Dominica struggles to recover from devastating storm Erika
The night of 26 August began as any other night for Mary Fontaine, her husband and their two children. The family live in the south-eastern community of Petite Savanne, in Dominica, a 290 sq. mile island country in the eastern Caribbean.
The Fontaines were aware of the weather forecast – which had warned of showers associated with Tropical Storm Erika, and Mary secured the family home. Such weather systems are common during Atlantic hurricane season – Erika would be the fifth tropical storm of the 2015 season. The island was at the height of a drought, and Mary was prepared for these much-needed showers.
But the more than 71,000 residents of this small, mountainous island were not prepared for the rain that pounded Dominica for 12 hours on Thursday 27 August, as Erika made its slow exit. All told, 12.64 inches of rain fell in that short period.
Links with the outside world were cut, as flood waters and debris covered the tarmac at the main commercial airport in the east of the country, as well as the smaller landing strip in the capital, Roseau.
“I was roused from my sleep, and, when I got outside, it was just water, water, water everywhere,” recalls Mary. “I’ve been here all my life but never saw anything like this. It was disaster all around.” She frantically tried to account for family members who live in neighbouring houses.
Mary Fontaine (left) who lives in the south-eastern community of Petite Savanne in Dominica survived tropical storm Erika. Her brother and his two sons are missing. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/B.Henry
Devastation in the close-knit community is so widespread that the government has declared Petite Savanne and eight other communities special disaster areas. A decision was later taken to evacuate Petite Savanne and three other affected communities. All but a handful of residents in the communities have now said farewell to their homes.
Long-time resident of Petite Savanne Urban Baron described the scene as “worse than a war zone”.
“More than 50 houses were on the verge of collapse, and there were landslides everywhere,” said Urban. He described people digging through mud to free those who had been trapped under fallen houses. In many cases, the only tools were their bare hands.
The government has appealed for international assistance, and pledges are coming in.
Supplies provided by UNICEF being packed in Barbados to be brought to Dominica. © UNICEF Eastern Caribbean/2015/D.Williams
UNICEF has so far dispatched 4,000 water purification tablets, more than 500 boxes of adult hygiene kits and 100 infant hygiene kits to the most affected areas. The organization is currently working with the Ministry of Education to ascertain the extent of damage to the education sector, ahead of the scheduled 7 September start of the school year.
Target 2015: Universal ECD in Dominica
ROSEAU- It was just past 8 a.m. in the rural community of St Joseph in Dominica.
Desma Montoute, a 27 year-old mother of two, had just dropped off her three-year-old son Damon at the pre-school which is now a part of the recently-renamed Kaleb John Laurent Primary School in her community.
It is still a new concept for her to bring her child to a government-supported pre-school as a short two years ago she was among approximately 20 per cent of mothers in Dominica who were forced to keep their infants at home because of a lack of access to structured early childhood development services.
“He is really the first one in the family to be going to pre-school,” she says, as she proudly relays that her son knows his alphabet, can count and has grown much more sociable and confident in the nearly one year he has been exposed to formal pre-school education.
Damon and other pre-schoolers in Dominica are attending pre-school thanks to a Government policy to make early childhood education available to all pre-schoolers in Dominica by 2015.
A year from the 2015 target, Marcilla Powell, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, reckons that Dominica is within two percent of reaching the target of making pre-school universally accessible to all three to five year old in the Eastern Caribbean country.
ECD was not reaching rural communities
“We found that 20 per cent of our 3-5 years old, especially in rural communities, were not accessing early childhood services for one reason or another. It could be because there was none available in close proximity to their home or because the family could not afford to pay for the services.
“Whatever the specific circumstances preventing children from accessing pre-school opportunities we saw the critical importance of reaching that cohort with developmental activities early and so we boldly embarked on this new policy,” Powell adds.
She revealed that government is taking a number of approaches to reach its ambitious target of making ECD services universal within three years.
“We first did an audit of all primary schools to see which ones had space available for a pre-school centre; we worked with existing community private schools and government gave them a subvention and is paying the salaries of some of the teachers and the final stage now is to build centres in areas where schools do not have space or which are not being served by private facilities,” the official added.
“One of the things we tried to ensure is that is that we did not lead to a situation where private schools are closed. We try to work with them and as government we create the enabling environment and the standards under which the sector should operate,” the Permanent Secretary said.
HighScope to be the standard for pre-schools
ECD Coordinator Veda George notes that one of the standards government has set is ensuring that all pre-schoolers in both private and public settings benefit from the High Scope curriculum which promotes active participatory learning as a way to achieving powerful, positive outcomes.
“This has called for a mind-shift, especially among older educators as its moves away from the main mode of delivery being the teacher standing in front the class and delivering instruction to a student-centred approach which sees children actively participating in their learning,” George adds.
The government strategy to take ownership of educating pre-schoolers meant significant changes for owners of some private facilities.
One such is Lucina Serrant, an experienced educator who ran her own facility for 20 years before it was merged with another community pre-school school and housed at the government-owned St. Joseph Primary School.
“The transition has been smooth for both myself and the students. I’ve adjusted well to both the new arrangement and the High Scope model,” she says, adding that the close proximity to the primary school provides an opportunity for pre-schoolers to gradually get integrated into primary school culture.
“My only disappointment is that since we came together parents who used to pay fees mistakenly think its government’s responsibility now and they do not make any financial contributions so we struggle a bit in terms of getting material we need to make a success of the High Scope model,” Serrant adds.
She says this is an area all stake-holders will have to address in the short term.
Primary schools seeing benefits of pre-school education
The benefits of exposure to early childhood education are known and educators at the primary school level are already looking to expanded ECD opportunities to have a positive impact on the readiness of students to start their primary school education.
One such educator is Gretta Rovers, principal of the Roseau Primary School, which draws its students from many disadvantaged populations around the City area.
“Many of my Grade K students previously came unprepared to receive an education because parents in our catchment area did not have schools available and where they were available the parents could not afford to send their children to pre-school.
“Even the pre-school on our compound got off the ground fairly late because we cater to mostly underprivileged children and parents thought they had to pay to send their children to the ECD centre. They have however gradually come on board and now we have a full cohort who will be much more prepared to enter our Grade K,” the principal adds.
According to George the challenges for the ECD sector in Dominica include reaching the few communities which will need purpose built pre-schools, ensuring that systems are implemented to ensure that teaching materials are readily available and expanding High Scope training to Grade K teachers and primary school principals so that there are linkages between how children are taught at pre-school and at primary schools.
These, all the administrators agree, are challenges which will be met head-on as Dominica reaches its target of universal access to early childhood education by 2015.