An interview with … O’Neil Duncan, Principal, Cayman Academy (1 of 2)

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Cayman Academy

Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.

O’Neil Duncan is focussed on promoting Cayman Academy’s student-centred learning environment, with a primary emphasis on instilling Christian values and character development. Duncan is responsible for more than 300 students and 40 staff members at Cayman Academy, a private Seventh-day Adventist school that achieved a ‘Good’ rating from government school inspectors in November 2020, and which traces its origins in Cayman back more than 100 years.

In the first part of this interview, Duncan talks about Cayman Academy’s strengths and challenges, and the school’s response to COVID-19.

In the second part (to be published this week), he discusses Cayman Academy’s newest initiatives, its distinguishing characteristics, and potential misconceptions about the school.

O’Neil Duncan, Principal, Cayman Academy

Bio: A third-generation teacher, Duncan arrived in Cayman in 2005. He has more than 20 years of teaching experience, including 10 years at John Gray High School, and previously in Turks and Caicos Islands and Jamaica. He holds a Ph.D., master’s degree and bachelor’s degree. He became Principal of Cayman Academy in 2015.

Can you please talk a bit about Cayman Academy?

Thanks for interviewing me, and we’re happy that you chose Cayman Academy as a school that you wish to know more about.

Cayman Academy is a Seventh-day Adventist institution. We follow a holistic approach to education, so it’s not just academics, but we look at the whole student. The students’ worldview related to his or her origin, meaning, purpose and destiny of this human life is most important.

While every Adventist school is unique by virtue of its location and circumstances, all authentic Adventist schools share certain distinctive qualities. The atmosphere and ethos that is created can be experienced and observed at both the tangible and intangible levels. The term ‘special character’ is used to describe that distinctiveness.

The heart and soul of Adventist education stems from a worldview regarding the origin, meaning, purpose, and destiny of human life.

The writings of Ellen G White are also acknowledged as an inspired commentary and guide in applying these understandings in the context of the school. The outcome of this effort is a ‘special character’ that reflects the reasons, the vision, the aspirations and the values that are important to us as Adventist educators.

Cayman Academy is a community in which spirituality, industry, a spirit of cooperation, a sense of safety and security, and respect for the diversity of individuals and cultures are valued and nurtured. As cultural beings, teachers, students and others will participate in seeking, communicating and expressing the essence of that culture in language, story, symbolism, worship and acceptable standards of behaviour and lifestyle consistent with Adventist worldview.

The culture and ethos of the school consistently reflect the practical endorsement of a biblical worldview and its implicit values. This culture seeks to be Christian generally, and Seventh-day Adventist in particular. Cayman Academy functions in a complementary relationship with the family, the Church, and other schools in the system of schools in our union, the Atlantic Caribbean Union.

What are the strengths of Cayman Academy?

One of the things that I like about Cayman Academy is the dedicated teachers that we have. Our strength is our student-centred learning, which supports a sense of autonomy for the students and a learning climate that is safe. It’s not only safe physically, but also safe to make mistakes, for adults and students.

Generally we prepare our students for the world to come — not just for the world of work, but making them model citizens.

Our Ultimate Purpose: The restoration of human beings to the image of their Maker through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and the balanced development of the ‘whole person’.

Students: Our Students are viewed as multifaceted beings uniquely created in God’s image, but marred by sin. They are seen with the need to develop comprehensive wholeness and integrity, to reach their highest potential in all human faculties, and to fulfil God’s purpose for their lives.

The Role of the Teacher: The teacher-minister’s role is of central importance in the life of our school. Teacher-ministers are expected to be exemplary models of Seventh-day Adventist culture and Christian graces, and to demonstrate professional competence in teaching, pastoral nurture and ministry.

