Big 'bro' to children under his care

Mr Shaik Ismail, 45, the principal of Impresario Learning Lab in Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, believes in learning through play. Activities in the after-school care centre are unconventional but, he explains, they incentivise students to finish their schoolw
Mr Shaik Ismail, 45, the principal of Impresario Learning Lab in Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, believes in learning through play. Activities in the after-school care centre are unconventional but, he explains, they incentivise students to finish their schoolwork.ST PHOTO: CALVIN YANG

Principal of daycare centre has soft spot for children from low-income, broken homes

With his pierced ears, tattooed upper arms and black attire, Mr Shaik Ismail does not come across as a principal.

Some parents, after discovering that the tough-looking, burly man is in charge of Impresario Learning Lab, are uncertain if they should enrol their children there. Impresario is an after-school care centre in Jalan Bukit Ho Swee.

The 45-year-old is a familiar face around the quiet, old estate, having started his "daddy daycare services" there over two years ago.

His centre, which supervises underprivileged pupils after school while their parents are at work, occupies a modest 59 sq m shop space at the foot of an HDB block.

"Some parents feel that I look like a gangster instead of a principal. But they have nothing to fear," he said, adding that his tribal tattoos are merely artistic ones.

TRUST FACTOR

Some parents feel that I look like a gangster instead of a principal. But they have nothing to fear.

MR SHAIK ISMAIL

However, Mr Shaik, who has a seven-year-old daughter, admitted that in his younger days, he had dabbled with drugs, drunk and smoked.

When he was a teenager, he was often called into the principal's office for getting into fights.

"I was a naughty boy, often getting into trouble," he said.

The curriculum at his student-care centre is unusual as it focuses on learning through play.

Video game sessions, percussion classes and swimming lessons are among the activities children engage in. The centre's fee, including the cost of percussion and swimming lessons, is $300 a month.

Mr Shaik also teaches the children "anything they want to learn", such as shooting videos, designing graphics, organising parties and hosting. The catch? They have to finish their homework and revision before taking part in these lessons.

The activities are unconventional but, he explained, they incentivise students to finish their schoolwork.

He said: "These are to reward them for their hard work. Kids should be able to have fun after school, and to be themselves."

On some evenings, residents notice themed parties, such as Halloween, taking place inside Impresario and at the open space outside the centre.

Resident Jack Ho, 54, said: "He would have all these unusual ideas. And you could often hear the laughter and joy of the kids."

The facility, which opens from 1.30pm to 9pm, now has 17 children, aged between seven and 14. Most of them are from low-income households, single-parent families or broken homes - children for whom Mr Shaik has a soft spot as he came from a similar background.

His parents are divorced; his father was a gambler who took drugs. "Some of the kids here face the same situation," he said, adding that a few have parents in prison.

His early years were hard, he recalled. "There was no adult supervision in my life."

He would hang out with his friends at shopping malls and neighbourhood blocks after school, engaging in vices, and often getting into fights. "We fooled around, we didn't know what we were doing. There was no purpose in our lives."

He decided in his 20s that he needed to break away from his past, after one of his friends was killed in a fight. He also had friends who were sentenced to death for drug offences.

In the 1980s, he started a career in entertainment as a show host, party planner and stand-up comedian, and was known as Mad Shake or MC Shake.

He sometimes had to don costumes for characters such as Batman and The Mask. Once, he had to put on a cucumber suit to promote a food business selling sandwiches at Raffles Place MRT station. He still hosts gigs on a freelance basis.

His transformation into an educator began some two decades later after his elder sister, a former teacher, urged him to use entertainment for education.

He thought of starting a centre to impart speech and drama skills, but decided to open a care centre instead when he saw the need for one in the neighbourhood. The children at his centre are on a first-name basis with him. "I don't want to be their teacher," he said. "I want to be a 'bro', and be there for them."

Parent K. Ali Hassan knows about Mr Shaik's past, but believes he is a changed man. The 46-year-old, whose son, nine, and daughter, seven, go to Impresario, said Mr Shaik may look tough on the outside but has a heart for the children.

"He is good with children, he understands them," said Mr Ali, who works in the food and beverage line. "The kids are happy when they are at his centre. He knows how to have fun."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Big 'bro' to children under his care'. Print Edition | Subscribe