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Sinanan on a mission to restore Palo Seco
Two weeks ago former T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) first vice president Davanand Sinanan left his post to become principal of the Palo Seco Government Secondary School.
The position is far from glamorous. The school is being temporarily housed in a scant facility at Beach Camp. Although Palo Seco Secondary was rebuilt with a state of the art compound in 2007, a fungal infestation and electricity malfunctions have rendered the building temporarily useless. To accommodate the nearly 500 students at Beach Camp five container classrooms have been installed in addition to the two main buildings.
There are no computer or science labs and Sinanan’s office does not even have a telephone. To conduct school business he uses a Blackberry cellphone. If teachers need to photocopy or print documents, they must drive more than a mile away to the Palo Seco compound to do so.
By the end of the interview, about four restless parents are waiting to see Sinanan regarding a fight the week before involving their children. The situation is a far cry from the history of the school. According to Sinanan, Palo Seco Secondary was once one of the St Patrick district’s shining glories. “Parents from as far as Debe and Point Fortin wanted to send there children here. It was the second best school in the district,” he said during an interview on Tuesday in his sparse Beach Camp office.
Palo Seco’s alumni include Government Information System Ltd CEO Andy Johnson, New York-based Sloan Award recipient Neal Singh and Teaching Service Commission chairman Hyacinth Guy to name a few. As the new principal, Sinanan’s five year plan is to restore the school to it’s past prestige. For now, he’d just like to see the school back at it’s proper address. “It pains me to see the conditions under which we have to operate. The children are losing out. They’re restless,” he said.
As a TTUTA representative, Sinanan said he advocated for principals to be required to take a course in facility management, something he believes their steep academia backgrounds do not prepare them for. This is just one of the aspects he believes need to be reformed in the school system.
Sinanan, 48, may understand all too well some of the pitfalls of the school system. Born and raised in San Francique, Penal, Sinanan attended Tulsa Hindu Primary School, Penal Junior Secondary and Fyzabad Composite Secondary School. He later attained a degree in botany at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. After graduating from UWI in 1989, Sinanan entered the teaching service because he could not find employment.
Working at what was then Point Fortin College for three years changed Sinanan’s perspective on teaching. Teachers would spend their own money to feed students on many occasions. In 1990, Sinanan was one of 120 teachers recruited to teach in London, England. While most of the recruits remained in England, Sinanan lasted only nine weeks.
“I woke up one morning looking at the walls of this little room that I was living in and in this cold, grey city and I’m asking myself, “Is this what I really want to do? If I’m going to be a teacher shouldn’t I be teaching those unfortunate black children in Trinidad rather than being here?” Sinanan felt he should be giving back to T&T and returned promptly.
Patriotism did not leave Sinanan blind to T&T’s negative side. While teaching at Penal Secondary School in the late 90s, Sinanan led staff in a 28-day protest. A teacher was accused of sexually abusing students and the Ministry of Education was ignoring reports. At the time Sinanan was a TTUTA staff representative. “It was immoral for us to say that we care about children in one room and do nothing when in another room one of our colleagues was abusing them,” he said. Of the 25 teachers who protested, 18 were put on disciplinary charges for five years until TTUTA advocated for the charges to be dropped.
The protest propelled Sinanan into TTUTA’s higher level leadership and he eventually became first vice president in 2010.
At TTUTA, Sinanan worked towards making the education system reform he believes necessary a reality. He is adamant that the system has not been able to shake it’s elitist and colonial roots and does not benefit society equally. “On the one hand we have an education system that is producing educated mercenaries. Doctors and attorneys who would not blink to overcharge you.
We have people who have no problem taking everything they can get from the state and then say bye because they can make more money abroad. On the other hand, we have uneducated robbers and bandits.”
Sinanan’s solutions to these problems are myriad. First, he believes the Secondary Entrance Assesment examination needs to be removed. “It is time we get rid of the exam culture that is crippling our primary school system setting the foundation for certain failure by the majority of our students. We have universal primary and secondary education. Why do we still need a placement exam?
We need to focus on holistic development rather than getting them to pass exams at this tender age. We also need to ensure that all secondary schools offer the same quality educational opportunity so it does not matter what secondary school you go to.”
He also believes there needs to be continuous professional development programmes for teachers and a plant modernisation programme for school buildings.
Amidst all these problems, however, Sinanan has stood his ground for more than 20 years and plans to continue doing so. When asked what keeps him going, he said: “My passion to serve. Service to man and service to God. I firmly believe I can make a difference.”
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