How exactly did two coffee businessmen go from that commodity to pennacool…pennacool.com that is?
Phaessuh Kromah and John Devaux would be the first to tell you: through innovation, trial and error and a driven purpose to fill a need for the children of TT.
In 2008, Kromah’s own personal frustrations as a father led to him putting on his thinking cap and brainstorming with his business partner.
“My son was about to sit the SEA exams and I was dropping him off to lessons, but each time I asked what he did, how well he did it, I was met with, ‘We have to wait for it to be corrected by the teacher.’ So I recognised the need for something more and John and I sat and thought long and hard about what we wanted to do to rectify this dilemma,” explained Kromah, the ICT expert of the duo.
Initially they pitched the idea to St Bernadette’s Private Primary School, St Ann’s, and requested over a decade of past test papers on which they would be able to base their program.
Kromah’s job was to then take all that information and get it online.
He admits it was just as fulfilling as it was arduous because it meant he would be instrumental in assisting other parents out of frustrations similar to his own.
“We did all our development and testing with St Bernadette’s, they were fully supportive of it. Endorsed the need for it and we decided to take it national,” recalled Devaux, a father of six.
Pennacool could have been a tamarind ball
“Again over cups of coffee, we pitched names at each other. First we thought it could be self-explanatory, mylessonsclass.com.
Then we went for something more fun and thought maybe tamarindball.com. Quickly changed that thought and then we hit on it…penna cool,” Kromah jokingly recalled.
Devaux elaborated on their name choice.
“There is a smile on a child’s face when they think of or receive a pennacool. Its something that is known by our parents’ parents. Identifiable with fun, enjoyment, laughter and most importantly childhood. We wanted children to not see the experience as another classroom or “school work” and we knew we had to start with the name.”
What followed was a year of the pair literally dividing TT into two segments to visit schools across the country.
Devaux also noted their decision that one of its main features was the self-correcting element to cater to students’ preparation for SEA examinations.
Other features also included all courses being aligned with the Ministry of Education’s primary school curriculum, online teacher’s reports and a reward system for its participating students and schools.
Kromah recalled too how painstaking it was getting the program from just one school to practically becoming the household name it is today.
He remembered visiting schools across the country daily, of US$2 ads on social media and making contact with school staff.
What the duo accomplished was 90 per cent participation from primary schools across the country.
In their perseverance, though, would come support.
Flow/CW takes up the mantle
Flow’s director of marketing Cindy Ann Gatt said, “We looked at this and saw the indelible need for it, the gap it would fill and the far-reaching benefits to students, the country and education on a whole.
“What this was going to do was level the playing field for students across the board, with so many parents unable to provide extra classes for their children. We knew we wanted to be an integral part of this.”
To date, Flow is the biggest sponsor for pennacool.com, investing more than $1 million into the continuation and development of the program. The program also has the support of several other local sponsors.
Gatt also noted that healthy competition was a good factor to foster into schools, as students would now seek to excel rather than just cope.
One such story is that of a “troublesome” student at a school in the East, who heard of the opportunity to win a trip for two to Tobago and decided to redirect her focus.
“That child did a complete 380-degree turn around in her studies, focused on Pennacool, won the trip and did well at the recent SEA exams,” she said with a proud smile.
Gatt said Flow/CW, which provides free broadband internet services to all government primary schools, takes pride in seeing the accomplishments of participating schools.
All of the schools are privy to an enhanced service, said Jacinta Pinard-Thompson, brand communication and sponsorship manager.
Additionally, since its inception, schools have vied for a place on the “top ten” list, as this includes being presented with ten tablets for its students to access the program under the guidance of their trained teachers.
This academic year will see, not ten, but 12 new schools added to that list with two being from Tobago.
Over 130 classes and 2,500 students benefit, as teachers are also trained in sustained use of ICT in the class.
Since 2016, over 130 teachers have accessed training and support in standards four and five classes in the use of the program.
Those schools, which would have been supplied with 240 Mbps of broadband, will additionally have access to routers to provide WiFi directly to selected classrooms. That system is also filtered to allow access to only pennacool.com website and to prevent inappropriate use of the internet, said Gatt.
