Influencers Bentley Leonora, Marlon Lourens and Jose Smith

Interview June 2022

From Left to Right: Bentley Leonora, Marlon Lourens and Jose Smith.
Born in Curaçao and worked as a team at Prins Bernardschool. 

Bentley Leonora, Marlon Lourens and Jose Smith, could you share with us some information about your family life? 

Bentley Leonora – former director of Prins Bernardschool

I am married and we have a daughter, a son, and two grandchildren. Both of my children have attended advanced studies locally and abroad, one is an engineer and the other attended a Higher Vocational Hotel school. They epitomize how I was brought up to do, that is “climb up the social ladder and become better than you were on the social ladder. As you climb up the social ladder, your opportunities increase”. 

After Albert Schweitzerschool, I went to Radulphus College and after graduating from HAVO, I went to the Pedagogic Academy.

 I was the only one of my siblings that stayed in Curaçao for my advanced studies, and I have not a single regret for doing that. I am grateful for the education I got at the Albert Schweitzerschool  from teachers mostly from Dutch origins, and every one of them was Christian. I was brought up with the Christian Biblical History every single day. They taught us not only mathematics and languages but also to be good human beings. They showed us how to live by high ethical standards and morals every day by treating all their pupils equal. We never felt that there was any distinction of race. They taught us to behave as if God was watching us. 

At the Radulphus College, we had also teachers that always were watching out for us and guiding us in the right way. We remember especially the late Frank Davelaar (Spanish teacher) and Ostric Curiel (gymnastics teacher) as they would warn us to behave and do our best because the culture at the school was very intolerant when we misbehaved. 

Working as a teacher
I started my career as a teacher at the Joe Corsen school in Brievengat. In August 1980 I went to work at the Prins Bernhardschool. In July 2016 I retired after teaching for 20 years I got appointed as the school director. 

Under the guidance of my predecessor Hugh Lopes, and teachers like the late Elvio Bruno, Ms. Truus Isidora, and Sonny Ersilia the school had developed an attitude that we would fight for every child, to get the best out of them. We bonded with every child and the school created and developed an identity for them. 

If you treat people well, they will treat you well in return. Although they might be only 11 or 12 years old, you might be able to offend them, but they will grow old in due time. Now they come and visit us and they treat you as a human being. 

They come and proudly show you, their grades. We had a very enabling environment for children to learn like one specific case of a child from the Dominican Republic that came in only weeks before the coordinated exams for group 8. He failed his exams, but we managed to send him to the Brakkeput Technical school, and soon after getting one year of being taught Dutch he passed from the A-stream to the T-stream and ended up going to MTS and working as an operator at the refinery. 

At the beginning of my career, the school director taught me that the human being was important, not the status, degrees, or paperwork. The child at school is the one needed to be served. At our school, there were no fights and there was no bullying taking place. 

Marlon Lourens – former teacher at Prins Bernard school

I was born from a very humble family in Wishi and at our home, the bathroom and the toilet were outside of the house where we only had dirt roads those days. When I was 14 years old we moved to a house in Brievengat Nobo. I have 6 other siblings. My mother taught us, that she didn’t have much, but she did offer me the possibility to study, as she believed that our future depended on a good education. I attended Stefanus College. Uniform we needed to pay Ang 5,- per month, and she couldn’t bring that up consistently but in the end, we managed. After that, I attended Maria College and later the MIL and Pedagogical Academy. She always pushed me to study on my turn I pushed and struggled with my little brother to study, which in the end did have its effect, he finished his studies. There is one thing I know for sure now and that is that poverty doesn’t determine who you become ultimately. At Stefanus College, the teachers only spoke Dutch and Mr. Wong the school director was a disciplinarian, but he intended to push the poorer children to study to advance in society. In the end, I became a schoolteacher myself for 40 years, and I was fortunate enough to be part of a great team of teachers at the Prins Bernardschool in Suffisant. 

I am married to my second wife, and I have 4 children of my own and 2 adopted other children. 

One of them was in the 4th grade and after we invited him to go to the beach he stayed with our family and flourished and became one of my beloved “sons”, he ultimately ended up studying to become a Lab Technician and now is living in Holland with his family. Four of the 5 others finished their studies and the last one is studying in Holland.

