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The secrets of the most improved school in Malaysia

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On a sunny day in June, the headmaster waited for me in full motocross gear: helmet, goggles, leather gloves, boots. He stood next to a Kawasaki KLX 150 scrambler. Right away, I felt nervous.

The headmaster’s name is Omardani Mohd. Noor, 47, a stocky man with a perpetual smile. He’s in charge of Sekolah Kebangsaan Lemoi, the most improved school in the country. The school, located in the deep jungles of Pahang, could possibly be the most rural school in Peninsular Malaysia.

Encik Omardani addressing the assembly

Encik Omardani addressing the assembly

Four years ago, when Omardani became headmaster of SK Lemoi, not one student passed the benchmark UPSR Year Six exam. This school for Orang Asli kids languished near the bottom of the country’s nearly 7,700 primary schools. But in three consecutive years, the pass rate soared: 8 percent (2010), 28 percent (2011) and 60 percent (2012). In less than three years, SK Lemoi became one of the best Orang Asli schools in the country.

What are the secrets for accelerating improvement in rural schools? And if we can unlock these secrets, can we use it to dramatically improve more schools in the country? These were the questions that drove me – along with my driver, and a video crew – to the town of Ringlet in Cameron Highlands. From here the journey would take another three hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle.

So I felt anxious when the headmaster stared at our vehicle: a black Toyota Fortuner 4WD with city tires. “I’ve never seen a car like yours make it to the school. But I promise you that I can get you at least halfway there,” Omardani said. On that reassuring note, he gunned his dirt bike. Away we went.

Within minutes, the tar road, which wound past vegetable farms, degraded into a rugged cement road. An hour later, the cement road vanished, leaving behind a narrow mud track with large rocks on the side and menacing holes in the middle.

When it rains, the road turns into a river of mud. The primary school teachers who go in and out every week on bikes have faced landslides, falling trees and swollen rivers. Once, a former principal fell off his bike, slid into a gorge and had to be rescued by villagers. It took us two hours to travel the final four kilometers.

So we weren’t expecting much when we arrived. Maybe a school on stilts, with chickens running around.

But what we saw was an actual primary school with well-kept grounds located on a hill slope encircled by primary rainforest. Potted plants and flowering shrubs lined the walkways that led to six classrooms (one for each yeaer), a hall, a small library, a computer room, an office for teachers and a hostel housing fifty children.

SK Lemoi with the Cameron Highlands in the background

SK Lemoi with the Cameron Highlands in the background

Then there’s the high-tech stuff in the middle of the jungle: a hybrid solar-cell generator that provides electricity day and night; an Astro dish for the kids to watch documentaries and cartoons; and a VSAT broadband Internet service, slow and spotty, but nonetheless a lifeline for the twelve Gen Y teachers to connect to the world.

On his first day at school, Omardani told me that all the roads were much worse. There was no high-tech stuff or electricity at night. The primary school offered only three years of education.

“Back then, I gave myself a fifty-fifty chance of success,” said Omardani, who has served under the Ministry of Education for 23 years. “But I saw that the teachers were young and spirited. There were four women. If they could do it, so could I,” he said with a laugh.

Teachers morning briefing

Teachers morning briefing

In several extended interviews with Omardani, I concluded that a major factor to the school’s accelerated success was not due to Omardani himself. It’s thanks largely to a combination of hardware and human resources that converged at the school between 2009 and 2010. Omardani and the first women teachers arrived at that time. A hostel was being built by the Ministry of Education. The solar generator came in a year later. And piped water.

These were life-changers: children who had to walk one or two hours to go to school from the two closest villages could now stay at the hostel during the school semester. The kids ate well and drank milk daily. They were taught physical hygiene. And they could do homework at night. Simple things like that improve grades.

The best school systems in the world, such as Finland’s, are funded based on need, so that the most struggling schools get the most resources. Such a policy would make a big difference for Malaysian schools as well – given that Malaysia’s student performance across all subjects now ranks among the bottom third of 74 countries. Amid the bleak outlook, SK Lemoi has proven that the right resources at the right time will improve student outcomes.

The education director at PEMANDU, Tengku Nurul Azian Shahriman, said that SK Lemoi is a case study of how a strategic plan such as the “School Improvement Programme” (SIP) made a difference. “All schools in the country were ranked for the first time in 2010, and that year, SK Lemoi was ranked as a low-performing Band 7 school,” Azian said.

The SIP was then targeted to improve four key levers: principals, teachers, students and infrastructure. The Ministry of Education focused its support on the lowest ranking schools (Bands 5-7). As a result, SK Lemoi improved its performance every year. In 2012, it catapulted into a Band 4 school. “This is a remarkable achievement, and more so considering that 60% of orang Asli schools are still in Bands 5-7,” Azian said.

The school complex

The school complex

Besides government support, Omardani has proactively raised money from private foundations, politicians and the public. In 2011, Omardani dreamed of building a school hall. He mobilized the teachers and the community to bring in sixty bags of cements by bike, and haul in sacks of sand and rocks from the river. The hall was built by hand. A local politician donated funds for the sound system. Now the school hall is used for PIBG meetings and community events.

But there’s one more thing that’s game-changing. All the resources above are meaningless if you don’t have this secret ingredient: love. It’s not enough to know your students as students; you’ve got to know your students personally, and love them as your children.

Cik Anidah checking one of her students work

Cik Anidah checking one of her students work

I saw love in action when I sat in an extra evening English class taught by Noor Afidah Ahmad, 29, who used the additional time to prep six students for the upcoming UPSR exam. It was obvious she had a personal – not just a professional  – relationship with her students. “If any of you pass in English, I’ll bring you back with me to my hometown in Penang,” Afidah told her students.

A few years ago, Afidah, and her colleague, Hanisah, the first two (and only) women teachers at the school, were instructed to help the Orang Asli girls adjust to life at the newly built hostel. The girls insisted that the hostel was haunted. So Afidah and Hanisah moved in with the girls. The ghosts disappeared.

“Everyday, we had to teach the Year One kids how to bathe,” said Afidah. Last year, Afidah and Hanisah walked that extra mile, literally, when they accompanied two seven-year-old students on a two-hour trek back to Cenan Cerah, an Orang Asli village across the mountains. “It was my first time seeing such deep forest. We were exhausted, but the girls were used to it,” Afidah said. She spent time eating and talking with the villagers who comprised ten families in ten houses. Afidah has also brought a handful of her UPSR back to her hometown in Penang. These were just a few of the numerous examples of how the teachers forged a bond of love with their young charges.

One teacher – motivated by love – can make a huge difference. Since Afidah’s arrival, the student pass rate in English has improved from zero percent to 92 percent. In just three years.

How do you identify such teachers?

Paradoxically, some hardship can be a good thing. The remoteness of the school’s location, the ruggedness of the road, and the scarcity of resources forced everyone to band together. Journeying through the narrow road – so to speak – weeds out teachers who don’t have the resilience to go that extra mile.

One of the students who stays in the hostel gets ready for school

One of the students who stays in the hostel gets ready for school

“What can other schools learn from SK Lemoi?” I asked Omardani. Each time I posed that question, Omardani suggested there was nothing unique he did. However, he later on he said: “I still think other schools can do what I’ve done. What’s most important is this: the teachers here teach with wholehearted love. The teachers see the students are their own children. What’s important is that we care for our teachers, students and community. When there’s love, we can overcome everything else.”

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