Mrs Virginia Cheng hit the ground running and started planning for an integrated programme (IP) when she took over as principal of National Junior College (NJC) in December 2001.
In 12 years, she transformed Singapore's first junior college, which now takes in students from Secondary 1 and has a boarding programme for all students.
The 64-year-old retires at the end of this year and will be succeeded by Mr Ang Pow Chew, a deputy director at the Education Ministry's curriculum planning and development division, and former principal of Victoria School.
Mrs Cheng told The Sunday Times that being the first government JC to offer the IP in 2004 meant that she had to introduce "a programme that would open doors to all students". "My student intake comes from at least 70 schools. This is where the students will have a fresh start. I have to provide them with opportunities, no matter where they come from," she said.
The first batch of IP schools included the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools, and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).
While Raffles and Hwa Chong JCs collaborated with secondary schools, NJC chose to run its own programme, by taking in students at Secondary 3 initially. "We were not sure if we could handle younger students who have different needs. My teachers were used to older students. I had to recruit from everywhere and interview every teacher to make sure they were innovative and flexible," she said.
Several years later, in 2009, NJC started taking in students from Secondary 1, making for a six-year programme all the way to the A levels. "From a professional point of view, four years from Sec 3 were not enough to do what we wanted to do. We wanted to give more space for the children to enjoy learning," she said. Starting at Secondary 1 also gave the school more time to mould character.
The boarding programme introduced in 2009 requires students to stay on campus for six to eight weeks from Monday to Friday. This allows them to take aesthetic courses like music, drama and dance classes in the evenings, get involved in character development programmes like community gardening and take leadership modules.
Students pay a separate fee for the boarding programme, but NJC's school fees remained affordable - $25 a month for secondary school and $33 for JC, or about one-tenth that at independent IP schools.