My mother was my role model, as my father wasn’t around a lot at our home. My eldest brother became a proxy and was our father figure, who taught us a lot of wise guy tricks on how to play checkers, and how to play cards with an enormous vocabulary and wisdom that he was sharing with us. 

We were part of what the mainstream youth were thinking in those days when I grew up, we were brought up to work hard to progress one step at a time. For example, our house in Brievengat was in the middle of some other houses and at our house, a lot of youth would meet. We would meet at around 4 to 5 pm and in this group that we called “the council of 11”, we would help each other out with subject matters. We were so used to helping and motivating each other, which lead to a great bonding among each other. This spirit I met and helped re-create when I was at Prins Bernardschool. We treated the students well and this respect was returned. We get so many ex-students that express their appreciation for the type of education they got while they attended Prins Bernardschool, daily I still get messages from former students as the bond among a lot of these ex-students has stayed strong. 

Marlon on studying locally: After I graduated from the MIL, my mother didn’t want me to go to Holland. As I was convinced that I needed to become an English teacher in Holland and ready to go, it turned out that this option was closed, and I decided to stay in Curaçao and went to the Pedagogic Academy. That is how I became a primary school teacher. 

Jose Smith – former teacher at Prins Bernard school

I come from a family of 5 brothers and sisters, of which 2 had passed away. I come from a big family. Family is important to me. My father and my uncle (he is 103 years old) are very well-read men, just as my father used to be.

I come from a migrant background. My grandmother from my mother’s side came from Saint Kitts. My grandfather from my father’s side came from Guadeloupe. From my father’s side, his family came from Santo Domingo and Saint Martin. Both migrated to Curaçao. I still have the migration card from my grandmother dating back to 1934 when my grandmother arrived in Curaçao with my mother in her arms like a baby. My father and mother met each other here in Curaçao and got married. I grew up in Brievengat, the old part where they started building government-sponsored homes from 1950 on. I attended Oranje school, the Krijt school, the Laufer school and after attending Stuyvesant College I attended the Pedagogic Academy and started my career in 1980. After some short stints at the Joe Corsen school and the Traffic Park in Cas Cora, I ended up at the Prins Bernardschool. We know each other from the Pedagogic Academy.

I am married and I have 3 daughters, two live in Holland.

Jose Smit on studying locally: I attended the Peter Stuyvesant College and after graduation, I wanted to go to Holland at the last moment I was informed of the fact that I could follow a Teacher Training in Curaçao. So I decided to stay in Curaçao, and later on I came to understand that the Teacher Training was a one-time thing. I decided to attend the Pedagogic Academy and not go to Holland ultimately. 

“Trata e mucha manera ku e ta bo Yu, si bo no por esei bai i buska otro kos di hasi i no bira un maestro.”

– Hugh Lopes former director Prins Bernhardschool

What was the philosophy that you developed as a team over the years?
Treat a child as if it is your child, if you can’t do that, go and find something else to do. Then you are not fit to become a teacher.

Bentley Leonora on recruiting children with a migrant background: In the year 2000 at Prins Bernardschool, a school of the public-school board, we experienced dwindling numbers of children attending the school. Because of the economic situation, lots of people left the island on the one hand, but we also saw an increase of immigrants coming to the island from Columbia, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Jamaica, and Venezuela. As the school has always had a tradition of accepting all children without distinction, we accepted all the children that winded up at our door. Children from Haiti, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Cuba the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, and even Argentina became a part of our school population.

Within 2 to 3 years, the number of children increased from 180 to 350 children. We were called the international school of poor people and despite these differences, we manage to achieve great results. All of this is due to the team spirit among the teachers at this school and our joint overall goal, call it our golden rule that all supported, that every child was entitled to a good education, no matter where this child came from. If we cut our hands, all of us will the same color of blood. In other words, the child in the classroom was our highest priority. 

What did you teach?
That three things are important that need to be in balance.
First, what comes from your heart, is empathy and compassion for your fellow human being.
Secondly, what comes from the head, you have to use your head to recognize opportunities and use them to progress. Thirdly, what comes from your behind, that is where you put your wallet with your money in it. 

