Sophia Farrell-Hassell, manager of Alexander’s Early Stimulation & Development Foundation and President of SECDA, advocates for more support in the early childhood development sector on Sint Maarten. “Good early childhood development programs set a foundation in skills that children need for their future.”
‘The right to education is not available to every young child on Sint Maarten’
“Young children are like sponges; they can absorb so much information. You can really see firsthand the influence you have on children as a teacher. This is also why it is so important for me to advocate for more support in the early childhood development sector on Sint Maarten.
As a child, I already pretended to be a teacher. As the oldest child of my nieces and brother, I would sit them down and ‘teach classes’. So, it was only natural for me to look into working in education once I turned 18. The timing was perfect, as Sint Maarten was offering a 2-year evening program on early childhood development right after I finished high school. Over the years I have also gotten an Associate’s degree in daycare/preschool management and followed dozens of other courses related to my profession.
To St. Kitts and back
Soon after I got my first degree, I received the opportunity to run a new preschool in Simpson Bay. The school grew from 3 students to 40, and it was hard leaving the island in 2001, to move to St. Kitts with my husband. However, St. Kitts did offer a number of great learning opportunities. It also exposed me to seeing how daycares were managed on a different island, with a lot more government support.
“Teaching children to openly and effectively communicate at a very young age, gives them a much better head start in life”
In 2008, I returned home to Sint Maarten to help take care of my mom. I founded Alexander’s, soon after. Alexander’s consists of two locations; one is a preschool that caters to children 0 – 4 years old. The other is an afterschool program for children up to 12 years old. In the preschool program, the teachers put a lot of emphasis on interactive and playful learning. We teach through songs, games, rhymes, and stories, using some modified methods of the ‘Highscope Curriculum’. Our afterschool program also incorporates a lot of activities such as tennis, track and field, swimming, and soccer. Children need that stimulation and playtime. It helps them learn better, stay focused longer, and be happy well-rounded individuals.
Foremost as an educator and mother I believe in the importance of creating a safe space for children to share their feelings and thoughts. Teaching children to openly and effectively communicate at a very young age, gives them a much better head start in life. I recommend listening to children without interrupting them, and also encouraging discussion amongst their peers. If they approach me with a problem, I first give them the chance to figure out the solution themselves. Children that grow up in environments that do not allow for self-expression are more likely to have low self-esteem and feel like they aren’t important. This can lead to many other related issues, even into adulthood. Unfortunately, not every child has the opportunity to go to a (good) preschool in Sint Maarten. This is one of the reasons I helped establish Sint Maarten Early Childhood Development Association (SECDA).
“Unfortunately, not every child has the opportunity to go to a good preschool. This is one of the reasons I helped establish SECDA’
SECDA is an umbrella organization of currently 21 daycare centres on the island. We advocate the importance of early childhood development. At the moment we provide workshops for staff at preschools, parents, and host team or family building events. Despite our efforts to push for more support for preschools, there has been no improvement in consistent financial support available to us.
Preschools on Sint Maarten do not have access to government subsidies. This means that preschools have to survive on the fees that they collect for their students from parents. This means that if a parent, for example from a low-income household, cannot pay, the child does not have access to the education system until they are old enough to go to Kindergarten.
Out of their own pocket
In practice, many of our preschools try to give discounts or sponsor children whose parents cannot pay. But this means that the preschools are paying for these children out of their own pocket. Preschools are not a ‘rich’ business and since hurricane Irma, and now the pandemic, a number of schools have had to close their doors.
In St. Kitts or Anguilla for example, preschools are subsidized. Parents, who can pay, pay a fee and parents who have a low-income pay less, or do not have to pay at all. On Sint Maarten, low-income families do not have this support for their children. This means that some children cannot go to preschool, or that some preschools are forced to take on too many children to pay the cost of running the school. The latter comes at a cost to the quality of the education and results in overworked teachers.
“In practice, many of our preschools try to give discounts or sponsor children whose parents cannot pay”
This gap of proper early childhood development during the first 4 years of a child’s life will often result in long-term setbacks, even into adulthood. Good early childhood development programs provide a solid foundation for the social, academic and behavioral skills that children need for their future learning. Personally, I think it would be a lot cheaper for our Government to subsidize preschools, than to fix all the issues resulting from the current lack of proper early childcare and education.
The right to a proper education is a right every child has. However, this right is not available to every child on Sint Maarten between 0 to 4 years old. I hope that with more awareness about this issue, the much-needed financial support will become available in the early childhood development sector.”