Space and cost keeping children out of school?

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

With the ever-expanding population on Ambergris Caye, and a constant influx of new people to the island, the number of children in our community has grown tremendously. With this increase comes the need for more classrooms and affordable, educational resources. This has been a longtime concern and the most common reason given is “lack of space” in our public schools. The San Pedro Sun decided to do a little investigating to see how true this is and if so, what plans exist to remedy the situation.

San Pedro presently has three Government of Belize (GOB) aided schools; the San Pedro Roman Catholic School, New Horizon Academy and Holy Cross Anglican School. In most cases GOB assists through paying the faculty and other expenses. There are five established private schools on the island offering primary level education; Ambergris Caye Elementary School, Maestro Reyes School of Knowledge, St. Peter’s Elementary School, Isla Bonita Elementary and The Island Academy. We compared two GOB-aided schools with two private institutions, investigating space availability, potential for expansion and cost of attendance.

This year, San Pedro Roman Catholic School (SPRCS) has a total enrollment of 850 students with 28 classes and 30 teachers. The average classroom at SPRCS houses 33 students. Considering the high temperatures we experience on the island, and only with the breeze from the Caribbean Sea and some fans in the classrooms, this situation proves to be less than comfortable for students in packed classrooms. At the last registration, SPRCS was forced to turn away some 25 students due to a lack of space at various levels. There is no more space for growth at SPRCS. According to Principal Kay, the school has reached its capacity.

At Holy Cross Anglican School, there are currently 17 classrooms with a total of 425 students enrolled. On an average each class has student occupancy of about 25 to 30. This year the school had to turn away many students as there was no space available in specific class levels. With proper landfill and construction of more classrooms, there exists space for expansion. At maximum capacity, the school’s enrolment is 510.

Now, let’s take a look at the private schools. We were able to obtain information from two very reputable private institutions here on the island. The Island Academy has six classrooms with a total enrolment of 71 students. The average size of a classroom is 15 students. At maximum capacity, the school can hold a total of 80 students. They have space for students and they do have room for expansion if needed.

Ambergris Caye Elementary School (ACES) has a total of five classrooms with approximately eight to ten students per classroom. The school did not turn away any students and has available space in all levels. There is room for expansion at ACES and they plan to have another classroom and office space constructed before 2012. At maximum capacity, ACES can accommodate about 60 to 70 students. There are currently 44 students enrolled. ACES has embarked on a bold initiative, a “Sponsorship” program, where they encourage private individuals and businesses to donate and help children attend the school. Their present enrolment includes some students through that program.

Apart from the issue of space, we also looked at the cost of attending both types of educational institutions; government and private. While there is space available at some of the private institutions, the true reason for lack of enrollment might very well be financial.

At Government-aided schools, the average cost for new registrations is around $100BZ per year, while re-registration is about $80. Private institutions tend to cost higher, as we discovered that the average cost is around $250 per month with a registration of around the same. The price fluctuates based on the institution, in some instances running considerably higher and in some cases lower.

With eight elementary schools graduating students on a yearly basis, The San Pedro Sun contacted the San Pedro High School (SPHS) to find out how that institution is dealing with allocating the much needed space for the overwhelming demand. SPHS has 13 classrooms with the capacity to hold around 40 students each. According to Principal Emil Vasquez, some classes have up to 40 students in them. With a total enrolment of 449 students this year, the average classroom has about 34 students per class. SPHS was not forced to turn away any students this year, as they were catering to five new Form 1 classes but instead only ended up with four. This, of course, includes the preparatory class. At maximum capacity, SPHS can accommodate up to 500 students.

Ultimately, both government-aided schools we surveyed were forced to turn away students.

However, the cost of tuition at the private institutions that do have space available can be prohibitive for some families. In an interview with Ms. Candy Armstrong, Education Officer for San Pedro, Armstrong revealed that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is kept informed of the situation on the island. Armstrong’s office is presently gathering necessary information to prepare a statistical report that would be presented to the MOE. The hope is to use this report to convince the MOE that there is a great need for more Government-aided schools, which would create more affordable education at the primary level for students on the island.

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