Rachael McDonald: Making learning FUN for students in underserved communities

Sade Gardner

April 18, 2022

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THE DISTINGUISHED — EDUCATION

When Rachael McDonald was born, she had a low Apgar score. In other words, her physical condition was so poor that she could have died. From this, her sister derived a theory. “Whenever things get rough, Laura is the first to blurt out or type in the chat, ‘Rach, remember you were pretty much born dead, so this can’t kill you; it will just bring you back to life’,” McDonald told Flair.

The theory is yet to be disproved.

McDonald rose to prominence as the vibrant educator behind the innovative Fundaciones school, which started as a Spanish afterschool programme in Kingston in 2008. The institution expanded to teach the “FUNdamentals” of other programmes through unconventional and hands-on approaches and soon had a second location in Montego Bay. But as the business grew, so too did the challenges, including those presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Money was limited; teachers had to be laid off,” she shared. “Student numbers were low. Future commitments for the upcoming school year were minimal. We couldn’t find a new location in Kingston, nor could we afford one. And as the to-do list grew longer, stakeholders got more frustrated, and truthfully, I became overwhelmed and was out of solutions. So, I called a time-out; a real one and a big one.”

She continued, “It was perhaps the most bittersweet moment in my life. But ironically, I remembered that in 2019 I declared that 2020 would be synonymous with my rebirth. My team can tell you, I told them I wanted to experience a renaissance of sorts. I didn’t, however, anticipate that it would have looked and felt like that.”

Noting that “overwhelming breakdowns lead to undeniable breakthroughs”, McDonald embraced her vulnerable state and saw FUN from new lenses. She was now dedicated to being more specific about her intentions and doing that which set her soul ablaze. Education still had her heart, so she pivoted to doing education consultancy. Through the latter, she reconnected with an old friend and humanitarian, Kandre Leveridge, who expressed concern about disengaged students in underserved communities.

“He shared stories about how children were becoming perpetrators of criminal and violent activities because they were not being engaged. They had no devices [and] those who had devices had no Internet or electricity or even the parental support or adult supervision and capacity at home to ensure this continuity of learning. So, we agreed to write a programme. At the time, there was an upcoming call for proposals through Fight For Peace Jamaica under the European Union’s Link Up subgrant for the Denham Town ZOSO. We spent about a little over a month working on proposal writing, engaging the community and understanding its needs. Then, we wrote a programme. We implemented it shortly thereafter and are currently working in another three communities: Seaview Gardens, Waterhouse and Olympic Gardens.”

The dots continue to connect for McDonald, who has been able to implement the socio-emotional and physical activities which existed at Fundaciones in her community intervention work. While some people have chalked up her efforts as “playing” in communities, McDonald stays focused on her passion.

“I am no longer working with people whose parents simply choose to participate in my programmes. I am working with persons with a real need for participation. We work with the vulnerable, with at-risk children and their families, in their spaces. We become intertwined with their lives. We work with children whose parents have been shot and killed or who are incarcerated, with children who see things they should not see day in day out, who themselves have even been shot, and who hear gunshots like raindrops on their zinc roofs. We get to meet community elders to hear and learn what was tried, what worked, what didn’t work and what they want and need. We work with members of the security forces.”

Having served as a board member on the Early Childhood Commission and currently serving on the boards of the Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education Fund, the College of Agriculture, Science and Education, and the Registrar General’s Department, McDonald stays purposefully occupied.

She is also a teacher support specialist and has worked with more than 100 teachers across Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the United States, Spain, China, and Kuwait this past year. When she’s not helping children and teachers blossom, she’s doing that for flowers and trees as the owner of her plant business, Bloom Bar. In all, “I think the most fulfilling aspect of what I’ve done and even continue to do is undoubtedly the fact that I am lucky enough to be able to ride the waves of change,” she said. “I can say with certainty that education constantly evolves to reflect our societal needs, and I love being able to wake up each day and do things differently. I am thankful that there is always an opportunity to review and subsequently to reimagine and to reignite. Teachers, after all, rely a lot on reflections to guide their next steps, and so coupled with creativity, I get to ideate every day.”

sade.gardner@gleanerjm.com

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Sade Gardner

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