Tabunka (Multicultural) Free School (Arakawa ward, Tokyo)

From ‘free school’ to high school
Midori Matsuzawa Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

In Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, there is a house where Chinese, Nepalese and Tanzanian teenagers gather. They mainly come to study the Japanese language, but what makes this different from regular Japanese-language schools for nonnative speakers is the fact that it is a so-called “free school” specializing in helping young foreign residents pass entrance exams for Japanese high schools.

“Free school” describes an alternative educational institution for children who find it difficult to keep up with mainstream education. Many such schools are aimed at children with a history of truancy, or those with learning disabilities. They are usually small organizations operating on a nonprofit basis.

The second floor of the Arakawa house serves as the office of the Center for Multicultural Information and Assistance, Tokyo 21, as well as being the location of classrooms for the organization’s Tabunka (Multicultural) Free School, launched in June last year.

When I visited one afternoon in mid-March, four Chinese teenagers were studying English in one of the two classrooms. Together they were tackling a test taken from an exercise book designed to prepare children for entrance examinations for Japanese high schools. Their teacher, Naoko Nojima, 39, had one of her students read out one of the problems during her class.

“Honbun no naiyo to awanai mono o…hitotsu erabe,” the boy read, which means, “Choose the answer that does not fit with the passage.”

Nojima drew their attention to the word “awanai” in the instruction.

“You should choose the ‘awanai’ one, which means the one that is not correct. OK?” she said.

Even though it was an English class, Nojima also checked from time to time to see that the students understood the meanings of the Japanese words and sentences they had to deal with in solving the problems.

“No matter how good you are at English, you won’t be able to solve the problems on the tests if you can’t understand the instructions in Japanese,” Nojima said.

The 17- and 18-year-old students were among seven at Tabunka Free School who took entrance exams for local high schools this winter, all of whom passed. The four continued to come to Arakawa to take classes on Japanese and other subjects until they graduated from the free school on March 18.

Many of the students there–there were 19 last month–have recently come to Japan to join parents who have worked in this country for years. They usually hope to attend public high schools run by the Tokyo metropolitan government because tuition is less expensive at such schools.

Among the seven who passed the high school exams, six are to be enrolled at public high schools next month. These six had already graduated from middle schools in their home countries before coming to Japan. One, a Tanzanian, took a special type of entrance exam exclusively for short-term foreign residents in Tokyo–for competitive seats offered by only one high school–while the five others sat for regular exams that pit them against their younger Japanese rivals in the five required subjects: Japanese, math, science, social studies and English.

“I wasn’t confident about taking tests in the five subjects,” said Lin Yan, one of the five. “I didn’t think I could pass the entrance exam to get into high school.”

The Center for Multicultural Information and Assistance, Tokyo 21, is one of five offices the nonprofit organization has nationwide. The center was established in Osaka following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake to support foreign residents in the area.

Opened in 2001, the Tokyo office has been working mainly on educational issues by holding annual briefing events for foreign young people who wish to attend high school in Japan. The office also offers individual counseling services.

One issue that these activities soon threw up was the question of how to handle foreign teenagers who have completed compulsory education in their home countries before coming to Japan, said Michelle Wang, 56, head of Tokyo 21.

“We realized that we should offer a place to support foreign children who have already graduated from middle school in their home countries but wish to pass entrance exams for high school despite their lack of Japanese-language skills,” she said.

The Japanese government guarantees that foreign residents of compulsory education age–7 to 15–can attend public primary and middle school. When it comes to those older than 15, however, it’s up to local governments to decide how to handle such children, according to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry. Many local governments, including Tokyo, refuse to accept overage children at middle schools.

When it comes to Japanese students, the ministry conducts annual surveys on the percentage of middle school graduates pursuing higher education–it’s nearly 100 percent. But it does not collate corresponding data for foreign students.

The ministry instead releases annual data on the number of foreign nationals attending public schools, from primary to high school level, which show that 8,131 foreign nationals were attending high school as of May 2004, compared to 19,911 who went to middle school. Foreign student numbers at high school have been decreasing since 1991–when there were 11,781–but the ministry has not looked into the reasons behind the decrease.

Wang pointed out that many foreign teenagers who have just come to Japan face numerous barriers before they can attend high school here–particularly those who have completed compulsory education at their home countries.

“These children have nowhere to go because they cannot attend either middle or high school,” said Wang, herself a Chinese national who worked as a teacher at public high schools in Tokyo for nearly three decades. “Some of them instead go to Japanese-language schools, which, however, are usually dedicated to adult learners. Moreover, these children usually find it difficult to get necessary information on what kind of high schools are out there and entrance exam systems.”

Tabunka Free School is open from Tuesdays to Fridays, offering three-hour classes in the afternoon for foreign nationals who have already graduated from middle school. It also serves those who are currently attending local middle school, who study there for two hours at night. They are taught by seven instructors, including Wang, all of whom either have teaching certificates or are qualified Japanese-language teachers for nonnative speakers. Monthly tuition for afternoon classes is 30,000 yen, while 20,000 yen is charged for night classes.

Looking back at the first entrance exam season for Tabunka Free School, Wang once again realized how hard it was for children to remain away from school–some of the successful examinees had already been in Japan for 1-1/2 years. In this “blank period,” they forget much of what they studied at middle school, she said.

Wang emphasized that it is important for society to cultivate the potential of foreign young people who will live in Japan for an extended period.

“Because foreign children who came here as teenagers have already established a firm grounding in their mother tongues, they are likely to become bilingual speakers–human resources who will become more valuable for Japanese society,” Wang said. “If the education system would only be a little more flexible, they would not have to go through the kind of hardships they now face.”

(Mar. 28, 2006) Daily Yomiuri

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