Visits to schools in Belfast, Dublin show that much good work is going on there

As part of our careful search to determine the best use of the funds we raise on behalf of Ireland, the Irish American Partnership constantly reviews its decisions regarding grants to specific programs and Irish schools. A formal grants committee consisting of Irish and American directors meets in Ireland to regularly provide advice to the full board of directors.

In order to obtain information for those decisions, I visited four inner city disadvantaged schools in Belfast and Dublin in mid-June. All were located in high crime, low income neighborhoods – two in Belfast, and two in Dublin. It was an exciting and stimulating trip. There is nothing so rewarding as meeting hard working teachers, principals, and their students to instill confidence in what we are doing.

Each of the schools received a Partnership grant of $2,500 to provide support for new reading materials and science education materials. The Partnership believes that a focus on disadvantaged primary schools in Ireland will assist not only the most vulnerable but also the most impressionable young children. We are investing in Ireland’s future leadership and Ireland’s future as a strong, vibrant nation.

Every city throughout the world has low-income disadvantaged areas where educating local young people is always difficult. Belfast and Dublin are no different, although conditions in the two cities vary considerably.

In Belfast, there are essentially three different school systems, each based upon the religion of the children. All three are paid for by the British government. There are the Catholic “Maintained” schools, the Protestant “Controlled” schools, and the relatively new “Integrated” schools.

The Irish American Partnership has supported all three systems.

In Dublin, budget cutbacks over these last seven years have made finding solutions and special needs funding far more complicated.

My first visit was to the Gardiner school, in northern inner-city Dublin, where ten-year Principal Eileen O’Doherty is responsible for 330 young students ages 5-12 and their teachers. The schoolhouse is an old rambling building with classrooms spread throughout. It sits next to a convent with which it shares its play yard and flower garden. O’Doherty’s biggest problem is persuading the parents of the children of the necessity for discipline and school attendance. Many children come to school without having eaten breakfast, so the government pays to feed them. Security is omnipresent, with large entrance doors always locked. My taxi driver warned me that this was a very “rough” area but the sun was shining brightly and the students and teachers had a pleasant if somewhat questioning welcome for this visiting “Yank.”

Next I visited the new Rutland Street School where I was met by Principal Maria Barron, who has been in her job since last November and is responsible for 143 students in a brand new building shared with a preschool group of 93 students on the ground floor. This is a DEIS-Band One designated school indicating its severely disadvantaged neighborhood and that makes it eligible for special funding. Barron and her teachers serve breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and begin classes at 9. Here again, obtaining the support of parents is a huge problem for the school. Assistant Principal Ian Cherry told me that very few of the students who graduate from the Rutland Street School will ever go on to university level education.

Several of the teachers pointed out the window to the playground next door and said they could see drug deals occurring there every week. The police were frequently present to discourage such activity. The students I met, however, were respectful, smiling, and they seemed to be enjoying their learning experiences.

The next day I took a two-hour train ride to Belfast where I was met by Francis Murray from the mayor’s office before we went to the Elmgrove Primary School in East Belfast. This was quite an experience. Principal Jayne Jeffers is responsible for 540 young people ages 5-12. Another 200 will join her school this fall as part of a move to consolidate and save money. Elmgrove is a “Controlled” Protestant school located in a heart of a Loyalist area.

Seventy percent of the students receive free meals. Some of the students bring their siblings to schools and Jeffers feeds them, too. Special needs students total 25 percent of the enrollment.

The atmosphere was electric. Students and teachers alike bustling here and there. High energy everywhere. I visited classrooms and saw six year olds using iPads that I have yet to master. There are only six iPads per room so the children must share. The teachers move between the tables to help learning and understanding. All the teachers I met in the many schools I have visited tell me that iPads are especially helpful, particularly with special needs children.

Finally, I was driven to St. Kieran’s school on the other side of town, in West Belfast. Principal Brian McAlea greeted us with great enthusiasm. He is a bundle of energy, talking a mile a minute while showing us the status of his school and his students. St. Kieran’s is a “Maintained” Catholic school that has been designated as the most deprived school in Northern Ireland by the department of education with 86 percent of its 392 students receiving free school meals. McAlea is very proud of St. Kieran’s progress and showed us test results that indicate he and his teachers are succeeding. As we were finishing he took us into the large auditorium where the students had gathered for a musical song and dance show. He led the presentation with his guitar and introduced the performers and their teachers.

As I looked at the happy faces singing and clapping, I was struck by how all the children in the four schools – North and South – looked the same to my eyes. It was a wonderful experience. The Partnership will certainly be returning to all four schools.