Educational Renaissance / Tokku schools stress English

Midori Matsuzawa Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, to be continued next week, focuses on schools that have been set up under a central government program allowing local municipalities to launch special deregulated structural reform zones, dubbed tokku.

Opened in 2005 as a private primary school that offers an English-language immersion education–with most classes taught in the language–Gunma Kokusai Academy (GKA) in Ota, Gunma Prefecture, sent 47 of its 60 sixth graders to New Zealand for homestays lasting from mid-October to early November. Late last month, an after-school period was allocated for the participants to tell fifth graders about their three-week homestay and local school experience.

“What I found hard was that I couldn’t easily get used to the all-English environment,” one sixth-grade girl said.

Then she gave one piece of advice to her junior fellows: “Looking at the fifth graders, we find that you often mix Japanese and English and your way of speaking English doesn’t sound so natural. Therefore, it’s better for you to speak the language a lot from now on.”

GKA sets studying in New Zealand as a “wrap-up” for the students to try out what they have studied in their primary school years by immersing them in an all-English environment.

“The students used to switch back to Japanese during breaks,” said Miyuki Yamada-Hay, a 46-year-old teacher who has been in charge of the sixth-graders since last year. “After coming back home, however, it seems that they feel less hesitant about talking to each other in English, and the language flows much more easily from their mouths.”

Set up in one of Ota’s tokku special deregulation zones, GKA takes advantage of somewhat looser official curriculum guidelines–namely, by teaching via English. Ultimately aiming to offer integrated primary, middle and high school education covering all of K-12 education, the school accepted admissions by first and fourth graders when it opened in 2005, so that it now has a full primary school student body in the third year since its opening.

The student body has grown from 166 in the first year to 451 this year. The number of teachers began at 15–including eight foreigners–and is now 39, including 19 non-Japanese.

First to third graders are divided into three classes for each grade, while there are two classes each for the older grades, each of which is led by one Japanese and one foreign teacher.

Some classes are taught in Japanese. These are classes on the Japanese language itself, social studies, moral classes for the first two grades and home economics for the last two grades.

Overall, the ratio of Japanese to English used in the classes is roughly 3-to-7, which has remained the same since the school opened. The students use official textbooks, but are also given translated English versions for math and science classes.

GKA will set up a middle school division next year, which most of its sixth graders will attend. It plans to hire about 10 new teachers for the upcoming school year for both the primary and middle school divisions.

“Although we’ve been hiring teachers through various routes, we haven’t yet established a way to secure high-quality teachers,” Vice Principal Haruki Inoue, 62, confessed. He said he faced almost the same difficulties while working at Katoh Gakuen, a private school in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, which in the 1990s became the nation’s first educational institution to introduce an English-immersion program.

Since GKA’s opening, Ota Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu–the main figure behind the school’s creation–has served as chairman of the board of directors. However, the post was taken over in June by Hiroshi Watanabe, 72, who is also chairman of the municipal board of education. Former high school teacher Masaru Imai, 65, became the school’s second principal in October by replacing his American predecessor. Imai was chosen for the post mainly because he had held managerial posts at some of Gunma Prefeture’s prestigious high schools.

Because the Ota municipal government offered GKA its plot of land free of charge, the prefectural government has regarded it as a “tantamount to a municipal government-run school,” and therefore offers just over 40,000 yen per student in annual subsidies.

However, GKA has been asking for a subsidy level equivalent to that received by other private institutions in the prefecture, which is about six times higher.

The annual subsidies for GKA are likely to be increased–good news for the school, which otherwise would have to raise its tuition.

The location of a plot of land to house the high school division remains undecided, but a decision is expected soon.

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Corporate immersion school

Meanwhile, Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, will see the official opening of an English-immersion primary school next April. To be named LCA International Elementary School, it will become the first primary school operated by a corporation under the tokku system, which allows those run by for-profit companies to be granted accreditation as a deregulation measure.

The school is based on an all-English preschool in the city run by LCA, Ltd., which opened a primary school in 2005 without getting official status. The current student body is 84, up to fifth grade.

The operator aims at extending the school up to the high school level in the future.

However, even accredited, schools run by corporations cannot enjoy preferential tax treatments and subsidies like other regular private institutions.

Therefore, realizing a stable management for the school is a high priority, said President Norio Yamaguchi, 54, who also will become principal of LCA International Elementary School.

“We’re considering that the school should be run by an educational corporation,” he said. “The municipal government [which accredits the school] has also asked us to ‘graduate’ from the status of being operated by a corporation as soon as possible.”

(Dec. 20, 2007 Daily Yomiuri)

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