Normal (Tech) kids learn school is cool

SINGAPORE - Fourteen-year-old Shawn Rajoo is excited about meeting his mentor from Yale-NUS College.

The Secondary 2 student from Crest Secondary, a specialised school for Normal (Technical) stream students, is one of 10 high- potential students picked for a mentorship programme.

He has been paired with first- year undergraduate Daniel Soo, and they will meet for the first time last Wednesday.

"I don't know anybody in university so I hope to be motivated by my mentor. I want to study in a polytechnic and university," said Shawn, a school prefect.

Crest Secondary, which opened last year with 200 students, hopes the undergrad mentors will inspire its high-potential students. The undergraduates will meet the students weekly, help them academically or give them moral support through activities.

This is one of the talent development programmes introduced by the school which takes in the academically weakest students in the Normal (Technical) stream.

It hopes to help every student find something he is good at, to be confident about his capabilities, said principal Frederick Yeo.

"We realised that our students may have missed out on many opportunities, not just in primary school but also at home. We wanted to create opportunities to support their social and emotional development, make them feel good about themselves, and to try new things," he said.

Shawn's mother, Madam Rajes Catherine Michael, 40, a part-time accounts executive, found the change in her son nothing short of amazing. "He tells me he wants to work hard, go to polytechnic and university. The school and teachers must be doing something right," she said.

Apart from the mentorship programme, 35 students who performed well in Secondary 1 will take higher-level Normal (Academic) English and/or mathematics. In non-academic areas, the school has identified students with potential.

A group in the arts and event management CCA learnt to be emcees and host the weekly school assembly programme and school visitors confidently. "Many of them never had the opportunity or courage to go on stage in primary school," said Mr Yeo.

Five members of the new media club took part in a hackathon competition to develop an app and won an award, beating older students from top secondary schools.

In sports, Crest has trained a group with strengths in specific areas such as football.

All students were challenged to acquire new skills in everything from in-line skating to playing the guitar, graffiti art and dance. "While some did less well than others, the more important learning point for everyone is that it's OK to try new things, and if you fail, try again and improve," said Mr Yeo.

If school attendance is a gauge of students' enthusiasm, Crest did well in its first year, with an attendance rate of 97 per cent, and absentees were mostly covered by medical certificates.

Secondary 2 student Muhammad Farhan Abdul Malik, 13, lives in Hougang and takes 90 minutes to get to the school in Jurong East, but he does not mind.

A football player and school prefect, he never held a leadership position in primary school. "Last time I was naughtier. When the teacher was teaching, I would talk to my friends. Now that I'm a prefect, I focus and pay attention in class. I want to get good results. I want to go to university. I don't want to make my parents sad," he said.

Lyonel Chin, 15, said that since joining Crest he has fixed a leaky toilet bowl at home and cooked fried rice for his parents - both skills learnt as part of the school's vocational modules.

Lyonel, who was part of the hackathon team, said he enjoys school because "my friends are encouraging, teachers are understanding, and I get to create things and dismantle things".

The teachers say they try to make language lessons interesting by using songs, movie clips or personal stories.

Tamil teacher Usha Krishnasamy, 35, used drama and got her students to create, film and narrate a story using Lego blocks. They enjoyed the process so much, it did not feel like an oral assessment.

She wants to help weaker students who are unmotivated and disengaged. "They are like that because they don't have someone who believes in them. When they fall off the tracks, they need someone to continuously pull them back on track. I'm not perfect but I can do that little bit for them," she said.

Physical education teacher Mohamed Fahmee Buang, 35, tries to be a friend by learning his students' lingo. "Once you win them over, you bring up your expectations and they will listen to you," he said.

He will measure his success by how his students do later in life. "I hope to see my students successful in life, not in terms of dollars and cents, but being able to do something meaningful in life, having formed an intact family, enjoying a good quality of life," he said.

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