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 second half of this interview, Duncan discusses Cayman Academy’s newest initiatives, its distinguishing characteristics, and potential misconceptions about the school.
In the first half, Duncan talked about Cayman Academy’s strengths and challenges, and the school’s response to COVID-19.
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.
What new programmes and initiatives is Cayman Academy pursuing?
We are excited about our technology initiative. While we have been using Teams for awhile, we have recently introduced the iPad initiative, where all of our students now have iPads. When we teach, we use a smart board to interact with a SMART suite of software. The children find the lessons more engaging and interactive.
The school inspectors were really happy to see that due to the fact that was entrenched in all of our classes, from the primary division to our high school division. We are excited about that, and we have seen great improvement in students’ interest and engagement over time.
We are currently working on the introduction of our A Level programme because we have been told that we are to reduce to a 5-year model, rather than our present 6-year model.
For the past year or so we have been working on that, so our current Year 9 students are going to graduate with our current Year 10 students. By 2023, we want the entire high school to be on the 5-year school system.
We felt that we shouldn’t rush it; it should be a slow and intricate process, so that nobody is disadvantaged and the parents have enough time to deal with the transition that will be taking place.
Those are our 2 main initiatives. We continue our other initiatives, such as our community outreach where we visit The Pines and the hospital, and so forth. We don’t like taking on too many because we want them to be entrenched in our school, so we just have those 2 initiatives going on right now.
By the end of this month, we should be making a donation to the Cancer Society as well. Every year for the past few years we make a donation to the Cancer Society from the collection of funds by our students and members of our community. After a month or so, we donate the entire amount in the form of a cheque to the Cancer Society. Every year it is at least $3000 or more.
What are the defining characteristics of Cayman Academy?
We stand out because of our academic excellence. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find any school that turns out students who do so well.
I’m not going to say it’s because of any great thing that we’re doing here, but I think that when students are comfortable, and students feel that they are cared for and they are safe, they will perform to the best of their ability.
Another thing is strong parent involvement. That’s important.
Also we highlight the whole aspect of salvation through Jesus Christ and Kingdom Values, our school as a church community, the scripture as our guide.
A lot of times those things are not necessarily played up in other institutions, but it is a main focus of ours. We make sure that we have a chaplain in place, who provides spiritual guidance for our students. We also have a guidance counselor and a school nurse, so we are very student-oriented.
We applaud our teachers. We have chapel and worship, integration of faith and values into the curriculum. Teaching of the Bible is a big thing in our curriculum, and our curriculum is well-designed, so it’s a nice mix of what the children are to learn but also making sure that we hit those 21st-century skills that those children need, along with their Christian values so that they are contributing well to society in various ways.
1.1 CAYMAN ACADEMY PROMOTES BELONGING TO GOD’S FAMILY AND FOSTER ADVENTIST IDENTITY
BELONGING is a basic human need. As such, it is an essential element in the life of every individual. Cayman Academy act as a place of belonging for students, parents, caregivers, family and staff.
Cayman Academy fosters a sense of belonging to the family of God and fosters Adventist Identity through building accepting and inclusive relationships. In Adventist schools, people embrace biblical principles. We love, accept, honour, encourage, serve and support one another. This is evident in how we provide:
- Christian-based student welfare policies;
- education, training and support for school staff, students and parents in building safe relationships;
- open communication with parents and caregivers;
- structures to manage allegations of abuse and/or victimisation fairly and sensitively;
- chaplain to support staff, students and their families;
- a Christian peer group for students; and
- a sense of belonging through active, trusting relationships between all members of the school community.
1.2 CAYMAN ACADEMY PROVIDES A SAFE AND ATTRACTIVE LEARNING AND TEACHING ENVIRONMENT
Cayman Academy fosters a sense of belonging to a safe and attractive learning community, where individuals are empowered to do their best. Cayman Academy believes that individuals work and learn best in environments where there is an arena of safety. This is evident in how we provide:
- student centred learning that promotes a sense of autonomy;
- a learning climate where it is safe to make mistakes;
- inclusive curriculum where social, cultural and economic diversity are acknowledged and celebrated;
- for a variety of learning styles and abilities;
- opportunities for parent participation in learning and other events;
- school programs that support families; and
- purposefully constructed learning activities to enhance a sense of belonging.
Cayman Academy provides learning and play spaces that are attractive and safe. We take pride in maintaining buildings, classrooms and grounds to a high standard.
1.3. CAYMAN ACADEMY HELPS BUILD INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY IDENTITY BASED ON BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
Cayman Academy fosters individual and community identity based on biblical principles through participation in whole school, class-based and small group activities. Cayman Academy helps build positive self-image, resilience and a secure sense of identity in all school members. Strong partnerships with local Seventh-day Adventist church communities allow families to worship together and find support in both the school and church context.
Here, we practise a different type of leadership. Personally, I believe strongly in distributive leadership, wherein I am impactful, but the impact is not responding just to me but through the entire staff. I empower the staff to be impactful in their own area. A lot of time I’m like the Pied Piper, where I’m just playing and things happen due to what we have in place.
I think doing it that way, when the children see that the leader is not draconian and argumentative and trying to put them down, that makes a difference. I lead with love and interest, security and all those wonderful characteristics that relate with the fruit of the spirit in the Bible — love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness … That affects even how we deal with students when they walk into my office for disciplinary matters.
It’s not automatically, “OK, you’re suspended.” A lot of times, you can move by policy, but you must also be driven by love. I think when the children realise that, it makes a difference.
I think in some other sectors that can be thought of as weak leadership, but it’s really strong because what you are doing is, through your reaction, empowering the child not to behave in that manner anymore.
Can you talk about any misconceptions there may be about your school?
One misconception would be that because our fees are so low, then “I’m not too sure if any learning is really being done. What standard of education can they be giving down there?”
One of the challenges our school faced was there was a previous inspection report published with an ‘Unsatisfactory’ rating. One of the first things I worked on when I came here is, “We have to change the perspective of the community. So we’re going to change this rating from ‘Unsatisfactory’ to ‘Satisfactory’ or even better.”
All of our teachers are committed to that, and we worked so that would change.
People like beautiful, wonderful, nice-looking schools. For instance, Triple C’s nice-looking. Cayman Prep is nice-looking. St. Ignatius is a nice-looking school.
Then parents come over and see our building, and that it’s a box. We refer to it as a cardboard box. Before, even the colour of it was brown. We asked for a lot of changes in order to make it bright and nice and have appeal.
The fact that we didn’t have a lot of extracurricular activities, too, those are some things that parents were concerned about. When I first came, there was no school field. It was just, ‘ugh’, I don’t even know what was all out there.
I remember going to my first PTA meeting and there were discussions about students getting themselves injured, problems with insurance, financial issues, etc. So one of the first things I did was put in a state of the art play field and school track.
So in terms of aesthetics, people go ‘wow’ and they want to come. Sometimes little changes make a big difference. We focussed on improving the look and feel of the school, so that people liked what they saw.
Right now there’s a wonderful perception of the school. The school enrolment went from 260-something, back before I came here, and I don’t know if some more people came when they knew I was coming, but we went straight over 300 and have not come under that since that time. Our problem now is finding a new place, as opposed to saying that we don’t have enough students.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
We are happy that our school was able to do well in the inspection. I want to thank all the persons who were involved, from our school board members, to our church community, and especially our school administrators and members of staff.
I want to publicly tell them that they are appreciated for the work that they have done.
We enjoy the support of our parents, and we hope that will continue.
People wanting to donate to the school in areas they might want us to work on, they are free to do that. The number is 640-2630, or 640-2643.
Any little bit helps.