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Iona High – rising from little to a tower of strength

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Named after an island in Scotland called the Isle of Iona, where it is said the missionaries who first went there burnt their ships upon arrival, pledging never to return from whence they came, the Iona High School in Tower Isle, St Mary, has established itself as a burgeoning institution, rising from humble origins.

This year the school community celebrates the 70th anniversary of the institution’s founding in 1949 by Gwendolyn Swaby and her husband, Dr Herbert Swaby.

Giving some of the school’s history, veteran teacher and member of the planning board for a year-long celebration, Joyce Williams told the Jamaica Observer that Iona High was originally called the Folk High School and was first located at Lucky Hill, otherwise known as Goshen, in the hills of western St Mary.

Williams, who first went to the school in 1955 as a Home Economics teacher, and who worked under the tutelage of the Swabys, said the school has lived up to the purpose of its founding and continues to grow.

“I think it is wonderful that the school after 70 years, has continued, and is not only continuing but is also growing and keeps adhering to what the founder, Mr Swaby intended for this school, which is to provide an education for the poor; persons who could not afford an education at the time. He wanted to see poor, people rise above where they were and prepare them to live a life that was comfortable and in the end, make a contribution to society. The school continues to do that,” Williams said.

Having started with just four students, three girls and a boy, Iona High School is now 840 students strong, with pupils who are brimming with their own potential and achievements, also aiming to overcome the challenges.

Principal Melva Humes-Johnson, who has been at the institution for 19 years, described the milestone as “a major feat”.

“According to the word of God, 70 is really significant, and the founders had such a vision that anywhere they are now, they must be feeling very good to know that we have continued and we are growing,” said Humes-Johnson, listing some of the school’s achievements over the years.

“We have seen marked academic improvement. for example, the last set of students we sent up for CSEC, we have seen 65 per cent of those students gaining certification in CSEC. In some subjects, there have been 100 per cent pass, and 80 per cent pass in other areas.

“We do extremely well in business subjects. We have also seen over 70 per cent pass in English language. We are still working on mathematics, and we have put in many things to improve it and we have made our adjustments,” Humes-Johnson said.

The school also has a thriving extra-curricular programme, offering a chess and math club as well as a debating society that has gone up against the prominent Wolmer’s Gilrs’ School, defeating them at least once in competition. The school choir also placed second in the 2015 staging of the All Together Sing competition, and was the first high school to make it to the finals of the Dancing Dynamite competition placing third. All this and more, despite the lack of structural support, said Humes-Johnson.

“This is against the fact that the school does not have a theatre arts teacher. In the last set of JCDC competition we were very outstanding in the dance that we submitted, and went through to nationals. We also entered Boys’ and Girls Champs, and Eastern Champs where we split the 22 schools that participated, placing 11th, and we don’t have an on-the-ground coach. We also entered volleyball for the first time and we were called upon to be in the tournament and we went right up to semi-finals. So we know that we have talents here, where if we put certain things in place and if we get the help that we need, we would go very far,” said Humes-Johnson.

As part of the Ministry of Education’s thrust to extend schooling by two years, the school also offers exit examination certification through the Centre of Occupational Studies, in collaboration with the Moneague College, as well as the CAP (Career Advancement Programme).

Vice-Principal, Joan Peart-Armstrong told the Sunday Observer that the school has it fair share of challenges, but that the close to 60 staff members, comprising academic, administrative and ancillary, along with the students and parents, all work as a family.

“We refer to ourselves as the Iona family, so we have that type of atmosphere here. Whether it’s the parents or students, we see them as part of the family and we treat them accordingly.

“We have our students who are challenging, and where you find in some other schools they are quick to get rid of them, we work with them to find ways to find out what is happening at home, working with the parents, involving the guidance counsellor and so on to see what we can do to help those students to settle down and do well.

“Some of our students do better at the practical subjects, but because social issues and financial problems at home we from time to time, put our hands in our own pockets. We are in the tourism belt, so therefore, we try to guide them in that area so they can find jobs,” Peart-Armstrong said.

Physically, the Vice Principal also admitted that the student population has exceeded the school’s capacity, requiring at least six additional classrooms. But perhaps an interesting twist to this dilemma is the scenic beauty of the immaculate school campus. Perched on a slope overlooking the Caribbean Sea, having to sometimes host classes outside for want of classrooms offers much consolation.

“The environment in which we work, it is very pleasing to the eye and it creates that atmosphere of calm, relaxation. No matter how challenging things become, and we do have our challenges at this school, I can always step outside after dealing with a disciplinary matter. or just having work on my desk, I can step outside and I look out at the sea and I look around at the greenery and it brings some amount of calm,” said Peart-Armstrong

Student and member of the Key Club, Dejourn Lawrence shared that her school environment was something she and her peers were most proud of.

“We love our school grounds most of all. It’s always clean and during exam time or when we don’t have a classroom, we can just sit outside and enjoy the breeze.”

Long-standing groundsman, Linford Davis or “Mr Steppa” as he is called by the school community, has been awarded most outstanding worker at least three times by the Ministry of Education, and continues to serve the institution although he retired in 2016.

“From you come and see how the school look, you know that I love my job,” Davis said.

The school’s celebration kicks off today with a church service. There will also be a homecoming week in June, when a wall of fame in honour of those who have contributed to the growth of the school, will be erected. As part of the celebration, there will also be a pilgrimage to Lucky Hill.

“What we are going to do is place a plaque in Goshen in the church, which will state that the school was founded there and that continues in Tower Isle as the Iona High School,” Williams told the Sunday Observer.

The celebrations will end in November with a Founders’ Lecture.

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