Sunday, March 28, 2010

Outstanding Education in Marginalized Communities: The Ba Kelalan Story

I. Introduction

Beginning in the year 2000 the Ba Kelalan Primary School (BKPS), which perpetually ranked among the lowest performing schools in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, began a process of transformation which culminated last year when it received the prestigious Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award. Considering the remote location of this school in the highlands of Borneo and the limited resources available, the school’s recent success has caught the attention of the education community. This paper tells the school’s story and attempts to identify what has made it so successful. It will be shown that the BKPS community has unified under a vision for excellence, has capitalized on its unique advantages, and has relentlessly maintained a positive mindset in order to prevent its disadvantages from being excuses for mediocrity.

II. Background

Ninety-nine percent of the students at Ba Kelalan Primary School are Christian and of the Lun Bawang ethnicity. The Lun Bawang number only 40,000 worldwide and are concentrated in northern Sarawak, East Malaysia. BKPS students come from one of nine villages surrounding the school which collectively make up Ba Kelalan, tucked in the interior highlands of Borneo. The students’ families live quite simply with limited electricity and water supply. A large majority of their parents are farmers who are not educated beyond Form 3 (age 15). The people of Ba Kelalan are largely isolated from the outside world due to geography and virtually non-existent computer use and internet access. Getting to Lawas, the nearest town, requires either a five-hour trip by 4WD truck or a costly plane ride; neither of these options are totally reliable.

All of the students of BKPS live during the week in dormitories on the school grounds. They maintain rigid daily schedules and are supervised around the clock. On weekends they live at home with their parents who come to pick them up on Friday afternoons and bring them back on Sundays. Other than school holidays and weekends, the students spend all of their time either on campus or engaging in school activities outside of campus. This means that the teachers of BKPS have a great deal more access to their students than do the teachers of non-boarding schools.

III. The Story

When Mr. Pudun Tadam became the headmaster of BKPS - his alma mater from the 1960s - at the start of the 2000 school year, the attitude of the villagers, the students, and even the staff was that, because of the serious disadvantages of being a rural school, academic excellence was beyond reach. Despite the efforts of the Ministry of Education, from 1990 to 1999 only about one quarter of the students each year passed the standardized public examination. The school campus had the basic necessities and was in acceptable condition, but nothing made it a special place where children would thrive. The classroom environments were plain, lacking physical and visual embellishment for the stimulation of learning and creativity. The school was in no way a reflection of the unique cultural traits of the Lun Bawang people. There was little to be proud of.

Mr.Pudun determined that a complete paradigm shift was necessary. He held a radical belief that the school of his childhood harnessed the potential to rise up and defy all expectations. It could become not merely a good school, where the majority of students passed the standardized exam, but one of the absolute best schools in the entire nation, where students enjoyed learning and were outstanding in all fields. Mr. Pudun believed not only that it could be done but that it must be done if the Lun Bawang people of Ba Kelalan were to have a bright future. Education was the only way. So he set his mind on convincing others to come on board. He rewrote the school’s vision and mission statements, and he set very specific and ambitious goals for the Year 6 students’ performance on the standardized year-end exam.

In Malaysia, children begin Year 1 of primary school at age 7 and finish Year 6 at age 12. Toward the end of each school year the Year 6 students take a cumulative exam, known as the UPSR (Primary School Exam), which covers the subjects of Math, Science, English, and Malay language. The results are the key way the Ministry of Education judges each school’s performance and compares one school to another. Outstanding performance on the UPSR can win Year 6 students entry into one of the public secondary schools exclusively for high achieving students, known locally as ‘Science’ schools.

At the beginning of the 2000 school year, Mr. Pudun set a goal that the Year 6 students would achieve UPSR results that would rank them among the top ten schools out of the thirty-one schools in the Lawas District. That year they met their goal by leaping fifteen spots to rank eighth. The following year the goal was to rank in the top five, and again they succeeded by ranking third. In 2002 they determined to again rank among the top three in the district. That year their UPSR results landed them in first place, ahead of all other schools in their district. In a span of three years BKPS went from the bottom third in its district to the top-scorer.

This incredible turnaround did not go unrecognized, and in 2003 the Malaysian Ministry of Education awarded BKPS the Most Promising School Award. With their eyes opened widely to the potential within their children, the community was fully committed to perpetuating the newfound success. In 2007 the school received the Excellent School Award from the Ministry of Education. In 2009 BKPS was bestowed by the Ministry with Cluster of Excellence status, which comes with a large annual bonus for the school budget. Also in 2009, BKPS with its project titled “Community Participation for Achieving Quality Education in Difficult Circumstances” received the Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award. It was chosen among forty other nominated educational organizations from various countries throughout the British Commonwealth.

It is evident that under the leadership of Mr. Pudun and a core group of committed staff, the teachers began to believe that academic excellence was attainable, no matter the circumstances. In a short time this belief spread to the students and then to their parents as they witnessed improving exam results and growing enthusiasm for learning in their children. As the parents came on board, they began to volunteer their time and talents to improve the school under the direction of the school administrators. Once the community stepped up, the creativity of the people of Ba Kelalan was unleashed and the school’s appearance, inside and outside, was transformed under the two hallmark programs of Ba Kelalan Primary School, Musang and COMIC.

