HE JUST wanted to quit school. Michael had found himself repeating Secondary 3, and did not like it one bit.
All his old friends had moved on to Secondary 4, but here he was, faced with the prospect of going over the same lessons all over again.
'I found it boring,' he recalled. 'It was a different kind of stress. You are facing a brand-new environment where everybody is younger than you.'
He started to skip school, once or twice a week. Even if he showed up, he would stay in the toilet to avoid teachers he disliked. He did not join any school activity.
Things got from bad to worse before he went to see his school counsellor, Ms Eunice Lim
'She gave me a lot of encouragement,' said Michael (not his real name). Their sessions made a difference, and he decided to continue attending school.
Now he is in Secondary 5 and aiming to do an engineering course at polytechnic.
Ms Lim's efforts with students like Michael have helped Gan Eng Seng School maintain a zero drop-out rate for the last two years. There used to be a few who left each year.
To help schools do more to keep vulnerable students in school, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will be giving an extra full-time school counsellor and an operations manager, someone who can help monitor student attendance, to 70 schools over the coming years.
At a Teacher's Day event two years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised that the ministry would work towards reducing the attrition rate to 1.5 per cent by 2011.
The number of dropouts is not big, but every child who drops out is one too many, he said.
The dropout rate has already come down, from 3.6 per cent of each cohort in 2002, to 1.6 per cent now.
A small proportion quit in primary school or are lost in the transition between primary and secondary school.
Most students who drop out do so during Secondary 3.
Teachers say that the jump in academic standards from lower to upper secondary can prove too much for some.
School becomes even more painful for these students, mostly from the Normal stream and already struggling with their studies.
Secondary schools have reduced their dropout rate, and this is the result of efforts by teachers and counsellors using a variety of programmes.
To keep a group of vulnerable Secondary 3 students in school, New Town Secondary started its Project Heart last year.
Five students in danger of dropping out took a 'time-out' from classes.
Mr Kannan Kalidasan, the head of student welfare and a former guidance officer with the MOE, said that the students shared a history of failure and disadvantaged backgrounds.
'They don't do well academically. There's a lot of frustration in their lives. They all believe they can't control their anger,' he said.
So for 10 weeks, the students reported to a separate classroom during school hours, where teachers coached them one-to-one.
Mrs Lena Ang, who put in an additional three hours a week to teach these students, said it took some doing but they finally reached the point where they were handing in their schoolwork and were thrilled about it.
'They said: 'Teacher, I can finally do something',' she recalled.
The school's full-time counsellor, Mr Foo Kit Meng, uses movies and videos to discuss anger issues with vulnerable students, helping them to master their anger.
He also has them playing the boardgame Game Of Life to set them thinking about their future.
As Mr Kannan said: 'If you make them focus on their future, they all aspire to own cars and live in big houses.'
The time out with their teachers and counsellors allows the students to learn that reaching their goals will take some effort. 'They begin to see the relevance of studying,' he said.
While not every student has made 'a marked improvement', all have improved their attendance and meet their teachers weekly to chat.
At Zhenghua Secondary, keeping students in school is everyone's business.
Many a student who has skipped school found the principal or vice-principal and teacher at their door.
'They are surprised and touched that so many important people in school come to visit them,' said discipline master Sng Chin Seng.
Still, it may take more than one visit before some students return to school.
When it comes to students at risk of dropping out, Mr Sng said, teachers have to be more patient when homework is handed in late, or other behavioural problems occur.
And not every effort ends with success.
Mr Sng recalled how he could not reach a student who went missing after the family moved. When he finally tracked down the teenager, the parent did not want the child to return to school.
But when students like Michael come back from the brink of leaving school, the teachers cheer.
As New Town's Mr Kannan said: 'As teachers, we want to see a difference in our children. We can make the most impact with this group.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Mar 7, 2008