The Ministry of Education announced the opening of the second specialised school for Normal (Technical) students two weeks ago. Stacey Chia visited the first school to see what it offers students that mainstream ones do not.
FOR the first month of class, mathematics teacher Ong Kwang Wei did not give any homework and tests were made easier.
Lessons were taught at a slower pace so that students could follow. By the end of the month, his students cheered when told that they were going to be given homework.
Mr Ong, 44, teaches at Crest Secondary - the first school for students in the Normal (Technical) stream - where most of the children performed poorly in maths and other foundation level subjects at the Primary School Leaving Examination.
The cheering was a first for Mr Ong, who has 13 years of experience teaching Normal (Technical) students elsewhere.
In the first informal class test, only one student failed and there were several who did well.
"We need to give these kids a chance to taste success, and when they know what it is like, they are less likely to give up," said Mr Ong, who is now giving his students regular tests and homework.
The Jurong East school took in its first batch of 200 students in January and a second specialised school will open in Woodlands next year.
Both are part of the Education Ministry's broader objective to provide multiple pathways to cater for the different needs of youngsters.
Students at these schools will take up a four-year academic programme leading to the GCE N-level exams similar to their peers in the Normal (Technical) stream at other schools.
But unlike them, they will also pick up vocational skills to graduate with an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Skills Certification in one of four areas - facility services, mechanical servicing, retail services or hospitality services.
Mr Ong said his approach to teaching maths in the first month was not possible in a mainstream school, where class sizes comprise around 40 students.
In specialised schools they are about half this size and children's abilities are less varied.
His student Nitaya Sree Joslin, 13, said: "The teachers have more time. In primary school, there was a lot of homework but no one to ask."
Crest's teachers said that having vocational modules helps them to illustrate the relevance of academics to students.
For instance, learning how to speak well is important to providing good customer service and scientific concepts like force are related to how the wrench is used in plumbing lessons.
The school is equipped with classrooms that are designed like an actual Giant store and a Home-Fix DIY shop, to provide students with more realistic learning environments for the vocational modules.
Mr Adrian Tay, head of department for maths and science, says he and his colleagues can focus solely on developing lessons for students who are more hands-on learners whereas in mainstream schools, teachers often have to deal with students from different streams.
Some Crest pupils were taken on a trip to a bowling alley during curriculum hours, not just to play, but to apply maths skills by calculating the cost of their day out.
Teachers said that despite criticism that such a school perpetuates academic streaming, in reality it can help students feel good about themselves - which normal schools might struggle to do.
"At morning assembly, most messages announced in a mainstream school would be less applicable to the Normal (Technical) students, as they are not the majority in the school," said Mr Ong. "I don't think many of them feel a part of the school."
Crest has got off to a promising start. Despite about half of its students coming from disadvantaged families, attendance has been high at 97 per cent. Only one student has been absent frequently.
Principal Frederick Yeo has noticed a "transformation" in confidence levels, which may be an effect of the daily motivational talks.
He said more students are making eye-contact when they speak and will stop teachers and visitors along the way to chat with them.
"For some of these students, their biggest impression of primary school may have been the scolding," said Mr Yeo.
"By the time they leave us, we want to make sure they feel good about themselves and leave with the idea that they can achieve success."
Thirteen-year-old Henry Toh is brimming with new-found confidence. "I was afraid to join dance in primary school, because the others in school used to say it was just for girls," he said. "But at Crest we don't make fun of each other."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 30, 2013
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