You need all three of them and not one or only two to be successful in life. We accepted children with a migrant background because every child has a right to have proper education. And we were also thinking of this child is performing well in his native country, and he can also perform well in Curaçao. And if you do not take care of them in the proper way, they will become a problem for your society later on.

At a certain moment, the school population consisted of more than 40% foreign children.

Every child has a right to have proper education

To try to accommodate the children in the best possible way we visited different consuls on the island, sometimes we went to visit them at their homes as some didn’t have offices, and we explained to them what we offered as a school. We had especially great cooperation from the consul of Colombia. 

But also on a purely voluntary basis, we started offering the parent’s insertion course (inburgeringscursussen), and we had presentations by guest speakers on our culture and how government services work, to make their adjustment to our society easier. We became aware that a lot of parents were illiterate. So we centralized the information we assumed that they needed to know. This helped these parents greatly to find their way in our society.  Analyzing the progress of our pupils, we came to the conclusion that a lot of the children needed some extra help during the after-school hours. 

Naschoolse Opvang: One hour of Code

So Marlon made contacts with the UTS to set up a Naschoolse Opvang. The deal was that the UTS will use the school to accommodate the children of their workers during the after-school hours, and we can also help our pupils.

After a warm meal, the children would get help with their homework and after that, they could attend music lessons and sports activities. We noticed that not only the lessons had a positive result, but also the warm healthy meals, as some were undernourished. Some even waited till the end of the day to take home food for some other family members. 

After the collaboration with the UTS ended, we kept doing this for 20 years, as long as we had sponsors. 

Could you share something about how you see the educational system at this moment in time? 
We didn’t want to become part of the problem but become part of the solution. If we look back at the state of our educational system, we wonder what has happened. 

The general opinion is that there is a lack of professionalism in the new teachers. The old Akademia Pedagogiko does not exist anymore, and there is a new institute to train teachers. The requirements have changed. 

For example, you do not need a HAVO diploma to start the training. It seems like people don’t care. It is not the building that determines if one gets a good education. It is the teacher and the teacher it’s understanding of his fellow human being. The most important stakeholder is the child.

Our society, in general, has changed and the amount of disrespect has grown steeply over the last 10 years. Society doesn’t become a better society if one sows venom. By like btw the Republicans in the USA are also spreading venom in the name of Christianity.

When we were there, we had a great team spirit and we shared the workload among the different teachers. As a director, I only needed to coordinate the work at hand. With a great team, you can make big plans for the future of your pupils. At the end of the nineties, digitalization in our schools was a major issue. Our education was aimed to digitalize all our schools.

At our school, we had as one of the few schools in the year 2002 a computer classroom small network.

Workshop OLPC with Professor Sameer Verma from San Francisco University
The laptops of OLCP project: it died a silent death

In 2011, we started with the project One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). This was a worldwide project with the aim to create the opportunity that all children could have access to the digital world.

“It is very hard to read in the papers that the government is trying to introduce our schools in the digital era.”

We did the project for five years without the school board and the minister showing any interest in the results. After the laptops broke down, we had to forcefully stop the project.

Other digital projects we had at the school and the Naschoolse Opvang were:

– One hour of Code (a worldwide project to teach children Coding);

– Lego Simple machines (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics);

– Lego WEDO ( STEM).

We were well on our way with the digitalization of the Prins Bernhardschool. When we stopped working in 2016 all the classrooms had an interactive digital presentation board in the classroom.

It is very hard to read in the papers that the government is trying to introduce our schools in the digital era. Do they still live in the nineties?

Trying to get an appointment with the minister to inform him of twenty years of digitalization in our schools did not get anywhere. He is still waiting for the “nul meting”.

Digital education

What are your plans for the coming years and when do you consider that you have been successful in your personal and business/professional life, let us say 5 years from now?
We would love to find enough funding from an institute or Fund, that understands our holistic vision so that we can re-create our after-school program that will be sustainable, as long as there are enough funds available. Our children, especially disadvantaged children, need extra education to make them good citizens. 

We would also to like to keep on developing digital material for our schools because we are convinced that modern children can better be reached by using the digital methods

What are the challenges that you are dealing with? And how are you dealing with these different challenges you confront
Our funding was stopped abruptly last November 2021. This is a big challenge, but we are not giving up so that is why we are approaching different funds to see if we can re-start the after-school education that we offered especially for disadvantaged children. 

