are easily recognised — some well beyond the confines of Montego Bay — being already among the movers and shakers in Jamaica.

Timeless benefits, lasting trauma

More critically, all or most of them have received an international education and some have experienced or seen up front both the timeless benefits and the lasting trauma of being away from home as young children. They intend to reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls in their own families.

Comprising the board and key committees of Fairfield International Academy are: Adam and Jill Stewart; Mark and Jaime McConnell; Lisa Lake and Yoni Epstein; Ranjeet and Madhu Mahtani; Michele Rollins and Marvin Hall — all entrepreneurs in their own right.

“It was difficult to pull together because we needed a committed group of people. But we were able to achieve such a group with a wide variety of appropriate skills and talents,” said Mahtani, a geography teacher.

She said her husband had often mentioned the idea of another boarding school for western Jamaica. Both feel that they had received much from Montego Bay and this was one way to give back “to a really wonderful city”.

To be sure, the need for prime education was long recognised in western Jamaica, where parents were often forced to send their children either to Kingston, locale of most of the top high schools, or join the trek overseas.

While many of the children have done well and have come back home to contribute to society, it is an open secret that many middle class families are suffering in silence and embarrassment as their investment in an international education overseas backfired.

Some of the children either dropped out of school, became wayward, became drug addicts or alcoholics or lost touch with Jamaican values or refused to return home after school, while insisting that their parents continue to send them money for living expenses. The case was too often that the immature teenagers could not handle the level of independence handed to them.

Sending kids away not an option

In such cases, parents frequently sustain guilt, blaming themselves for sending their young ones away — but their initial intentions were good. And there are those parents who are happy they did, though acknowledging that they “dodged a bullet”.

Said Jamie Stewart-McConnell: “The common denominator in our group is the passion that everyone has for the project and the determination that Fairfield International Academy must succeed.

“We're driven by the desire to keep our families together. Sending away our children is not an option for us. We have seen the breaking up of families over the years and we are not going to repeat those mistakes.”

Angelina Tolani and her husband Ashok Tolani, a Montego Bay distributor, yanked their 12-year-old son, Ameer, out of Campion College in Kingston and forthwith enrolled him at FIA, after only a semester at Jamaica's top high school.

“We loved Campion, but we had always hated the idea of having to send Ameer away from our home,” an obviously relieved Angelina told the Jamaica Observer. “We are hoping that FIA sustains itself because it is the answer to our problems.”

She said her son had to board in Kingston and commute every weekend to Montego Bay, after finding that local schools did not challenge him, and he found the back and forth very stressful.

Although it was early days yet, she noticed her son had taken immediately to the new school, describing the learning environment as fun. She said it was clear to her that FIA's approach was “all about critical thinking, which is where the world is moving”.

FIA an idea whose time has come

Fairfield International Academy started life as the Rosehall Academy, with major assistance from Rosehall's Michele Rollins. It has a capacity for 40 students and the Reading location is temporary, as plans are underway to build a permanent campus at Westgate, closer to downtown Montego Bay — timeline 2022/23.

Be prepared to fork out US$10,000 a year covering tuition and all necessary extras. But the parents who have signed up and the many others calling and making enquiries seem to feel that it's a small amount to pay for a top notch education while keeping their loved ones under their care and guidance.

Head of school is Shirley Davis, the American who was previously head of the International School of Kingston. Davis has done similar work in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Spain, China, and Syria.

She stressed that FIA would maintain small classes with a ratio of one teacher to 12 students when fully operational, to ensure that students get the close attention they need. Subjects currently offered in grades six to nine are: mathematics, Science, social studies, language arts, spanish, art, physical education, music, and technology “with talented and gifted options within each course”.

Once the school builds out to grades 9 to 12 in the later phases, it will be possible for children to graduate with either a United States high school diploma, an international baccalaureate, or both.

The faculty comprises a cadre of national and international educators, with 70 per cent of teachers having Master's degrees; 63 per cent are Jamaicans, a third of them deemed “teacher of the year”; 37 per cent are Americans and there is a 50-50 split between male and female teachers.

Davis said the school would be integrated into the western Jamaica community through Fair Chance scholarships, three to begin with, to afford very bright students with financial needs access to an international education.

FIA has a private beach and is developing a farm-to-table garden. After-school activities will also be made available to students from other schools.

Jamaica's newest international school is indeed an idea whose time has come. Some four million students are enrolled in international schools worldwide amid an explosion of such institutions, led by Asia.

According to 2018 figures from ISC Research, the world leader in data on the international schools market, well over 80 per cent of all students now attending international schools are the children of local aspirational parents seeking out for them a reliable pathway to some of the best undergraduate degrees in the world.

That growth continues to gather pace, with the market expected to be worth US$89 billion in fee income by 2026, from an estimated US$39 billion in 2018.

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