Windowless schools
Vents touted as cheaper, 'safe' alternative
Stabroek News
January 26, 2004

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New design: St John's College on Waterloo Street with its wooden vertical vents. (Ken Moore photo)

Vertical wooden vents and concrete vent blocks are replacing windows on a number of schools currently under construction raising issues of safety and cost.

The design could prove a hazard, according to some, considering the prevalence of fires in Georgetown. But others argue that it is safer for children and less costly to maintain.

St John's College on Waterloo Street and Winfer Gardens Primary on East Street are two schools which have this design. There are several others along the East Coast Demerara and one at Uitvlugt, West Coast Demerara. Both Winfer Gardens and St John's College have in excess of 400 students and work is expected to be completed on them soon.

St John's College is being renovated under the Secon-dary Schools Reform Pro-gramme (SSRP) in collaboration with the World Bank, while Winfer Gardens Primary is being rebuilt by the Ministry of Education. St John's College is being built with wooden vertical vents around the entire school, while at Winfer Gardens, concrete vent blocks have been used, with the exception of a few windows on the third storey.

Speaking to this newspaper on Thursday, SSRP Director, Dr Kenneth Hunte, said lack of finance was what resulted in the use of wooden vents on the St John's school. He said that in the original plan, windows were catered for, but after exceeding the budget due to the deplorable state of the school, the consultant had to adjust the plan.
Nearly finished: Winfer Gardens Primary School on East Street with its concrete vent blocks (Ken Moore photo)

He agreed that it was not ideal for any school to be built to such a design. Hunte confirmed also that all the necessary adjustments to the building plan were approved by the Mayor and City Council and the World Bank.

Meanwhile, the foreman of the contracting firm engaged on the school said he was working to the plan. He said the head teacher had requested that windows be placed in her office but that request was not granted.

The school has two external stairways, which the foreman said were adequate in the eventuality of a fire. However, the man observed that even though the building's design did not pose any immediate threat it was not ideal and could be considered a hazard.

The foreman said too that SSRP might also be considering the long-term durability of the vertical vents, noting that in times past students had vandalised the school windows. He said the vents were also useful since they provided the necessary ventilation, which would have been otherwise provided by the windows, while not compromising security.

Hunte said the final design of any project undertaken by the SSRP was usually provided by the construction and supervising consultants.

Hunte said these were trained professionals who would have been hired after elaborate tendering. He said it was very costly to hire the consultant and as such due care was usually taken.

"We would not pick up anybody off the road and give them the job, so we have all confidence in whatever final design they would provide to us," Hunte told Stabroek News.

According to him, the SSRP programme is mandated to rehabilitate some 18 schools, five of which have already been completed. Hunte observed that in many instances more than rehabilitation was required because of the deplorable condition of some schools. With respect to St John's College, Hunte said, the original estimate was for $19.6 million, but when work began and other problems were observed the estimate had to be increased to $26.2 million. He said this was a substantial escalation and they had to find a way of cutting costs.

In terms of consultations with stakeholders, Hunte said regular meetings were usually held with the head teachers, Parent Teachers Associations and other persons who have interest in the building. However, what they have found was that many of the head teachers did not attend the meetings and as such were not aware of the final design. He cited a recent case where a head teacher in Berbice had protested over the design of a school. That particular head teacher, he said, had never attended any meeting.

Hunte reminded that the SSRP was only to provide emergency repairs to the schools and not to rebuild them as it has been doing.

He said the St John's College building would be ready by the end of March.

With regard to Winfer Gardens, Assistant Chief Education Officer for George-town, Joseph Gilgeous, told a news conference earlier this week that he did not sit on the building committee which dealt with the school. But he admitted that the original plan catered for windows. He could not say what caused the change.

However, the contractor for the building confirmed that the plan submitted by the ministry to him included vents rather than windows.

Winfer Gardens head, Jennifer Cumberbatch, in an invited comment, said she was never consulted on the construction process.

If she had been consulted, Cumberbatch said, she would have objected to the concrete vent blocks, noting that the building was a school and not a prison. But she pointed out that it seemed to be a new design the ministry had adopted, since there were other schools with it. However, at this point in time, windows are no longer the issue as Cumberbatch is frustrated that after several months of promises, the school has still not been completed.

She said the Guyana Teachers Union building on Woolford Avenue where school is being held is in a deplorable state and teachers were not motivated to teach. Cumberbatch noted too that from all appearance the school was fairly well done. She said it had three stairways which were ample for the students to exit in case of an emergency.

Gilgeous has given an undertaking that the school will be ready for occupation by the end of this month.