Sunday, February 25, 2018

St Ursula's marks 160 years


THE OLD BUILDING: St Vincent Street Anglican School in the 1940s. Its demolition in 1952 made way for the present St Ursula's building.

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The pupils of St Ursula's Girls' Anglican School were among the thousands of children who returned to their classrooms two weeks ago but perhaps the girls in yellow and grey should allow themselves to feel a little more special than the rest.

After all, not many children can say their school is 160 years old. Schools have been celebrating 50th, 60th, 100th and 150th anniversaries, but St Ursula's? They are 160 years old and counting.

This school, located at upper St Vincent Street in Port of Spain, opened its doors in April 1852. That's a long time ago, 18 short years after Emancipation.

Slavery was a recent memory and East Indian indentured labourers had just started to arrive to work on the sugar cane estates.

Trinidad's union with Tobago was still decades away. There were no cars, maxis, vans, trucks. The telephone was not yet invented. The electric bulb would have seemed light years away. In other words we would not recognise our country as it was when St Ursula's was born.

St Vincent Street Anglican School, as it was then called, opened with 150 boys and girls and was co-educational until the late 1970s. The school is run by the Anglican Board of Education, it is connected to All Saints Anglican Church on Marli Street, Port of Spain, and it claims a special relationship with Bishop Claude Berkley, who was its manager until he took up his current position.

It's still a small school with about 350 girls in 14 classes, but it has made and continues to make a big contribution to our country. Its graduates can be found in all walks of life—1977 Miss Universe Penny Commissiong-Chow, singers Heather Headley and Candice Aqui and Machel Montano's daughter, Malaya, passed through its gates.

Entertainer Ronnie McIntosh was one of the lucky boys who spent his first two years there before moving on to Richmond Street Boys' Anglican as was the practice for males.

In the past decade, several St Ursula's girls have placed on the honour roll of those scoring 95 per cent and above in the SEA exam. But academics is not all. St Ursula's pupils have been wearing the school's colours gloriously in track and field, netball, chess and various other quizzes and competitions whenever the opportunities arise and resources permit.

Karate and gymnastics are also on the roster of extracurricular activities. After tireless fund-raising and organising they now have a steelband ensemble.

These achievements are all the more special in light of the many handicaps and hardships staff and students have to deal with day after day, term after term, year after year.

The current school building was constructed in 1952 and it was designed for 250 pupils. Now there are so many more girls crammed into classrooms that seem to merge into each other; desks are jammed one against the other.

Teachers' tables are often piled high with books and paper; pens, pencils, rulers, chalk, hand sanitisers, rolls of toilet paper and any number of other items fill the remaining spaces. There is no staff room, no storeroom for the school supplies, the dolly-house cafeteria is jammed up against a wall at the back.

There is no music room, so the pan ensemble's instruments are currently begging a lodging in the tiny library. The congestion is reminiscent of a Charlotte Street variety store—every nook and cranny filled—school supplies and equipment piled high overhead and against the walls, packed and stacked everywhere.

However staff and pupils got a pleasant surprise on their return from Christmas vacation. The path from the main building to the toilet was fully covered. No more rainy season drama involving children running through showers and puddles to get to the toilet.

Then there is the problem of staffing. Currently two teachers are on leave, and there are two longstanding vacancies, so other teachers have to teach "double classes", one of them being a Standard Four class that's approaching SEA threshold. Some teachers have moved on to training college or have been transferred and getting replacements is often like pulling teeth. Last year parents volunteered to help out and fill in where needed, especially in the Infants Department.

The introduction of the Continuous Assessment Component places more demands on teachers. So the challenges abound.

Despite these frustrations the staff, the pupils and the parents of St Ursula's keep on achieving. The school's calendar is studded with activities like the Easter Parade, walkathons for a variety of causes, Achievement Day, St Ursula's Day and the Christmas Bazaar.

The inaugural Heritage Day that took place in May 2011 was a spectacular success as was the fund-raising back-in-times fete the PTA held last year.

Jannette Skerritt has been principal at St Ursula's for the past nine years and will be retiring this year after 41 years in the teaching service. There is a steady procession of girls into and out of her little office, tucked away behind the stage on the upper floor. One child asks for a bottle of water, another wants to buy a yellow ribbon—part of the school uniform, a third brings a note from her class teacher, another seeks a snack. It's like this on mornings, during the