The duo is also promoting the program’s Bring Your Own Device strategies by guiding the staff on how best to implement it in their schools.
Mr Pennacool and Ranks
While the pair is yet to establish a mascot, Devaux said students of winning schools look forward to meeting Mr Pennacool, their friend and presenter Tom Romany.
Prizes include hampers, vouchers, trips, devices, other sponsored items and “bragging rights”, said a smiling Devaux.
“He truly makes each presentation a memorable one for the students, with his personality and ability to make them feel special. He emphasises the worth of the top students and their influence in enabling the school to be rewarded.
“In essence, he makes those students feel like heroes. It boosts their confidence, encourages them to continue and to do even better. It really drives competitiveness, but healthy competition, even among the staff at the participating schools.”
The system is recorded in such a way it displays the rank of the school, as well as the rank of each student.
Devaux recalled the joy of Nicole Savary, principal at St Mary’s Anglican Primary, Tacarigua, when told they had made the top ten list and would receive devices for her students to be better able to access the program during school hours.
One such student is Khymani Neptune, 12, who recently sat the SEA examinations. He had once ranked fifth in his school, which at the time was in the top five rankings on the list of schools.
Neptune praised the program.
“I really looked forward to going online and, to be honest, didn’t think I would enjoy it as much. What I really liked was being able to get my test results right after doing a section and not like test time, where we have to wait on Miss or Sir to correct our papers. It helped me to be able to do better in areas where I was getting some trouble.”
Cocorite Government Primary School in Cocorite was officially involved with the penacool.com program in May 2017, said principal Cogland Griffith.
Penacool was introduced to the school as a package deal when the school was remodelled by United Way and Project Care in their Day of Caring. The school received WiFi connection from Flow and penacool.com.
“Prior to this event, our students took part in various online activities of the Penacool program and won prizes. However, this was not done as a whole school. We participated in its National Primary Schools Interschool SEA Competition for standards four and five. The competition included all primary schools across the nation .From the get-go our school took the challenge seriously and engaged teachers and students in both the standard four and five,” Griffith recalled.
At that time the school only had use of three tablets won from engaging in pennacool.com activity the previous term.
“Students were ably assisted by their teachers during school time. Others were encouraged to do the activities over the weekend and after school. Our school was the first to win the challenge trophy and the first to keep it,” he said proudly.
After three consecutive wins the school is allowed to keep the trophy.
Cocorite has won the trophy five times.
Griffith also took the opportunity to highlight one student’s enterprising spirit when she asked her mother to implement data on her phone to access the program as the family had no internet at home.
That student, he said, was the overall winner in that round.
As a result of being long-standing champions, Griffith said they have also added to their growing cache of devices.
“Pennacool.com has really assisted the students in their academics,” he said. “They enjoy the online activities. They are able to see their scores and that of the other competing schools. It has also developed keen rivalry among students of the school and between schools.
“The completion and use of the interactive lessons helped with school discipline. Students were eager to go to the tables, whenever they had free time, to earn points. The program is a good tool for revision and for reinforcing concepts.”
Both Kromah and Devaux said the near future would see them looking at both higher and lower levels of education in the next developmental phase of pennacool.com.
Top 10 schools
1. Arima Boy’s RC
2. Chaguanas Government
3. Cunupia Government
4. Glosterlodge Moravian
5. Hermitage Presbyterian
6. La Pastora Government
7. Moulton Hall Methodist
8. Patna River Estate Government
9. South Oropouche
10. St Julien Presbyterian
1. Caroni Hindu
2. Cocorite Government
3. Exchange RC
4. Penal Government
5. Point Fortin RC
6. Rousillac Hindu
7. Sangre Grande Government
8. Sangre Grande SDA
9. St Joseph’s Girls’ RC
10. Warrenville TIA
1. St Mary’s AC
2. St Finbar’s Girls’ RC
3. Richmond Street Boys’ AC
4. Success RC
5. Point Fortin AC
6. Curepe Holy Saviour AC
7. Arima Girls’ RC
8. Tacarigua Presbyterian
9. Princes Town Presbyterian
10. Libertville TML
11. Tobago (school to be determined)
12. Tobago (school to be determined)