GRANGE HILL, Westmoreland — He was the school’s first graduate to become its principal, and everything Errol Stewart did during his 40 plus years at Grange Hill High School in Westmoreland was shaped by his experience as a student there.
“One has to understand that it is not just a workplace for me. Nearly everything that I do, my perspective of the school comes from the fact that I have been a student there. Right along the 42 years — more so the last 12 years when I was the principal — it means that a lot of things that I had in mind, I was able to galvanise massive support of the staff to move the school forward. Based on the responses of persons, that was done well,” the now-retired educator said with a mix of pride and contentment.
Stewart was speaking with the Jamaica Observer after a ceremony held in his honour last Thursday. The event was attended by many whose lives he touched over the years. He was showered with accolades during the event, hosted by the school’s past students’ association at the Anglican Church’s Gordon Hall in Grange Hill. In addition to graduates, the event was well attended by education officers and supporters of the educational institution. His family and friends travelled from the US and Canada for the event while others from around the world shared in the special occasion via the Zoom online platform.
Stewart started as a student at Grange Hill High in 1971, two years after the school was established. He later received teacher training at Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College before landing a job at Hanover Secondary, which later merged with Rusea’s High School. He taught there for a year before moving on to his alma mater, Grange Hill High, where he steadily moved up the ladder until retirement.
“I have passed through the level of classroom teacher, homeroom teacher, physical education teacher, grade coordinator, senior teacher, head of department for physical education — and during that point I would have upgraded academically until finally I went to Utah to complete my master’s in education, leadership and training,” he said.
One of his major achievements, in his view, was to get the school off the shift system. Started in 1974, the system initially served its purpose of addressing a lack of space but later became a nightmare for students and teachers. After becoming principal in 2010 Stewart decided he wanted to make a change. It took him five years.
“We could not get much done, and the Ministry [of Education] wasn’t able to give us additional space so we had an issue. I was able to convince, first, the staff that we can do it and we can put a proposal in place to convince [the] ministry that we can get ourselves off the shift,” explained Stewart who admitted this was not an easy task.
Innovative ideas were put into motion which led to the creation of a gazebo and classrooms made out of wood. Stewart said this is where his experience of living in a parish with predominantly wooden houses came into play.
“It’s something that I lived in — and I am speaking for myself — for 40-50 years; and I’m not certain that the ministry would realise that but we were certain that this can be used. As a result, we established board classrooms that are still going on from 2015. That was done on our own. We got no help. I was able to convince the powers that be to let us try it and, as it is said, the rest is history. We were able to get off the shift and immediately we started to see some significant results,” he said.
He also proudly recalls the difference he made with the school’s performance in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams. When he took over as principal he soon realised that almost 50 per cent of students taking the exam were not completing their school-based assessments. He put corrective measures in place which led to a significant improvement in exam passes.
Looking back, Stewart is proud of the contribution the school has made to the country through the achievements of past students in areas such as engineering, law, medicine and the hospitality industry.
He also remembers some of the more challenging times the community faced and how the school turned those into opportunities for growth. One example is the implementation of the National Unattached Youth Programme (NUYP) wherein a mother and son graduated together in 2020. The NUYP was implemented following the May 2018 Grange Hill massacre which claimed the lives of seven people — including a minor — and the injuring of eight others.
Many of the projects have had strong support from the school’s very active past students’ association which has made significant contributions to the institution over the years. For example, when Stewart became principal in 2010 he embarked on a project to have the school’s compound fenced. This was achieved with the help of past student Dennis Hawthorne who is the owner and operator of Dennis Shipping, a US-based company with offices in the Caribbean.
With the school’s outstanding achievements over the years Stewart believes the stage has been set for even greater things ahead. However, he said, stakeholders and community involvement are important.
“I believe the community has bought into the idea of the school being for them,” stated Stewart.
These days he is enjoying retirement from Grange Hill High but he still keeps busy. He is the Westmoreland Western returning officer for the Electoral Office of Jamaica. In addition, he has been doing quite a bit of travelling recently and is sometimes still asked to draw on his expertise in many areas.
“But nothing full-time. I don’t see myself taking on any full-time job, to be honest — I have done enough nine-to-five [jobs] already,” stated Stewart who has a passion for agriculture.
“I am doing quite a bit of farming, which is one of my pet areas,” he said as he pointed to the school’s outstanding achievements in agriculture under his watch. At one point, he noted proudly, the institution was named a school of excellence in the field.
That is just one of the many proud achievements and pleasant memories Stewart often looks back on with a sense of pride.