Singapore educators visit Lindale Middle School

Delegation learns strategies for teaching at-risk children

September 27, 2012|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Though 99 percent of Singapore's students pass national exams, a delegation of the city-state's educators recently traveled the globe to Anne Arundel County schools to learn innovative ways to help the other 1 percent succeed.

Five educators from the Assumption Pathway School and Children-At-Risk-Empowerment (CARE) in Singapore visited classes at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum this month as part of a two-week tour of facilities in the state. They spoke with local school officials about organization, teaching strategies and assistance for at-risk students.

"The main purpose for us is to see how we can do the work of reaching out to youth at-risk more effectively," said Wee Tat Chuen, principal of Assumption Pathway School.

Lindale Middle is among several schools in Anne Arundel with programs designed to meet the educational and emotional needs of students with learning disabilities.

The visit marked one of two exchange initiatives between the Anne Arundel school system and an Asian nation. MacArthur Middle School and Beijing Yucai School in China recently signed a five-year exchange and curriculum enrichment agreement.

Members of the Singapore delegation said Assumption Pathway School helps students who have difficulty completing mainstream secondary education in Singapore, while CARE provides school-based social services to students with academic, behavioral and emotional problems.

George Lindley, principal of Lindale Middle School, guided the delegation through several classes. The delegation visited the school's media center, a technology education class, a graphic arts class and a special-education class for children with moderate to severe learning and behavioral disabilities.

Wee said Singapore is working to build students' character while providing them vocational education so they can enter the workforce.

The picture he gave of Assumption Pathway mirrors that of many schools in the U.S. with struggling students. About 50 percent of the school's 500 students are on financial assistance, more than 20 percent come from dysfunctional or single-parent families, and more than 20 percent have learning difficulties.

"You can imagine, with that kind of profile, the kinds of challenges we have," Wee said.

The tour was facilitated by the Baltimore-based Children's Guild, a nonprofit organization that serves children with trauma disorders and multiple disabilities. The delegation was hosted by Frank Kros, executive vice president of the Children's Guild.

Kros said the delegation came eager to learn about how to change attitudes of staff who are teaching children who have failed the city-state's national exam twice. Many of those teachers have been accustomed to working with highly functional and motivated children and not with students of different backgrounds. He said he chose Lindale Middle because it has excelled at working with children across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Lindale is one of several venues the delegation visited; each of those venues has had training in the Children's Guild transformation education approach, which focuses on blending a learning organization's culture with neuroscience.

That a delegation from Singapore, a city-state regarded as one of the most efficient and prosperous locales in the world, would come to the U.S. for ideas on education might seem odd.

A country slightly smaller in size than Charlotte, N.C., with a population of 5 million, the former British colony gained independence in 1965. It has become one of the world's most prominent and thriving nations, despite a history that included two years of occupation under the Japanese during World War II and under the Malaysian Federation for two years before its independence.

Singapore is also highly regarded for its quality of education. A 2003 study by the Netherlands-based International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement ranked Singapore first among 49 countries in math and science for fourth- and eighth-graders.

Adelyn Poh, co-founder of CARE, said the nation has in less than 50 years gone from impoverished and 85 percent illiterate to its 99 percent student pass rate on exams because it focused initially on segments of its population that performed well in testing. It is now helping students who have often been left behind.

She said Singapore welcomes the opportunity to learn from those who have shown success in working with such students.

"It's the way we were brought up: There's always a better way to do things," said Poh. "In Singapore, what has happened is that we take care of the big things first.

"When we had this 85 percent illiteracy, we weren't looking at special needs. We were just making sure we took care of everybody first," Poh said. "At that time, we were very poor as a country. When you don't have that much money, you put it on those who give you the best returns.

"For the ones who did not do well in school, we said, 'Sorry, guys; we will take care of you later,' " Poh added. "It's taken that long to come to a point where we are finally a little better off and now we can start going back" to helping low-performing students.

Kros said people in the U.S. are often taken aback when they hear that a delegation from Singapore is coming for pointers on education.

"They say, 'Why would they come here? They beat ... us in all testing,'" he said. "And it's because they're really good at their advanced-level kids and making education a priority in their country, but not as experienced with kids who don't do well in traditional settings."

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