Solutions to Taiwan's Education Woes
Communities: A Rhythm of Life for Disadvantaged Kids
Community volunteers are giving children from broken families the support they need to regain a sense of belonging, and the confidence to succeed in life.
Communities: A Rhythm of Life for Disadvantaged KidsBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 395 )
In a lush green betel pepper plantation in the Jhiben area of Taidong County, a teenager picks betel pepper leaves with calloused fingers, back bent and head lowered.
When asked by the teacher, "Why don't you stay for afterschool tutoring?" the teenager only laments with a roll of the eyes, "My dad told me to cut the weeds, and afterwards I need to take care of my younger brothers and sisters."
Due to the decline of the family and economic difficulties, a sizeable number of children in Taiwan have already missed out on crucial learning opportunities.
No one is able to give an exact estimate as to how many children are in such situations. However, the Hand in Hand Program, an afterschool program for struggling elementary and junior high school students designed by the Ministry of Education's Department of Elementary Education, might serve as an indicator. This year a total of 180,000 students will be tutored through the program, more than half of them children from poor families. Department director Pan Wen-chung has realized it is necessary to narrow the gap in students' learning abilities as early as possible during grade school and junior high.
Kuo Wei-fan, who initiated the "Education Priority Areas" program as education minister in 1994, is also concerned that multiple disadvantages will result in new poverty. As Kuo notes, statistics show that more than 1 million children in Taiwan are brought up by a grandparent. A large increase of students with multiple disadvantages such as low income, a dysfunctional family, and insufficient educational resources is not only frustrating for teachers, but might also lead to further rifts in society in the future.
Multiple Disadvantages Cause New Poverty
Following is an account of one day in the life of the children of the greater Jhiben area as witnessed during our investigation.
Children from homes with a complete family structure get up around 6:30 a.m. to take care of their younger siblings. They prepare breakfast and go to school on their own. After school they help in the fields gathering betel pepper leaves, work as waiters and waitresses in restaurants or as maids in hotels. When they return home from their side jobs, they still help with household chores, such as sweeping the floor, washing the dishes and throwing out the garbage.
About 30 percent of children in the greater Jhiben area come from homes with an incomplete family structure, meaning they are raised by a single parent or live with a grandparent. After school, some roam the streets, frequent Internet cafes or temple fairs and do not necessarily get to eat dinner every evening.
A few years ago Chen Chun-lang, general manager of the Jianho Community Development Association in Taidong City, whom everybody affectionately calls "Papa Chen," discovered that quite a number of the community's children had given up on themselves. "Without thinking about it, children who are estranged from their families have formed gangs. Through tattoos and motorbike gangs, they try to find identity and a sense of belonging," he says.
On the one hand, Education Ministry figures indicate that the dropout rate is on the decline, but a closer look behind the scenes shows that there is no reason to be optimistic.
Figures provided by Leo Sin-home Lee, student affairs director at Jhiben Junior High School, show a dropout rate of zero for the past few years. But at the same time the number of students who show up at school only every two or three days has increased.
In an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine, President-elect Ma Ying-jeou stated that he plans to spend more money on remedial instruction and that oversight will become more stringent. But the needs of children with multiple disadvantages are different from those of underperforming students from normal families.
Children with multiple disadvantages need not only support from the education system, but more urgently, the restoration of a functioning family.
So what can be done?
In order to solve the problems of children with multiple disadvantages, schools and communities will have to join forces.
Yi Chin-chun, research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, has done long-term research on Taiwan's youth. She found that young people are most influenced by their friends and family, but are deprived of community influences. Yi believes that communities can have a powerful ability to exert social control and forge emotional bonds. If children have local roots from childhood on and are strongly attached to the community, they are less likely to go astray.
Communities in the greater Jhiben area have tried for many years to serve as an extension and support of school functions, thus managing to bring quite a number of lost children back to the right path.
Sharon Hsiao-Lan Chen, education professor at National Taiwan Normal University, found in a survey that the turnover rate among junior high teachers in remote areas stands at 15.5 percent, almost thrice the average. The rapid turnover in teachers greatly harms student learning.