What are your strengths? 
Our philosophy on human beings, we had a great drive to help our children to move forward, especially the disadvantaged children. This island allowed us to study, work and live a good life. We believe all of us deserve this same thing.

What are some things that you would like to suggest that can improve our educational system?
We would transform the educational system by making more use of digitalization, offering children more access to information.  We would use the principle some “native people” use, that is “use the elderly their experiences and wisdom to enrich our teachers”.

With regards to our after-school classes, we would love to recruit some youngsters so that we can mentor them on the concepts that we have used to run for years successful after school programs, we would love to re-start what was stopped in November last year where we had 75 children attending our after school classes so that we can create more continuity by offering “top-notch”- afterschool education to the next generation of children. 

We also need better-prepared teachers, we shouldn’t have lowered our standards. But also have a mindset to “go the extra mile”- if needed.

Do you have hobbies or interests that you are also passionate about?
Bentley: I have a Greenhouse.
Smith: I plant at my house.
Marlon: I am still involved in a lot of things, now I am helping my sister with her house in Westpunt. I also managed a vacation home, as I have two sons that are chefs de cuisine.

As a group, we formed a group that helps children in their digital literacy. Nowadays, one can search the whole internet for information, so we like to be helpful with this. 

How would you describe the three of you in one word or one sentence? 
The Three Musketeers, as we were one for all (the children included) and all for one. A solid team and willing to give it all to teach children, no matter what. 

The 3 Musketeers and… Mr Tonchi

What was so special about your team?
We didn’t mind working with students from whatever backgrounds and origins, and we all chose deliberately to work for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering food and after-school lessons. So the school was used the whole day. 

Who are the persons that have inspired you the most in your career?
Hugh Lopez, the late Elvio Bruno, Sony Ersilia and Truus Isidora.

The whole team was our role model because of our “camaraderie” and it didn’t matter that we were rated a B school our team gave all they have and the best recognition was the number of children going to HAVO/VWO, in one year we had 15 children of the 40 that passed their exams) and the love and attention with still get from former students.  

“We will keep speaking up where there is injustice.”

What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, recession, and in the middle of growing environmental challenges because of the global warming consequences? 
We are in an ERA in a world where there is lots of egocentric behavior, too much focus on the material things in life and too much show and external appearance, and people going on their own, instead of cooperating. Lourens: “When I read about what you are doing with all the people you interview, it made me happy that this is also happening in Curaçao. I like the attitude of keep doing what you believe you can do, as Curaçao has been and still is a good mother and father for us. It had made it possible to give us the career we had, and it still makes it possible for those who want to make a career.”
We will keep speaking up where there is injustice. That makes us optimistic about the future of Curaçao.

One of the 250 Influencers of Curaçao

Bentley Leonora, Marlon Lourens, and Jose Smith teachers at the Prins Bernhardcollege have had a remarkable team for over 30 years. As all three of them were raised from family backgrounds that had strong moral roots, they were also despite their humble origins to be better than their parents. Education was seen by their parents as a way up on the social ladder, which also meant having greater opportunities that they make use of and therefore have a better quality of life. These lessons that passed on to their children but also the schoolchildren that they had the privilege and opportunities to teach, most also from very humble and often migrant descent. As all were groomed to put the child first at school and treat each child as if it was their own, resulting in a rare blend of camaraderie and a team spirit that made them go the extra mile. To deal with a dwindling number of school children, they planned and actively recruited children of migrant descent, making them an international school, offering presentations to parents, and after school education possibilities that included a warm lunch for 20 years, as long as they had enough sponsors. After their subsidy ended in November 2021, they are now diligently looking to re-start their after-school activities and are eagerly willing to mentor and coach a new generation of teachers to continue this essential work. For all these reasons, we deeply love and respect Bentley, Marlon, and Jose, as they uniquely model collaboration in a team based on high moral standards and commitment to the child-first approach, irrespective of their social background. That is why we consider them one of the 250 influencers of the island, representing the “Educational sector”.
Look at the list of the Influencers we have interviewed or reported on, up to now.

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