Monday, May 24, 2010

A Home They Call School

I visited a not-so-ordinary school last week.

NorthLight School is a school in Singapore under the care of the Ministry of Education. Yet, it is different from all other mainstream schools here. To get in, you would have to fail PSLE
not once but at least twice (Primary School Leaving Examination taken at age 12).

It is not difficult to understand why people tend to dismiss NorthLight as a school for the failures. Singapore is a meritocracy country. Everyone can fight for the same opportunity and only the best gets it. Given this backdrop, it appears really hopeless for those who are unable to get pass PSLE, repeatedly.

For those who are familiar with the education landscape in Singapore, you would have realized how schools are behaving rather competitively, vying for the best students. NorthLight, in this aspect, is doing exactly the opposite. They swim against the tide and reach out to those at the bottom-most stratum of academic excellence.

Not one kid is to be left behind

NorthLight was established in 2007. At that time, not many were confident of its success. To begin with, not many were interested to do much for a group of failures.

The Minister for Education in his Parliamentary Speech in 2006 noted that the drop-out rate in Singapore has been low. Notwithstanding that, something more could be done to help this small group of students. (report: Latest attrition rate is 1.2%)

The school principal, Mrs Chua Yen Ching was tasked to lead this challenging mission of setting up NorthLight. She was initially not hopeful about getting enough teachers and students to sustain the school. This is understandable. How many teachers would want to teach in a school for failures? How many students would be willing to be admitted and be seen as failures?

She was happily proven wrong when she was greeted with a roomful of applicants who wanted to be part of NorthLight. She had to turn away many. Today, NorthLight has a waiting list of teachers and students.

Reading Materials in NorthLight

Special needs

That was a good start but the rest was not easy. One of the key things NorthLight had to do was to redefine 'success' for their students.

We often relate success in school with academic excellence. This has to change for NorthLight. The kids there have very poor academic records and many come from underprivileged family background. They are often financially poor and have very low self-esteem.

According to NorthLight, "Every student is SPECIAL, has TALENTS, ASPIRATION and RESILIENCE." and they seek "to nurture confident, motivated and morally upright students".

It is clear that the school is not emphasizing the usual academic stuff. Rather, they aim to strengthen the emotional resilience of the kids.

Many kids in Northlight has a reading ability of a 7-year old. What they need is a very customized education approach.

Mock-Up Hotel Room

F&B Training Centre

Mock-Up Grocery Store

School curriculum at NorthLight is practice-based. For example, a mock-up hotel room is used to teach the students practical skills needed in the hotel industry. A cafe and a grocery store are set up to teach them about running small businesses.

Troubled kids

More urgently, the kids need to be unlocked and start to find back themselves. They would need sufficient amount of confidence to face the tough world when they are out three years later.

The kids at NorthLight are often the troubled ones. Here is a story from one of them:

"My biological father did not love me when I am still baby, but at the end god gave me a stepfather. Last time my biological father said to my mother that he did not want to take care of me and he wanted to throw me away... (read more)"
This is but one of the many unhappy stories.

Student Recreation Centre

They care

I toured around the school and it was easy to note little things which say so much about what the school believe in. XBox consoles are placed freely in the school canteen. There was no lock but a gentle note from the school to remind the students that they are "trusted to take care of the gadgets”.

The schools are also well-equipped with CCTV cameras. Most people would be quick to guess that they are there to check these usually-naughty kids. Signs such as the ones above would instantly bring some sense of guilt in our distrusting nature.

NorthLight believe in keeping the students in school after lessons so that they can keep out of trouble on the streets. A games room comes in handy to keep the kids occupied.


NorthLight gets supports from people who come to know about their effort. A bakery volunteered to donate bread in the morning so that the kids with no food at home can have something for breakfast. A doctor in the neighborhood charge the kids a mere S$5 or nothing at all when they are brought there by their teachers.

The Singapore Optometric Association learned about the eyesight problems of many needy students. They helped to check their eyes and provided free eye-wears. (see news article)

It is really heartening to know that there are many more individual and corporate volunteers who at one time or another, chip in to do their part.

School Ground

Always in touch

The school saw their first batch of graduates last year. These kids are out of school but not out of sight. In the following one year, NorthLight will keep in close contact with them and help them cushion the initial shock of the real world. In the following 10 years, their where-about will continue to be tracked.

NorthLight want the kids to feel safe while they are in school. They also want to assure them that after their graduation, the school would still welcome them should they need a place to run to.

To many kids, NorthLight is their home, their first home.

A Note of Encouragement from the PM

Inspiring many

Within a short span time, NorthLight have proven themselves to be a school with a unique and successful formula to help these often neglected and forgotten kids. They strive to turn the "Impossible" in these kids to "I'm Possible".

There has been an endless stream of visitors to the school. Educators from overseas want to learn their education approach and the general public wants to be inspired by their stories.

I am one of those who have been deeply inspired.

See this video for a preview of activities and courses at NorthLight.
Official website

"A bad grade is only one letter in the Essay of life."
~Lee Drake~

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