Ikegawa Shizen Gakuen (Free school in Niyodogawa, Kochi prefecture)

Japan Times, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009

Truants get fresh start in Shikoku
‘Free schools’ offer students plagued by troubles chance to recover, enjoy fruits of education

Kyodo News
KOCHI — The town of Niyodogawa, Kochi Prefecture, hosts a “free school” called Ikegawa Shizen Gakuen, where seven second-year and third-year junior high school truants are living together seeking a new way of life with the aid of four staffers.

Dedicated educator: Takatoshi Uka, principal of Ikegawa Shizen Gakuen, poses in front of his school in the town of Niyodogawa, Kochi Prefecture, earlier this year. KYODO PHOTO

The late father-in-law of the current principal, Takatoshi Uka, 53, founded the school 20 years ago after quitting as a junior high school teacher.

It has since accepted more than 300 truants from across the country. There are eight wooden buildings, including a two-story dormitory and a dining room, in front of a tea garden.

“Until I came here, I had never skipped stones,” a girl from the Tokyo metropolitan area said with a shy smile. “There is nothing here, but the stars are beautiful at night,” a boy said calmly.

There are about 400 such educational institutions throughout the country, the Free School Network of Tokyo said. They are operated by individuals, volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations. The number of pupils staying at them ranges from several to more than 100.

According to the education ministry, there were a record 105,000 junior high school truants across the country in fiscal 2007, accounting for 2.9 percent of all junior high school students, or one out of 34. There were 24,000 elementary school truants, or one out of 298.

Those at the Ikegawa Shizen Gakuen have been harmed time and again by bullying over many years or by complicated family environments. Besides their studies, they work in the fields and play in the mountains and by a river. Some go to a junior high school in the town.

This spring, when this reporter made her third visit to the school, she was finally able to talk to two of the students. When she visited a classroom about two months later, however, she was perplexed by their uncooperative attitude toward outsiders. When she tried to talk to them, they bent down their heads and made unfriendly replies.

“We finally got to know their human sides after they had stayed for three years,” said Uka, who spends each day watching them develop, observing their delight, anger, sorrow and pleasure and trying to help them “to undo a tight knot.”

Local people visit the school to teach them the game of go and English. Seeing pupils enthusiastically playing go with a man in the neighborhood, Uka said, “The children are growing up in a local community.”

The school’s financial condition is severe. Uka managed to operate the school with an annual subsidy of ¥11 million from the former town of Ikegawa, about half of its annual operating cost.

But the town of Niyodogawa, born through a merger in 2005, cut the subsidy by ¥3 million in fiscal 2009, saying it is difficult to maintain the school as the town is small, and its financial situation itself is severe.

To seek support from the state and others, Uka has time and again met town and prefectural government officials and Diet members, but was always told, “There is no law to support the school.”

To cut expenses, he reduced the number of school staff by two several years ago. The school is refraining from excursions requiring much gasoline, and students go to a gorge nearby by bicycle or on foot. Raw fish and ice cream, loved by the students, are served only once or twice a year.

On a wall in a classroom, there is a collection of writings by students who graduated from the school several years ago. Uka talked about one of them, a girl who became a truant due to bullying.

Many times she had conflicts with other students and staff, but the grim expression in her eyes gradually mellowed. She wrote, “One year and a half here was a revolution. I could pull myself together thanks to everyone.” She returned to her parents’ home and moved to a senior high school.

The school’s purpose is not to return students simply to schools.

Collaboration among the school, families, the local community, other schools and the authorities is required.

“We would like to extend the capability of each student with the unity of all to support varied ways of life of children,” he said.

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