The Curriculum: All learning areas are approached from the perspective of the biblical worldview. As a ‘balanced curriculum’ that promotes an integrated perspective of faith and learning, it addresses the major developmental needs in the spiritual, intellectual, physical, social, emotional, and vocational realms. It also reflects appreciation for Christian heritage, community building and citizenship, concern for social justice, and stewardship of the environment while still following the National Curriculum at all levels of the school.

Teaching and Learning: An appropriate emphasis is placed on all forms of true knowledge. There is sensitivity to the culture, typical methods and skills of the respective subject fields and their place within the scheme of learning from a Christian perspective. Teaching methods are sensitive to the diversity of the gifts and needs of all students and seek to actively engage them personally and collaboratively, and give opportunity to put into practice what has been learnt. Excellence is encouraged and facilitated in all areas.

We promote the whole idea of aesthetic appreciation and healthful living. We only serve vegetarian food. If you’re coming to find chicken and so forth, <laughs> it’s not here.

Generally we prepare our students for the world to come — not just for the world of work, but making them model citizens. When they leave here, they are good citizens, and they engender our vision statement, that is: “Everyone a faithful servant of God, honoring Him by using their skills and knowledge in loving service to others.”

We are service-oriented, and we are teaching them how to serve others, and to serve selflessly. That’s what we’re about.

What are some challenges facing the school?

There is always the challenge of limited space. We don’t have enough space. We have a waiting list of, most times, over 100 students who want to come in, but we just can’t always accommodate them because we are bound by class size and and recommended square footage per person in each class.

We also have a challenge in terms of the attrition of our teachers. While our teachers may leave for varied reasons, our salaries are no longer as attractive as they used to be and several opportunities for our teachers have arisen especially in the last few years. We do have very strong teachers and administrators and since we follow whole school initiatives and regular professional development for our staff we have enough depth to survive these times but it is certainly something we are looking into.

Those are struggles in terms of expanding the school. We want to have more space so that we can help more children.

Another challenge, and I think it was raised in the inspection report, is the special education needs provision.

This is an important provision for our students and we are committed to making improvements in this area. Our plan is to have a trained Special Needs Coordinator to lead this department.

Also, if you ask our parents, they’d like us to have more extracurricular activities. Over the last few years we have introduced a few more new clubs. This is another area we continue to try to improve even through collaborating with other entities to offer opportunities to our students that we are currently able to offer on our campus.

How was your school impacted by COVID-19, and what were some of the lessons learned from it?

We thank the Lord’s for His favour on our school, because nothing really changed for us here.

Some of our parents are out of jobs, which is a great challenge financially. It meant that we have to give more concessions to parents who are not working, which the school board was happy to do. But we made those decisions on an as-needed basis, so the parents would have to request that help.

A lot of parents who are out of work are from the tourism sector. We tried to help them as best as possible.

In terms of our curriculum, we were already using Microsoft Teams for our students who could not come to school for whatever reason. Sometimes parents have to go away for work, and they have to be off for maybe 2 weeks, so a few years ago we introduced Office 365 and the use of Microsoft Teams. Instead of being out of school, the students are still able to access their work.

So COVID didn’t have that knee-jerk effect for us. Our students were using Teams from before, so it was a seamless transition for our students to use it when they need to.

We made use of Zoom and Teams, and students kept up with the curriculum and were able to do very well on their exams. Our students had their best results this year. We had a 97% overall pass rate on the recent CXC exams, which is the highest we have ever attained. All of those students got 5 subjects or more, almost all including Maths and English. So we were really excited about that.

We have had to put things in place to deal with COVID. We bought face shields for all of our students and teachers, so they could wear face shields or masks if they wanted to. We also built separators in the classrooms, so where they sat, they had screens that would block them off from the other students. We had 4 partitions separating them, which at least a few of our classes still use.

I think, overall, apart from the financial challenge that we will continue to face, that our policies were robust and fruitful in dealing with the COVID situation.

We still continue to promote this because we’re not all out of the woods yet, so our students still hear this in our devotions, and we still try to push how to make sure that we’re protected from this virus.

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