Mailiao High Schoool
Education for More than the Top 1%
As a community high school in a fairly remote part of Taiwan, Mailiao High School should be struggling to survive. Instead, it is thriving by helping meeting the diverse needs of all of its students rather than focusing solely on getting them into college.
Education for More than the Top 1%By Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 602 )
A typhoon had just passed through, and Mailiao Township in Yunlin County was enshrouded in layers of fog. If it hadn’t been pouring rain, some might have suspected that particulates had turned Mailiao’s sky into a sea of thick smog.
At “Mailiao, Yunlin County High School” (as it’s formally known), less than a 10-minute drive from the Formosa Plastics Group’s sixth naphtha cracker complex, the colorful LED strip lights highlighting “Multi-Star” program college admission lists posted at the school’s entrance sparkle against the backdrop of the gray skies. More than 10 prominent public universities, including National Taiwan University, National Chung Hsing University and National Chung Cheng University, appear repeatedly on the lists, sending the message that the high school can get its students into “good” universities.
That success stems from the Ministry of Education’s “Multi-Star” initiative, designed to help narrow the odds of high school students outside metropolitan areas getting into prestigious universities.
The only community high school in Yunlin County’s coastal townships, Mailiao High School got its first student into Taiwan’s top-ranked university – National Taiwan University – in 2011, and had others do the same in the following three years and again in 2016. National Chung Hsing University and National Chung Cheng University, which used to be difficult targets for its seniors, are now fixtures on the admission lists.
In 2015 and 2016, Mailiao High School students who applied to universities through the Multi-Star program were admitted at more than an 80 percent rate, ranking second in the county and far exceeding the success rates of the most highly reputed schools in Yunlin – Tou-Liu Senior High School and Hu-Wei Senior High School.
One Table = Student Loyalty
Taiwan’s declining birth rate and exodus of people from rural communities to urban areas has meant declining enrollments for most non-urban high schools in the country, but Mailiao High School has defied the trend.
“It used to be that we could not fill our quota for direct enrollment (from our own junior high school). This year, on the other hand, we’ve had to keep a lid on the number of students accepted,” says Mailiao High School Principal Lin Cheng-hsiung, describing the school’s success at attracting students with a hearty laugh.
He explains to visiting reporters that because of the school’s rather remote location, well-off families in the area often leaned in the past toward sending their children away to the city for their high school education. Though Mailiao High School was a complete secondary school (with both a junior high and high school), it wasn’t enough to keep local students at home.
“Early on, parents did not have much confidence (in us), but they later realized they didn’t have to send their children away,” Lin says.
In recent years, Mailiao High School’s percentage of newly enrolled students directly admitted from its own junior high has exceeded 40 percent, and even the top graduates of nearby junior highs are willing to enroll, reversing the trend toward seeking a “better” education in the city.
“In the past, we had to visit each junior high school to recruit elite students. We don’t have to do that anymore,” says Chang Hsun-hsien, the director of academic affairs who has been with Mailiao High School for 27 years. He acknowledges, however, that only a handful of students from the city enroll in the school because of its remote location.
When Chinese teacher Lin Chao-sheng talks up the “Multi-Star system” in third-year junior high classes every year, his key selling point is a single table that compares the results of students from Tou-Liu Senior High School, Hu-Wei Senior High School, and Mailiao High School.
The numbers show that for students from the three high schools with the same scores on their general scholastic ability test (a standardized college entrance exam), students recommended through the “Multi-Star” program from Mailiao High School had a relatively easier time getting into leading public universities. That table has convinced seniors in junior high to stay in Mailiao for high school.
“I like doing a lot of things, like participating in school clubs or organizing summer camps. Here (at Mailiao High School), I have a lot more time to do things I feel like doing,” says Huang Yu-ting, who will start her final year of high school this fall and is currently preparing for the general scholastic ability test. But even so, her schedule is packed with activities, including wrapping up a pop music club exhibition a day before she spoke with CommonWealth Magazine and leading a summer camp the following week.
She was asked about her school life compared with junior high classmates who chose to attend “elite” high schools and now have to study every day until one or two in the morning.
“If all there is to life is studying, isn’t that pretty awful?” she responds with a brilliant smile.
The Key to Turning Defeat into Victory
There are many activities to choose from at Mailiao High School. When Lin Cheng-hsiung mentions in passing how students have welcomed visitors from Japan and New Zealand, led camping trips or learned Japanese on their own, his eyes cannot hide his pride. But he also attributes the students’ high degree of participation and their strong drive to learn to the “Multi-Star system.”
“More students sticking around means more talent. Many of the activities are led by top-tier students,” Lin says, citing his amazement at their ability for example to teach themselves Japanese. They were able to accompany a principal from a Japanese design school during his visit to the school and deliver a briefing in Japanese, he says, and they have fueled a school-wide drive to learn Japanese that even had Chang Hsun-hsien joining students in taking Japanese proficiency tests.
Student leaders drive participation, taking part in the student council and also in school administration meetings. The students’ new learning habits and attitudes have also spawned a more independent learning culture in the school.
“That’s the key to community high schools turning defeat into victory,” Lin Cheng-hsiung observes. Unlike “elite” high schools, Mailiao High School does not face intense pressure to get all of its students into the best universities, giving it leeway to develop a diversity of activities and distinctive traits.
At the school, upper echelon students can fall ball back on the “Multi-Star system” and feel free enough to participate in student government. Those in the middle or lower echelons participate together in international activities to build their self-confidence and language skills.
Even if the “Multi-Star” program has improved admission rates into good schools and given students more confidence in themselves, however, the school doesn’t necessarily need it.
“The ‘Multi-Star’ program gives students opportunities, but if more students get involved in it but then can’t keep up, it will lose its meaning,” says Lin Chao-sheng.
Lin counseled students for many years on going on to college, but seeing the gap in grades between top-tier and bottom-tier students widen, he realized that the essence of high school education was not the percentage of students on a college track or promoting the “Multi-Star” program to get students into college as the best option for everybody.
“High schools can segment (students). They should not waste every student’s talent,” Lin says, noting that an increasing number of students are choosing to enroll in technical universities.
Mailiao High School has benefited from the “Multi-Star System” but it also understands that the pursuit of high university admission rates do not represent its true mission. Only by developing their own distinctive characteristics can community high schools engender meaningful change.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier