The Role of School Leadership in Promoting Social Justice and STEM in Belize

Drs. Stephen Jacobson, Noemi Waight, and Lorenda Chisolm studied the role of school leadership in promoting STEM and social justice in secondary education in Caye Caulker, Belize. This conversation highlights how their partnership came to be, what they learned, and how this connects to the broader school leadership discourse in high-needs contexts.

Stephen Jacobson
Noemi Waight
Lorenda Chisolm


How did your collaboration come to be and why were you interested in this research?

Stephen: The project began unexpectedly in 2014 when I was on vacation in Belize’s Caye Caulker and took a tour of Ocean Academy High School. During my tour, I mentioned to one of the co-founders that I was looking at doing research of successful school leaders in high needs schools. Joni spoke to the other co-founder, Heidi, and they agreed. Research started a few months later with Skype interviews. 

Noemi: Steve was the catalyst for the experience of building a strong cohesive group from different disciplines. I come from the domain of science education and am originally from Belize, so I thought this was a great opportunity to examine school leaders as they are making decisions about STEM curriculum and assessment in a high needs school.

Lorenda: As a former school leader and now central office administrator, I’ve always been interested in social justice and wanted to learn what others do in different contexts. Our research on school leadership in Belize became the basis for my doctoral dissertation

How did Ocean Academy’s context shape its social justice approach?

Stephen: School justice in this school context meant equity and access to education for all students. On Caye Caulker–a small and enclosed community with a population of approximately 2,000 residents–primary school is mandatory but there was no secondary school on the island before Ocean Academy opened. To continue their education, students had to perform very well and have the resources to go to the mainland to live with a relative or water taxi every day, which makes them feel removed from their communities. This new school made education affordable and gave a chance to everyone in the community. The administrators found funds for all students who were interested and accepted them regardless of past school performance. 

Lorenda: Ocean Academy’s social justice approach also means being respectful of the local community and adapting to their needs. In the U.S. context we are always looking at math and ELA exams/going on to higher education as a measure of academic success. In response to the local context, Ocean Academy defines success in terms of how education helps students support their community while also earning a high school diploma. 

The context of “high needs” is also different on the island than other contexts when we use that term. Ocean Academy focuses a lot on entrepreneurship and engaging the community in order to support the economy of the island which is based on tourism. Most of the students stay on the island after they graduate, so the school is helping to train the future workforce and community leaders. As such, they had to adapt to the community needs; when tourism season hit, students often left school to work. The school tried to make connections to the local economy to decrease dropout rate at that time of year, while still supporting students in supporting their families and the community. For example, Ocean Academy built strong local partnerships with the Fisheries Department, Hotel Association, and the tourism industry in order to provide alternative experiences to the students. School activities include: fly fishing, kayaking, scuba diving and hotel management. One student shared that he had become a certified scuba diver and is doing well academically and now can work at the local business after he graduates to support his family. 

Ocean Academy

How does Ocean Academy approach STEM and what is the connection with social justice?

Noemi: The emphasis on STEM in this context is the same as the emphasis on STEM globally–preparing students in these domains for 21st century skills. While these leaders did not come from STEM backgrounds, they understood there was a need and offered us an alternative model to consider what STEM from a social justice frame might look like in contexts with limited resources. While the school lacked physical resources such as a science lab to engage in experiments, they were innovative and utilized the resources they had ready access to. They offered real life experience where students went out into the field to collect data and make direct observations from the environments. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world so students were learning environmental sustainability in the context of the coral reef and the marine ecosystem. These real cases experiences were profound and, in many ways, and as significant as experiences in a lab. The outdoors became their lab. 

Globally, we still have an underrepresentation of racial, ethnic, and linguistically diverse students in STEM. We have to consider the history of countries like Belize that were once colonized and where slavery existed; underrepresentation is a function of white supremacy, racism, and racist practices over a long period of time. STEM however, when enacted from a social justice frame, has the potential to offer economic potential to students of color globally. What we learn from their experiences is highly relevant to current conversations about race and equity throughout the world. Through our research with this community, it became clear that there is a need to train school leaders to understand how STEM is being enacted in their schools in terms of curriculum, assessment, and community involvement.

Can you share more about what we can learn about school leadership from Ocean Academy?

Stephen: The founders Joni and Heidi were resilient and steadfast to work magic with a lot of balls in the air. They were able to navigate the political and cultural context in the educational world to get the school started including figuring out funding, navigating the Ministry of Education, and determining where the school would be built. At first there was some distrust from the community as these were two foreign white women with resources who could pick up and leave at any point to go back to the security of their own country. But Jodi and Heidi had a lot of perseverance to gain the community’s trust and got the point through that they planned to stay–one of them even became a citizen of Belize. In addition, they were very committed to hiring people from Belize to make sure that there was that local reference and leadership on their team

In many ways these leaders also illustrated Ken Leithwood’s (2004) four core practices for successful school leaders in action. They 1) set a direction, 2) work to develop their people with the necessary skill set to get the work done, 3) redesign the organization to get rid of obstacles for success, and finally 4) manage the instructional program and keep the focus on teaching and learning. It is important to acknowledge that in many ways Ocean Academy was building the plane as it was taxiing down the runway and it was not always smooth. However, they worked to build trust, adapted to the local context, and in these efforts were able to create new possibilities for students in a needs context. 

Lorenda: Flexibility is key as it relates to adapting to the needs of our students. As school leaders we have to be able to support our students in different ways given their family situations and the current contexts of challenges. We have to think about how we teach the curriculum while also trying to maintain rigor. We also have to consider how we plan for sustainability, utilizing unconventional methods in unconventional times.

Thank you to Drs. Jacobson, Waight and Chisolm for sharing the story of Ocean Academy with us. To learn more about the work of these scholars, please visit:

Dr. Jacobson: Managing the School Organization in the 21st CenturyGSE Research

Meet Dr. Jacobson:

Dr. Noemi Waight: Research Focus

Dr. Lorenda Chisolm: Doctoral Dissertation 

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