Caye Caulker Ocean Academy: Little Pieces of the World

by Lenore Greiner

Members of the Senior Class seated at their mahogany desks.

Visiting Caye Caulker Ocean Academy in Belize

Carrying a bag stuffed with motivational stickers, pens, sheet protectors, little notebooks, pastel crayons and folders, I arrived at the Caye Caulker Ocean Academy on a clear Caribbean morning after a considerable, fast-moving cloudburst. I came via golf cart, even though the residents of this tiny coral island off the Belize coastline usually travel about by bike or foot.

But first I had to negotiate a flooded driveway carrying my sack of donated school supplies to this non-profit high school. I wish I could’ve stuffed more into my luggage.

At the school, Principal Hilda Marin gave me a tour where I got to experience a real treat – meeting Ocean Academy’s 4th Form class, or the senior class.

All nine of them.

Sitting in uniform at their mahogany desks in a sunny classroom, they displayed the typical Belizean gregariousness and open friendliness. Laughing easily, they showed great interest in writing, blogging and the Internet. They all have their own blogs where they share interests such as listening to Justin Bieber, learning new dance moves, or diving on Belizeís massive reef, the second largest.

As I spoke to them as a writer and a travel blogger, I clearly saw that they understood the value of learning the English language well as a foundation for their future success.

Ever see a school library with a white sand floor?

 

The Challenge for Caye Caulker’s Children

The fact that Ocean Academy exists is something short of a miracle.

Here on Caye Caulker, twenty miles from the Belizean coast, parents had only two choices for furthering their childrenís education after primary school:

  1. Send their child to Belize City high schools on a daily 40-mile round-trip by water taxi
  2. Send their child to an inland boarding school

For almost all of Caye Caulker’s families, both choices proved too costly and island children were forced to skip their high school educations. Thatís a real blow for this fishing village of 2,000.

At risk? The islandís 62 students who love to learn and want a better life. Ocean Academy is truly about preserving their unique life on an island atop a limestone shelf only 5 miles long and 1 mile wide.

A small army of teachers, administrators, volunteers and supporters built the island’s first and only high school, Caye Caulker Ocean Academy.

Here are the numbers:

  • One island with one high school
  • 62 students
  • 21 computers
  • 1 library with a sand floor
  • $2000 Belizean per student tuition (that’s US$1000)
  • An unfathomable love of learning

Some of the dedicated teachers of Ocean Academy

Though Ocean Academy follows the Belizean school curriculum, students also study Marine Biology and Small Business Development, supporting their future involvement in Caye Caulkerís tourism industry.

For their aquatic career development, P.E. classes include kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, swimming, lifeguarding and earning a scuba diving certification.

 

And these students want to be there. The government only covers only a portion of education in Belize. Many students have to earn important scholarships to cover their tuition. Fundraising and donations support the rest of the school’s expenses. One student even ďpaysĒ for his education by harvesting sand from the ocean floor and dumping the piles around the school for drainage.

The students sell herbs grown in an award-winning student garden to raise money for student trips. Their gardening excellence resulted in the Compost and Gardening Group winning 3 national awards from the Ministry of Education. They also participate in conservation projects and volunteer their time with scientists on research projects important to Belize and the ocean.

Problems At Ocean Academy

 

A teacher negotiates Ocean Academy's flooded, mucky driveway

 

The encroaching mangrove swamp complete with crocodile.

Though the computer lab is located in a simple, air-conditioned cinderblock classroom, the climate creates many maintenance issues for the school, starting with that flooded driveway into the school grounds. I saw one corner of a classroom completely soaked after that recent cloudburst. Poor construction methods are resulting in many expensive repairs. The library floor is sand. Even some of the mahogany desks built by Belizean Mennonites are falling apart.

Remember those sand piles used to pay tuition? That sand also staves off the encroaching mangrove swamp behind the school’s building. A six-foot crocodile also lives in the swamp and sometimes visits at the waterís edge. But Principal Marin ensured me that the kids know to leave the croc alone.

How To Help Ocean Academy’s Students

The school is only three years old. When I asked about Ocean Academyís first graduating class of 2011, all four of them, tears sprang to Principal Marinís eyes.

She proudly stated that two grads are attending the University of Belize and Muffles Junior College. Another grad works with local conservation groups. Belize Diving Services hired the fourth grad who successfully completed an Advanced Diving course through Ocean Academy’s aquatic tourism P.E.

The students of Caye Caulker Ocean Academy are important. Yes, they are far away, little pieces of the world living on a tiny speck in the ocean.

But they count.

Help the school by checking out the school’s Amazon.com Wish List and making a donation. Or make a Paypal donation here. Or simply go to their Facebook fan page and make friends and support the students.

Every little bit helps. Every little piece of the world deserves it.

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