Likewise, the greater Jhiben area faces an exodus of teachers and principals. Due to this vicious cycle, the functioning of both families and schools is impaired.
Filling the Sense of Emptiness
In a bid to turn things around, Jhiben Junior High School this year applied for NT$1 million from the Education Ministry's Hand in Hand Program to try out a new approach that starkly differs from other junior high schools. Instead of cloistering the kids in school for afterschool programs, the school invited the community, parents and university students to participate in afterschool tutoring.
In Sanhe Community in the mountains of Jhiben, "Grandma" Chung Liang-hsiu is preparing tea, while on the second floor of her quiet home several seventh, eighth and ninth graders silently write or read.
Meanwhile, people like Chung in ten locations across eight communities provide a well-lighted, warm space where students from Jhiben Junior High can study. Nowadays, fewer and fewer children are seen aimlessly roaming the streets.
In fact, community worker "Papa Chen" came up with the same approach eight years ago. He set up a "book house" with books, volunteers and computers as a refuge for children who did not want to go home after school.
One of the house's users, ninth-grader Wang Hsiao-yu, indifferently tells her story. Hsiao-yu's father lives with an "auntie" and hardly ever returns home, so she has been living with her grandmother. At home she does not have a place to study, and she lacks personal affection. But at the book house, she feels the love of Papa Chen and the volunteers, Hsiao-yu explains.
Like Hsiao-yu, every child here can tell a similar story of a broken life and shattered dreams. These broken children have to grow up with wounds caused by rejection from families and schools. Consequently, social workers are well aware that such children first of all need help filling their inner emptiness, and they need love.
Chen recalls that in the past, nine out of ten children would waste their energy on rebelling against the school and their parents because they did not feel loved. "We help them to rid themselves of this rebellious spirit by telling them that their future is in their own hands," Chen says with bright eyes.
Creating a Wholesome Learning Environment
Bringing the children back from the dark streets into a warm, bright home was the first step that the teachers, neighborhood magistrate and community workers took. Their next step was to create a wholesome learning environment for their charges.
Cheng He-yuan got to know the volunteers from Jhiben during a vacation to the area. The 27-year-old was so impressed that he quit his job at Fubon Bank in Taipei to serve as teacher at the book house.
"We aren't a cram school or a tutoring group. We teach kids how to grow up in a wholesome way, including everyday life issues, eating habits, sports, and self-motivated learning," Chen explains as several children climb on his back and tug at his legs. With a bunch of kids clinging to him, Chen seems to be everyone's dad or big brother.
Jhiben Junior High began to work together with the local community under the Hand in Hand Program in February this year. Originally, the project was supposed to provide for 60 children, but as the school's student affairs director Leo Lee discovered during his rounds at the various study points, more than 100 students have already joined. A little more than a month into the program, Lee and academic affairs director Liu Chen-tsu began to feel that the children were willing to sit down and study. Kids who did not like to go to school before no longer rebelled, a surprising development that brought a happy smile to the school officials' usually stern faces.
With the community serving as a big substitute family, the children are no longer drifters. Next, the volunteers want to find opportunities to give the children a purpose in life.
To realize that objective they are enlisting help from the outside. The community is searching for teachers to give guitar lessons to kids with an interest in music. They hope to find foreigners to practice English with the students, and the school is looking for funding to set up a sports team... As long as the children say they are interested in something, the volunteers will do their best to find the necessary resources to give them a new focus in life.
Once the children recover their self-confidence, other desirable traits such as respect for parents, friendliness and leadership capabilities are also restored. It is a process of stopping the pain, healing the wounds and making a new start.
The Hand in Hand Program was originally designed to improve students' academic attainment and to raise their percentile rank in the Basic Competency Test for junior high school students, but communities in the greater Jhiben area have their sights set higher, wanting to give new hope to marginalized students.
However, if this initiative is to be made sustainable, the government needs to stretch out a helping hand and provide funding. Community forces must be included, and authorities need to move beyond the narrow concept of only improving schools and student performance.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 社區大家庭 找回弱勢孩子生命的節奏