When Crest Secondary School was set up in 2013, principal Frederick Yeo had trouble convincing parents it was right for their children.
"We didn't have a track record," he said. "Some parents looked down on us, they were upset when their kids chose us."
Crest is the first specialised school to cater for Normal (Technical) students. As such it attracted negative stereotypes among some parents which it has been striving hard to fight off. The Jurong East school now has 760 students across four cohorts and its first batch of 200 will graduate next month. Forty of its graduating students have already received conditional offers from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) via a scheme that considers their abilities related to courses and skills in leadership, sports or the arts.
Mr Yeo told The Straits Times: "We have, to a large extent, helped to restore confidence, a joy of learning, in the kids."
Its students' academic grades improve by 15 to 20 per cent when they reach Secondary 2, compared to their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results.
That is no easy feat for a school that takes in pupils with PSLE scores ranging from less than 100 to 140, some of whom have special needs such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
From shy boy to confident speaker
When Crest Secondary School student Enrique Markus Monteiro was younger, he would keep to himself.
"I was the shyest boy in the whole school," said the former St Anthony's Primary pupil. "I was very anti- social and didn't talk to anyone except my best friend."
In an unexpected turn of events, he became an MC and DJ in secondary school, and even acted in a school play and a short film.
His mother had encouraged him to join a co-curricular activity (CCA), the Arts and Events Management Club, where he stepped out of his comfort zone and grew in confidence.
In his first year of school, he was selected to be the MC for its Chinese New Year celebrations. "At home I was panicking and whining about how I got chosen, because I'm so shy," said the 16-year-old.
Noticing his reserved nature, Ms Juliana Chee, his form teacher in Secondary 1 and 2, who was also his CCA teacher, had "wanted to give him a little push".
In preparation, Enrique picked up tips on voice projection, body posture and eye contact - and his first stint as an MC went well.
"From then on, I became more comfortable with speaking. I became more confident and started making more friends," he said.
In 2014, he was one of two students selected by his school to take part in a national speech contest organised by YMCA.
"I didn't win, but I was proud that I could stand in front of people and speak without a script," said Enrique, who became a school prefect.
He has no regrets joining Crest because of its practical way of learning.
"I'm very interested in hands-on subjects... when I was younger, my mum and I went to Giant to buy cabinets, and it came naturally to me to fix things," he said.
He has since been offered a place next year in the Institute of Technical Education to study social media and Web development - another of his newfound interests.
"Creating websites with computer software allows me to use my creativity," he said. "I hope to go to polytechnic to do a similar course."
Nearly all its Secondary 4 students - with the exception of two who were retained - have finished all four years of school. These results are thanks to the school's approach to education - helping students regain an interest in their studies, and encouraging them to set goals and discover strengths in practice-oriented areas.
For instance, besides academic subjects such as English, lower secondary students take modules where they learn things like hospitality, retail skills or technical skills for mechanical services. Classes are held in specially constructed facilities such as a teaching kitchen, cafe and mechanical workshops.
Academic lessons are also infused into these settings. For instance, they practise English oral skills in a bistro, or learn about measurements in a mini-mart.
"Our kids need to feel it, need to see it, to be able to understand concepts, and that means transferring what is abstract to concrete experiences," said Mr Yeo. "In a day, our students move from one room to another - a studio to a workshop to a bistro. These different environments help them learn better."
He added that exposure to practical training in school and on industry stints gives students a better idea of what to pursue in future.
"We have very high aspirations for them to move on to ITE and to do well... and getting the chance to move on to polytechnics."
Student Ryan Ang, who has secured a place in ITE to study mechatronics, first learnt how to fix bicycles in a module in Secondary 1.
The 16-year-old, who took up mechanical servicing at Crest, said the last four years have been "amazing". "There's not a day I feel bored in school because I learnt so many new things, like building circuits."
His schoolmate Nur Halif Abdullah Sani, who has a spot to learn Western culinary arts at ITE, grew to love cooking after whipping up his first dish of fried rice at Crest. "I love the smell and fragrance of food," said the 16-year-old.
Crest takes special care in selecting its teachers, who have to go through two interviews and have an interest in working with youth. It now has 80 teachers, up from about 30 in 2013. By next year, it aims to have more than 90 teachers.
Said Mr Yeo: "We tell the teachers that it is tough here - kids who are reluctant learners, kids who won't comply... Are you sure this is the right school for you?"
The second specialised school for Normal (Technical) students is Spectra Secondary in Woodlands. Its first batch will graduate next year.
Both schools are part of the Education Ministry's broader objective to provide varied pathways to cater for the different needs of youngsters.
At these schools, students take up a four-year academic programme leading to the N levels, similar to their Normal (Technical) peers at other schools. But unlike them, they also learn vocational skills and graduate with an ITE Skills Certification in one of four areas - facility services, mechanical servicing, retail services or hospitality services.
In the final year, students go on an eight-week industry experiential programme to learn communication and technical skills.