“It was on that campus and within those walls that my love for news reporting was ignited. Yes, I knew it even back then.” ~ Hadassah Deleveaux
It saddens me to see my alma mater sitting there rotting.
By Hadassah Deleveaux (née Hall)
It’s a shadow of the school it once was. It’s been six years since any semblance of life on the campus has flatlined. Silence has replaced the bell. It’s a virtual ghost town with a few abandoned vehicles dotting the outside of the western compound, rotting boxing on the older buildings and growing grass in what was once a parking lot.
My first grade class was in the same spot of this building.
I often pass Mabel Walker Primary School in Big Pond Subdivision, but recently decided to stop and take a look at the institution that gave me such a sturdy academic foundation. I roamed the campus, sat in those chairs, sometimes patronized the lunch vendors, threw rocks over the back fence into Big Pond and ultimately found my voice as a speaker and eventually a broadcast journalist. It was on that campus and within those walls that my love for news reporting was ignited. Yes, I knew it even back then.
It was June 2013 when the bell at Mabel Walker took its final few rings for the 300 students. At the end of that school year, it was the final time scores of students would file outside those gates in those plaid uniforms, many braving the scorching sun to walk to their homes. Just writing about it, jolts me back to the sadness I felt when I learned that my alma mater would be closing.
I still remember how hurt I was. The memories held within those buildings made the closure hard. And yes, there is an emotional attachment to the school, having spent all of my primary school years there.
I still remember the impact of teachers like Ms. Green (first grade), Helen Simmons-Johnson (fifth grade) and Thelma Dean (sixth grade) – teachers of excellence. It was there that I was coached to win the Learning Resources Unit’s 1986 Dramatic Reading Competition, rising to the top of a hotly contested contest. As a result, I received the coveted opportunity to host a Christmas program on ZNS tv later that year. After winning, I also appeared on an educational show on Radio Bahamas 1540 AM – thanks to the guidance of Clothie Lockhart in both instances. I eventually went on to work at ZNS, having the opportunity to anchor radio and tv news, in addition to hosting programs. The dream started at Mabel Walker.
So what really happened to Mabel Walker Primary?
It was not that long before the end of the 2012-2013 academic year when it was publicly announced by the then Minister of Education, Jerome Fitzgerald that the school would close and become home to a Professional Development Institute for teachers. Parents were livid.
I recently broached the subject with a grandmother. It was clear that the topic, which had become dormant, revived some negative memories.
“I was angry. It was inconvenient and his grades dropped,” she said, speaking from her back door as the displeasure spread across her aging face.
Fortunately, that young man is about to head into 12th grade at a public school, having rebounded after having to leave familiar territory to attend another school just for sixth grade. He went on to junior school, performing very well in the Bahamas Junior Certificate (BJC) exams and I expect him to do just as well or better when he sits his final national exams next year.
I also recently spoke to a senior Ministry of Education official, questioning why the school was closed as I couldn’t see an institution of learning for youngsters ceasing operations to pave way for another centre – albeit I support professional development for teachers.
“Enrollment in the inner city was dropping and it didn’t make sense to continue pumping money into a school with a declining enrollment that was in bad condition. It would have been an unwise use of limited resources that we have. In addition to the costs associated with running the actual school site, every school requires staffing: secretaries, janitors, teachers and others. They are all required to make a school run at an acceptable standard, and we were trying to save teachers and resources, so we had to consider closing one of the schools. Due to several factors, Mabel Walker was selected for closure,” said the senior official, adding that the closure did not create over-crowding in any other school.
“While the training institute has been established, it hasn’t materialized in the way we want it to be redeveloped. Currently, we use it for professional development activities for staff, but only in a limited way. The Ministry of Works has prepared the plans, but the funding has not yet been secured. The Ministry of Education already has a big capital expenditure bill, so I guess it’s a matter of waiting until the funds are available. I can imagine you might feel badly that your primary school was closed and it was a tough call. However, it was difficult to maintain a school with a diminishing enrollment when the students could easily be accommodated in neighbouring schools,” stated the official.
A bench where students once ate lunch.
In 2013, then Minister of Education, Jerome Fitzgerald, told The Tribune in an interview outside Cabinet that it was a “hard decision” he had to make as minister, but it was in the the “long term interest of our education system.”
“It really was a decision that had to be made at this point if we want to improve the level of our teachers…there has been a major pull to the southwest and east corridors so we have over population in schools in the southeastern corridor, but schools in the inner city, year after year, we’ve seen the numbers diminish,” he said.
A teacher who taught at the institution for 42 years told me she thought she would retire at the school.
“It was sad. We were upset. And they had just renovated the school. We were like family. We got to know the students from most all of the classes – by name,” she recalled.
Although the veteran educator transferred to another inner city school and liked it there, a huge part of her heart remained with Mabel Walker.
“The last graduation was sad. Sometimes I pass through just to look,” she reminisced.
Over the years, I’ve had reason to walk through those gates again. Back in the early 2000s, I was invited to the school to be a guest speaker during an honours ceremony. I suppose I was chosen as an inspiration to the students, as at the time, I was a broadcast journalist. It was a, “This what Mabel Walker could produce” moment.
Interviewing Martin Luther King III while working at ZNS.
I also recall returning there in 2016; at the back of the school there were two classrooms filled with new and lightly used books from the United States. I learned that it was a part of an Urban Renewal project and I was there to sift through the books as a part of a donation for an organization I am affiliated with. I learned that gently worn clothing could also be dropped off as part of the then government’s Urban Renewal project. Just as I had received a donation of books, I later returned to make a donation of clothing.
A few classrooms of learning had been turned into a donation centre of sorts.
Meanwhile, I questioned the senior Ministry of Education official about what will happen to the compound, as the buildings are sitting there, decaying. I think it’s a waste of tax payers’ money.
It was disclosed that the eight classroom block situated on the eastern side of the campus is expected to be kept, while the other buildings – which are decades old – are expected to be demolished.
It was further revealed that a 450-person auditorium will eventually be built, an information centre and meeting spaces.
“Actually, the school wasn’t closed to create the Professional Development Institute for teachers; it was going to close anyhow. Since it was closing, the ministry decided that the facility could be converted into a training institute. Transitions can sometimes inconvenience people, but we had to do this with the greater consideration,” said the Education official.
Rusty, deteriorating fence
And while I do now have a clearer understanding as to why Mabel Walker is closed, I’m still bothered that it’s still sitting there, rotting away. MY Mabel Walker Primary.
During my recent visit, as I peered through the fence and glanced over the yard, I took a look at the buildings and then the gate I often skipped through in the mad rush after school. I sensed this wave of abandonment. The emptiness. The sadness. It was like looking at a grave yard. And if you’re an optimist, it’s been said that dry bones can live again.
But for now: It’s the end of an era.