Columbia University Teacher’s College
New York City
Although the Panamanian and Canal Zone governments school authorities have never truly recognized the efforts and accomplishments of the Westindian neighborhood schools, to the people of the area they were recognized as communal schools. They persevered despite all the social and institutional obstacles they encountered and even produced some of the best minds.
In 1930 an accreditation team from Columbia University Teacher’s College arrived to inspect the white (Gold Roll) schools for promising candidates to send back to the U.S. to study in their teacher’s college. Of course, since the bulk of the population in the Zone was black and the Silver schools served the greatest number of children, the substandard and generally deplorable conditions of the Silver schools was undeniable.
They were so negatively impacted by what they saw in the “colored” schools that the Hardt Survey, the findings in their report, concluded that only “inefficiency and maladjustment would result from the ‘colored schools’ in the Canal Zone, if conditions persisted.” In response to this glaring need, subsequent groups of students, candidates for teacher training, were sent on scholarship to the U.S. with the provision that they would come back to teach in the Zone schools.
Upon returning to Panama, however, most of these bright young minds decided that they would not teach in the Canal Zone “Jim Crow” educational system. A few founded their own private barrio schools while most were hired by the new private educational system spurred on by the 1946 Constitution which was instrumental in banning Westindian Teachers from opening their schools without the required $15,000 in seed money.
Nevertheless, the English Schools continued to open their doors clandestinely to provide schooling and literacy opportunities for workers and for the people of the neighborhood. In addition, they provided assistance in letter writing to the country of birth to entire families so that they could request official documentation for certifying that they were who they said they were. Remember that most people who had immigrated at the turn of the century to live under the all but primitive Panamanian governmental system were still living with the very real fear of a new era without the proper immigration documentation. So, these schools offered an urgently needed service in helping them send for their vital records.
Additionally, many of the Westindian children who were being denied their first education experience in the official schools in both the Canal Zone and Panamanian system would, at this time in their lives, be able to receive a good enough education from the English teachers to be able to apply for jobs and be hired on the Panama Canal Zone. As a result of their growing recognition as good institutions of learning, the schools run by these neighborhood Westindian teachers started looking more and more mixed racially since they would receive all children regardless of their ethnicity. Children of all races, the mixture or “mestizaje” that comprised the poorer neighborhoods were welcomed.
The Barrio English School teachers became the first experts in bilingual education in the country of Panama. During this period when it was difficult for the country of Panama to recruit teachers who were versed in the preferred languages of the country which were English and Spanish, the licensed Westindian teachers who had studied abroad were the preferred recruits for the schools amongst other foreigners. Particularly in the early years following the 1920’s they became the preferred teachers and the first hired amongst other groups such as the Jews, Spaniards and Colombians.
This story continues.