IV. Programs

Above and beyond the standard curriculum, the school initiated and has maintained twelve programs designed to develop the students’ abilities in the three main subjects by which the Malaysian government assesses schools: academics, sports, and student welfare. Musang and COMIC will be explained first, followed by a brief mention of the other ten.

Musang, meaning “teamwork,” is a Lun Bawang tradition whereby an individual or a family appeals to the surrounding community for assistance in completing a complex task. The community members volunteer their time and skills, expecting only a simple meal in return. Mr. Pudun realized that this concept in the blood of the Lun Bawang people was an asset to the school which should not go unutilized. The school could benefit from free voluntary service to help overcome its deficiencies in human and material resources.

Under the Musang program, the school administration outlines projects designed to build up and beautify the school compound. They then solicit help from the community to implement the projects and encourage the volunteers to carry it out their own way, allowing for a great deal of originality. Each of the component villages of Ba Kelalan is assigned to a different area of the schoolyard and asked to improve it. The volunteers clean up their areas, plant new flowers and trees, and even have erected wooden huts to serve as quiet, shaded places for students to read.

The Communities in the Classroom project, or COMIC, follows the Musang concept, but volunteers work inside the classrooms rather than on the school grounds. Each village is assigned a classroom and asked to beautify it in a way appropriate for whichever age of students occupies that room. The volunteers have built mini ‘self access huts’ in the back of each classroom which are packed with pictures, posters, and reading materials. The huts’ designs reflect the unique architectural craftsmanship of men from the various villages and provide a one-of-a-kind physical enhancement to each of the classrooms. For both Musang and COMIC, representatives of each village are expected to come periodically for maintenance and improvement of their assigned areas.

As these programs have been successfully carried out, new structures have sprang up on the campus and the classrooms have been filled with decoration. Recognizing that their community has unified to work on their behalf, the students are more motivated to do their part – to come to class every day and try their best.

The purpose of the remaining ten programs are as follows:
· To give weaker Year 6 students a chance to succeed on par with their peers on the UPSR by providing them special instruction in the afternoons and evenings.
· To improve the school’s overall UPSR results by coaching Year 6 students on test-taking strategies and providing plenty of sample exam questions for practice.
· To develop good reading habits by giving incentives for students to read books on their own outside of class.
· To ensure students’ mastery of the multiplication table through repetition of memorization exercises throughout the day.
· To motivate the students to speak English more in school by creating more opportunities for English interaction. University graduates from English-speaking countries come to BKPS for several month stints as volunteer teachers.
· To bring up excellent athletes by recognizing their talents early and coaching them effectively.
· To help underperforming students master the basic necessary skills of reading and writing by providing remedial instruction outside of class.
· To develop students who are independent and capable of caring for themselves by giving them daily chores and responsibilities.
· To keep the students continuously motivated to do their best through motivational presentations by teachers and outside visitors.
· To build up the leadership capabilities of selected prefects through leadership training and by entrusting them with greater responsibilities.

Each program is routinely monitored and adjusted under the direction of a different staff member. Parents of children at Malaysia’s top urban schools commonly utilize private tuition to give their children extra instruction outside of class. With these programs BKPS students also receive after-school assistance, though it is free of charge and takes place inside the school.

V. Advantages

The Ba Kelalan Primary School has certain advantages which give it a leg up over other schools. There are few enough students in each class that the desks can be arranged in a U-shape, leaving an open space in the center. This facilitates better interaction between the teachers and students and among the students themselves. Teachers often invite the pupils to sit with them on the floor and approach learning more informally. Recognizing that these young students are away from their parents for much of the year and yearn to go home, teachers try to relate to students more like parents so that the children feel comfortable. This is all part of the administration’s goal for the students to like being at school as much as or more than they like being at home. This is the only way, they believe, to make sure all students stay in school without using coercion.

One cannot overstate the significance of the entire school community, other than a few Malay members of the staff, being Lun Bawang and belonging to the same denomination of evangelical Christianity. When the school administration plans events or service projects, they know without question that the villagers, most of whom do not have packed schedules like townsfolk, will come and participate. Locals say their strong religious convictions are paramount not only in unifying the community to serve the needs of the school but also in instilling obedience and proper values in their children. Discipline problems and bullying are rare.

Because of the remoteness and relative backwardness of Ba Kelalan, the children are not exposed to those harmful elements of society present in urban areas. Television, movies, and videogames are not available time-wasters, so the students read or play outside for entertainment. With pristine tropical rainforest lying just beyond the schoolyard gate, the students naturally take an interest in environmental science. The Parent Teacher Association of BKPS is quite robust and pitches in books and financial assistance. Overall, the staff takes full advantage of their 24-hour access to the students by planning a multitude of extra opportunities for them to learn beyond the daily class schedule.

VI. Conclusion

The Ba Kelalan Primary School has demonstrated that an outstanding quality of education can be provided even in remote and disadvantaged schools when the school community unifies under a vision for excellence. Though some of the reasons for the school’s success are unique to Ba Kelalan and are not transferable, the most significant ones can be practiced anywhere. Schools which want to emulate the success of BKPS can learn from its programs, can solicit the involvement of their communities, and should have the optimism and motivation to shoot for ambitious goals. The students, parents, and staff of any school must believe in their potential and insist that no obstacle be an excuse for poor performance.