A sporting chance for kids in the heartland

SINGAPORE - Bringing affordable education programmes to heartland schools is definitely not child's play for friends Pok Vic Tor and Chang Shih Khoon.

The childhood school friends have in recent years found themselves back together in the classroom, but this time as educators.

The pair, both 40, set up Viva Kids in the middle of 2012 with the aim of bringing a refreshing style of learning to children, including those from underprivileged backgrounds.

Viva Kids runs two programmes, one called KidsExcel, an early-intervention programme targeting school-going children from Primary 1 to 4.

The aim is to promote healthy living and character development alongside academic performance through sports and arts sessions.

Mr Pok and Mr Chang are now piloting their second programme, YouthExcel, aimed at children in secondary schools.

Viva Kids actively courts and encourages families from the Ministry of Education's Financial Assistance Scheme to join these programmes for a small fee.

KidsExcel and YouthExcel are built on the motto "Moulding Character, Changing Lives". Both adopt a multi-hands approach where stakeholders and partners pitch in to nurture and further develop the students.

DBS Bank has given its backing to Viva Kids and is providing funding for YouthExcel. Mr Pok said: "We are very keen to tell parents we have a strong bank behind us as some of them have questioned our sustainability. Social enterprise is a fairly new concept and it takes time for people to realise it can be self-sufficient."

Mr Pok studied at Nan Hua Primary School in Clementi and later taught there. He already has a track record in setting up educational programmes, having founded Catch Them Young, a sports excellence and academic enrichment programme in the early 2000s.

He firmly believes in the strong coupling of a healthy body and a healthy mind, and providing holistic sports and academic enrichment programmes at low cost.

"I am a big believer in the underdog. Every child can learn, they just need a leg up. Our society has become a bit more stratified so social enterprise acts as a good leveller," Mr Pok said.

Mr Chang, meanwhile, started his career working for a bank before moving on to a marine company. It was through his friendship with Mr Pok and spending time at a tuition centre owned by his sister that Mr Chang felt a career in education was right for him.

"My sister was helping needy children and I could see the impact she was having. I wanted to do something similar and to reach out to as many children as I could," he said.

Mr Chang spent eight months working at the tuition centre understanding the needs of the children and interacting with their parents. This gave him a firm footing for the launch of Viva Kids.

The pair still faced a challenge with their new concept of teaching education through sports and drama.

"We had to convince the initial group of schools that the programme would help them with their low-achieving kids. And we had to convince the parents that our business was sustainable as they were paying for the sessions." Fees are $20 a month.

Asian parents are typically known for their focus on academic achievement, but the Viva Kids concept is about boosting confidence and learning values in a non-traditional way. So how did they get buy-in from the parents?

"We run day camps during the school holidays, setting aside half a day for the parents to come in, see what we do and bond with their child. When they see the joy in their kid's face, that helps them understand what we are doing," Mr Chang said.

Over the next two years, via the two schemes, Viva Kids plans to be in 60 heartland schools helping up to 8,000 students, of which one quarter will be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The social enterprise works with 15 schools, a figure expected to rise to 21 by next month. The plan is to add about seven schools each quarter.

Mr Chang and Mr Pok employ 23 full-time staff and about 100 freelancers. The number of freelancers should treble if growth goes according to plan.

One of the secrets of their success has been tapping into the knowledge of Singaporean educators, professors and teachers who have spent decades working with children. Two integral members of their team are sports adviser Goh Ek Piang and education adviser Nicholas Tang.

"Sports is a very safe place to fail. You can easily make a mistake and just bounce back. And you learn a lot when you make a mistake. The same concept can be applied to education," Mr Tang said.

Viva Kids works closely with the schools, sitting down with teachers to talk about students' progress and designing individual programmes. Parents are invited to quarterly seminars to learn more about educational techniques and pick up tips to help their children read and write.

This partnership model incorporates the school, the family and the community. As Mr Goh said: "In Africa, they have a saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child. The same applies here."

One of the schools KidsExcel is working with is Evergreen Primary School in Woodlands. The school has around 1,600 students and has its own state-of-the-art performing arts studio.

Principal Ong Lee Choo said: "KidsExcel helps to boost the confidence of those children interested in sports which can then be channelled into other areas. It's another platform for the children to learn and develop."


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