BY THE time a Nanyang Girls' High School student graduates, chances are she would have visited China, learnt Chinese calligraphy and how to recite the Pledge in Mandarin.
She would also have mastered her school's own martial arts moves, some with poetic names such as Diao Chan Looks At The Moon, or Xi Shi Holds The Stars.
From learning Chinese dance to dissecting poet Li Bai's works and bowing with respect to teachers, the girls are immersed in their school's special heritage in numerous ways.
It is this unique Chinese-school atmosphere that Minister of State for Education Gan Kim Yong hopes to see preserved and strengthened in Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which have become less special since the SAP scheme began nearly 30 years ago.
Once, these were the only schools whose students learnt English and Chinese at first-language level. But over the years, especially since the criteria for studying Higher Mother Tongue were eased in 1995, students outside the SAP schools have also been able to do likewise.
In a speech earlier this month, Mr Gan said that the SAP schools had done well to produce many bilingual students who take pride in their culture, despite the rising number coming from English-speaking homes.
But he urged the schools to keep up with the times and introduce new programmes. Citing a Chinese saying, he added: 'Like boats going against the current, if they do not advance, they will retreat.'
The SAP scheme was started in the 1970s at a time when fewer parents were willing to put their children in Chinese-medium schools.
To preserve the best attributes of the Chinese schools, the Government created nine secondary SAP schools in 1979 and pumped in resources such as top-quality English language teachers to help them become bilingual schools.
They aimed to groom students with a strong command of English and Mandarin, and a solid grounding in traditional Chinese values.
Initially, places went to only the top 8 per cent of pupils leaving primary school. This later became the top 10 per cent.
The schools - Anglican High, Catholic High, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls', Chung Cheng High (Main), Chinese High, Dunman High, Maris Stella High, Nanyang Girls' High and River Valley High - were selected for their history and track record. Nan Hua High was included in 2000. There are also 15 SAP primary schools.
But in recent years, enthusiasm for the SAP scheme seems to have waned.
Observers of the Chinese schools have lamented the dilution of their Chinese environment and say that their programmes are hardly different from those at other schools offering Higher Chinese.
But Mr Gan felt that SAP schools still played a key role in producing students with a strong enough grasp of Chinese culture to engage China in future.
'We can't allow these schools to lose their uniqueness or to become simply schools which take in good students,' he said.
The 'Chineseness' of the SAP schools still appeals to many students and their parents.
If Nanyang Girls' High was just another top girls' school, Chua Hern Hern, 16, would not have given up a place in Raffles Girls' Secondary to go there.
The former Henry Park Primary pupil was attracted by the school's bicultural courses which emphasise both Chinese and Western culture.
Her parents are also from Chinese school backgrounds.
The school's emphasis on values like teamwork and humility appears to have rubbed off on Hern Hern, who is now in Secondary 4.
She used to believe her good results were due to her own efforts, but now she knows to credit her teachers.
'It's a good thing to reap good results, but you have to think of the people behind you,' she said.
Former Hwa Chong Institution student Lim Kai Keat, 18, also credits his school for imparting certain values to him.
He says it taught him to 'be less arrogant, not take things for granted, and not claim all the credit all the time'.
'I do try to remember my roots, go back to visit teachers and coach my juniors,' said Kai Keat, who helps younger scouts.
In moving ahead to develop new programmes, Chung Cheng High and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' are working with Ngee Ann Polytechnic to offer Media Studies in Chinese as an O-level subject from 2010.
Others like Dunman High, Nanyang Girls' High and Hwa Chong Institution already have extensive immersion programmes that take their students to China.
Nanyang Girls' High principal Yap Wah Choo said that all schools try to develop the character of their students, but that SAP schools can tap their unique ethos to impart values.
'This Chinese culture is there in all the SAP schools and we want this to be pervasive,' said Ms Yap. 'This culture and ethos is not something that happens overnight.'
Pei Chun Public School principal Chin Kim Woon said that given their history, SAP schools could stand out by excelling in the teaching and learning of Chinese.
His school invites Chinese songwriters to speak to students and has classes in translation for teachers.
'There are a hundred flowers blooming in the education landscape here,' said Mr Chin. 'No matter what kind of school you are, you need to find your niche.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 26, 2008