Community schools in the news: Shinmachi Primary School, Kamigyo Ward

Educational Renaissance /Residents pitch in to educate kids

Following are excerpts from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, to be continued next week, focuses on the Japanese version of community schools.

 

KYOTO–In late October, nearly 70 fifth graders from Shinmachi Primary School in Kamigyo Ward were heading for a lesson in bird-watching in the city’s mountainous area. For the activity, they were trooping along behind their “teacher,” a neighborhood resident who had offered to share his more than two decades of birding experience.

Tetsuro Sawashima, 77, the head of the Kyoto chapter of the Wild Bird Society of Japan, led the activity as part of a five-day nature program the children participated in while staying at a public facility for outdoor activities.

The expert was joined by parents and other locals as his “assistants.” When the group reached an observation point in the mountains, he divided the children into about 10 groups, each of which was supervised by these assistants.

This year’s camp was two days longer than that of last year. Although it took more than an hour to get to the venue by car from the city center–where the school is located–32 local residents and parents visited the facility during the five-day period to help out at the camp by doing such things as preparing meals with the children and reading them stories at night.

Shinmachi Primary School was able to enjoy such large-scale local support for the program from mainly because it has been designated as a “community school” by the Kyoto municipal board of education for the past three years.

Nobuo Fujiwara, 65, head of the school management council that was established after the designation, was one of those accompanying the student campers. He offered a helping hand, explaining that he had “taken it to heart how hard the teachers are working.”

Vice Principal Norio Sado, 54, commented on the fact that such a large number of locals had come out to support the program, and not just because they were helping him and other teachers run the camp. He said that because the teachers and other adults ended each day with free and open discussions, “This camp has also become a chance for us to hear a variety of opinions from our community.”

Strong community support for local schools in Kyoto dates back to at least the early Meiji era (1868-1912), when ordinary people used their own money to establish primary schools. Apparently because of this history, Kyoto had designated 128 community schools as of Dec. 1, an outstanding figure for a single municipality.

Although Shinmachi Primary School was established only in 1997, following the merger of three school districts, its history can be traced all the way back to a primary school set up by local citizens during the Meiji era.

Dietary education is one of the areas on which the school focuses, with the approval of the school management council. There are several committees set up under the council, each in charge of designing and implementing activities in its respective field. There are 144 committee members, many of whom are teachers at the school. The committee in charge of dietary education alone has 30 members.

The school began focusing on that topic three years ago, when the then principal rented a farm near his house.

When the school management council was established after the institution’s designation as a community school, its first topic of discussion was how best to use the farmland for the students’ benefit.

“I believe that dietary education forms the foundation of school education,” current Principal Hikoshi Tada, 54, said. “Our dietary education programs aim at helping the students develop a zest for life, which otherwise might be difficult for them to acquire merely through studying subjects in the classroom.”

Thus, Shinmachi’s students have started to cultivate vegetables on their own as part of their classes. It would have been impossible for the school to maintain the program without help from local residents, who have assisted in every aspect of the program from taking the children to the venue–a 20-minute bus ride from the school–to performing agricultural work. They also keep an eye on the land when the students are not working there.

The head of a local kindergarten also serves as director of the school management committee, so part of the farm now has been allocated for even younger children to work on. This led to the holding of a joint popcorn party between the kindergartners and the school’s first graders after they harvested corn on the land.

Shinmachi’s dietary education programs also collaborate with a local restaurant. The students visit the premises to observe what kind of work is done there and to learn about the city’s traditional cooking.

The school-community involvement goes beyond locals helping out with the kids: More and more of the school’s teachers have been participating in local festivals and other community events. “It’s because they realize how devoted the locals are to the kids,” Tada said, adding that his teachers find themselves welcomed at these events–thus creating a virtuous cycle of strengthening mutual trust.

“We offer support to the school, and the teachers participate in our community events–and we do so on a totally voluntary basis on both sides,” Fujiwara said.

At the same time, however, “Because the teachers have been working hard, I hope that they can find their efforts reflected in their working conditions by, for example, getting a promotion at the time of personnel changes,” he added.

 

Locally managed public schools gaining popularity

 

Paving the way for parents and local residents to get involved in the management of public schools in their neighborhoods, the nation’s community school system was established in 2004 when a revision was made to a law concerning education administration systems at the local government level. Modeled after similar systems overseas, such as in Britain, the system aims at providing local citizens with certain authority and responsibilities, thus allowing their needs to be reflected in school management quickly and appropriately.

Under the system, municipal boards of education designate local public institutions as community schools and appoint parents and other local residents as members of school management councils.

These councils are expected to express their opinions on basic school management policies, such as budget and educational programs, before approving them. Moreover, they can also express their opinions to prefectural boards of education, which handle personnel matters, on what kind of teachers they wish to have working at their schools. These requests are supposed to be respected by the boards.

A primary school in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, was designated as the first community school in November 2004, and 343 public schools in 65 municipalities nationwide had followed in its path as of April 1 last year, according to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry. They included not only mainstream primary through high schools, but also kindergartens and schools for the disabled.

Among municipalities, Kyoto had the greatest number, with 110, followed by Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, with 49 and Okayama, with 35.

Still more community schools have been designated in Kyoto and Tokyo since April.

Nationally, community schools are more likely to be found in western Japan, while the Hokkaido and Tohoku regions have fewer than 10 in total.

(Jan. 8, 2009) The Daily Yomiuri

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