Turtle Bunbury

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From 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage' (MPG, 2009) by Turtle Bunbury.


James Comer was born in 1934 to an impoverished black family living in the inner city of East Chicago, Indiana. The steel and railroad industries that made the city a freewheeling boomtown in the 1920s petered out during his childhood leaving the cityscape derelict and forlorn. Neither of his parents completed any formal education. But they were determined young James and his four siblings would reap whatever they could from the school system. Their mother took a particularly active interest, urging the teachers to bring her kids to the library, to museums, to any place that would help stimulate their minds and build their confidence and self-esteem. She understood that education was the best investment any individual could have. It gave a child the dignity of choice.

Fast forward to 2008. James P. Comer, MD, MPH, is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University. His considerable achievement has been to develop the Comer Process, or the Comer Whole School Development Programme, a system of education specifically focused on child development in inner-city schools. The programme promotes teamwork between children, parents, teachers and the community at large. Its aim is to improve the lot of each child - socially, emotionally and academically. The programme has been utilized in more than 600 schools in eighty-two school districts across twenty-six states. In 2004, the Dublin Docklands Teachers’ Conference opted to run with the programme. This was the first time the Comer Process had been implemented outside the United States.

Perhaps inevitably, the children of inner city Dublin were ignored when industry abandoned the area. As the population declined, many of the old schools closed down. Their pupils moved into the remaining schools, which were already stretched for resources. One of the greatest challenges for the Docklands Authority has been to address the educational situation. When the Authority was created in 1997, the drop-out rate for inner city schools was a staggering 65 per cent while just one per cent went on to Third Level education. For the whole Docklands Social Regeneration project to succeed, those statistics would need to be dramatically reversed. One option was to tackle each school individually. Another was to grab the whole educational bull by the horns and adopt some of the pioneering educational techniques now in motion across the world. In cooperation with local School Principals, the Docklands Authority decided to address the matter. Formed in 1998, the School Principals Forum was the first event of its kind in Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales. The principals of 25 schools from within the Docklands Area and its hinterland gathered as one body to ponder the situation. The Forum is now an annual event, with over 30 programmes running in the schools represented.

The principals agree that it is vital to incorporate parents as much as possible. Children need the support of adults to maximise their learning potential. James Comer’s uneducated mother helped him with his homework and now he’s a Professor at Yale. The Docklands Authority offered scholarships to children who completed second level education. The Authority, with the agreement of the principals, funded the Parents in Education (PIE) course, a three-year programme delivered by the National College of Ireland, designed to educate parents and improve their self-confidence.

In addition to the vast array of programming the Docklands Authority also recognized the need to upgrade the schools infrastructure in the area and has begun a programme to build two new schools in Seville Place – St. Laurence O’Toole Primary School for girls and boys, and the St. Laurence O’Toole Special School.

The educational programme has not come cheap for the Docklands Authority but there have been measurable differences. The number of those completing their leaving cert has shot up from 10 per cent to 63 per cent in the past 10 years. ‘I think the penny is dropping that the most important thing you can do for your kids is to keep them in school long enough for them to do their leaving cert’, says Seánie Lamb of The Inner City Renewal Group. There has also been a marked improvement in the number of Docklands students going on to Third Level, up to 10 per cent by 2005, while the number applying for the Docklands Authority’s Third Level scholarships has increased dramatically from nine applications in 1997 to nearly 100 in 2008. Over 140 young Docklanders have attained positions in businesses in the IFSC under the Schools Job Placement programme, and 25 school leavers have been placed in trade apprenticeships in the area. One of the earliest beneficiaries of the Docklands Authority scholarship programme was mother-of-two Karen Dowling who successfully used the scholarship to read law at Trinity College and is now a barrister.

The Docklands Authority has also funded a Psychometric Assessment Programme for each school. As well as addressing the emotional needs of each child, this enables the school to determine if any children are unduly hampered by dyslexia, ADD and such like. These programmes work hand-in-hand with EQ or Emotional Quotient. In the 20th century, a lot of emphasis was placed on one’s IQ, or Intellectual Quotient. If your IQ was low, it was assumed you didn’t stand much chance of success in this life. However, it transpires that a lot of those with relatively low IQ have done remarkably well. This is attributable to their high EQ. We all have different abilities. Some remember dates, sums, lines and formulas. Others are better with emotional or social skills. Those with high EQ can often empathise with others, remain optimistic in the face of great odds, detach themselves from their emotions in times of pressure and inspire others in times of need. This encouraging development in our understanding of human thought is making an impact on the educational ethos within the Docklands. Many of the Docklands schools are now following the lead of a 2005 programme run by Geetu Bharwaney, one of the world’s leading experts in the field of emotional intelligence. It’s all about putting the young people into the right gear, to give them the confidence to show off their sassy, gung-ho nature after two generations of defeatism. It is perhaps most apparent in the fields of drama, music and sport where the boys and girls can truly immerse themselves.

In music the schools of the Docklands benefit from the Education and Outreach Programme run by the National Concert Hall. Through this, the children can learn everything from flutes and fiddles to the rhythms of rap. The Performing Arts Academy also provides a useful insight in how to master the arts of dance, drama and singing. The Schools’ Drama Programme likewise invites the children to expand their minds by portraying other characters from entirely different walks of life. In 2006, nearly 350 children from the 15 schools involved took to the stage at the Helix for a unique production of the musical ‘Honk!, a contemporary retelling of ‘The Ugly Duckling’.

The Docklands Soccer Academy and the Docklands Gaelic Football and Hurling Academy sees the likes of Niall Quinn, Alan Kelly, Don Givens, Kenny Cunningham, Chris Nichol, Nicky English, Olivia O’Toole, Eoin Kelly, Dessie Dolan and Paul Casey teaching the kids how to play ball. The Docklands Boxing Academy is also popular amongst boys and girls aged twelve to sixteen years, with world lightweight boxing champion Katie Taylor amongst those on hand to show them the ropes.

Pupils become acquainted with the Liffey through the annual Docklands Schools Festival when they race along the river on Dragon Boats and the occasional Tall Ship. During the annual Splashweek, they learn about swimming, sailing, wind surfing and canoeing. Every year, the Authority also sponsors a trip to the French town of Eu (now twinned with North Wall) for fifth class students throughout the Docklands. This provides them with a useful opportunity to practice their French and broaden their horizons, experiencing another way of life first hand.


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