Earlier this month, The Yomiuri Shimbun ran the 1,000th installment of its Educational Renaissance series. The following is excerpted from a related series that revisits some of the many people interviewed since the project began in January 2005.
OTA, Gunma–Hidenori and Miyuki Maeda and their daughters, Yuria, 8, and Miria, 10, spent the New Year’s holidays at home in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture–also enjoying a visit to the girls’ grandparents in nearby Yokohama. But when the holidays were over, Hidenori sent his wife and daughters to the family’s second home in Ota.
The two girls are now second- and fourth-year primary school students, respectively, at Gunma Kokusai Academy (GKA), a private English immersion school in the city. The Educational Renaissance series began with a story on families living apart so they could send their children to foreign-language immersion schools, including those specializing in English or Chinese. The Maedas were one such family.
Miria was one of the first students admitted to GKA when it opened in April 2005. In the years since, Hidenori, a 45-year-old company employee, has remained in Sagamihara, while the other three have been living in an apartment near the school.
In addition to more than 100,000 yen a month in tuition, the couple must pay back loans taken out for their two homes. Moreover, the girls have been taking private swimming classes since they entered school, and Miria has been studying math at a cram school since last summer.
Miyuki, 43, has taken a part-time job to help cover the two-home cost of living.
“I’m not sure how long we can manage to make ends meet,” Hidenori said. “But I don’t regret it–we discussed this and decided to do this as a family.”
GKA was established in response to a decision by the central government to allow municipalities such as Ota to designate special structural reform zones, dubbed “tokku.”
Ultimately aiming to offer continuous education by integrating primary, middle and high school, the school initially admitted only first- and fourth-year primary school students, so that it would have a full primary school student body within three years of opening.
Because of this approach, GKA graduated its first class of primary school students in March last year. Of the 60 students, 51 went on to the school’s seventh grade–that is, the first year of middle school.
The student body has grown from 166 in its inaugural year to 522, while the number of teachers grew from 15–including eight foreigners–to 47, including 21 foreigners.
In autumn, GKA will break ground on its high school, on a plot of land that is currently home to a public primary school. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the primary-middle school campus.
English is used about 70 percent of the time in primary school classes, but the amount of Japanese increases for middle school.
In Grades 1 through 6, children learn math and science entirely in English. But in Grades 7 through 9, the students get one of each lesson taught in Japanese every week to cover what they have studied or are about to study in English.
Miyuki Yamada-Hay, 48, a seventh-grade teacher, said her students have a pretty good grasp of what they’re studying in English.
“However, as middle school students, they have to deal with higher-level content and a lot of technical terms,” she said, explaining why the English lessons are reinforced with Japanese. “As Japanese, unless they can discuss what they’ve learned in their mother tongue, they would surely face some kind of trouble in the future.”
All-English science lessons are taught by Philipp Vidal, a Filipino. In a recent lesson covering the features of two kinds of aqueous solutions, for example, the teacher presented to his students a number of technical terms, including “potassium nitrate” and “recrystallization.”
The students first used microscopes to examine recrystallized materials created by dissolving salt and potassium nitrate in water. They seemed to be able to keep up with the teacher as he posed questions to review the experiment process, while at the same time taking notes from the blackboard.
Are students performing well?
Having spent four years at GKA, the seventh-graders have developed strong skills in English.
In October, 25 students volunteered to take the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). Their average score was 477 points out of a possible 990, which is higher than an average score for university freshmen majoring in English or English literature.
In addition, GKA’s sixth-graders performed particularly well on national academic achievement exams that were conducted by the central government in April 2007 and 2008. The students were tested on Japanese and arithmetic, with two types of questions: The first type quizzed them on their basic knowledge of each subject, while the second examined their ability to utilize their knowledge to solve problems they might encounter in their daily lives.
The average scores achieved by the GKA students showed that, when it came to the first type of questions, their scores were close to or higher than the national averages for the two consecutive years, while their average scores for the second category were always higher than the national averages at least by 10 points.
Despite most of their instruction taking place in English, their Japanese skills also are proving exceptionally strong.
In a recent annual nationwide book-report-writing competition for primary school students, four of the six city-level winners were from GKA.
Vice Principal Haruki Inoue, 64, believes that one of the school’s teaching methods was part of the reason.
“Regardless of whether a class is taught in Japanese or English, our students, beginning with the first grade, are given many assignments for which they have to do research, put together their findings and make presentations,” he said. “That process has contributed to the quality of our students’ essays.”
To improve its methodology for its Japanese classes, the primary school has begun offering training programs to its teachers to help them foster critical thinking skills in an environment in which the children are exposed to English for most of their school day.
Meanwhile, a local juku cram school chain has launched classes specifically intended for GKA students, so they can study in advance what they are expected to learn at the school–in Japanese. Miria Maeda has been attending this school.
The chain offers classes on arithmetic for fourth- through sixth-graders and mathematics and Japanese to the seventh-graders. Each class is held once a week and attended by several students, according to the juku.
“Over the long term, there’s no problem regarding our students’ scholastic abilities in the subjects they study in English,” Inoue emphasized. “However, we should make every effort to alleviate their parents’ anxieties.”
GKA has set as its ultimate goal producing “children who can think in English.” The school is still in the progress of tweaking its methodology, while at the same time examining how to strike a good balance between English and Japanese.