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Alternative schools offer hope for 'drop-outs' in Japan
Suvendrini Kakuchi, Inter Press Service

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Tommy, 17, sports orange hair and wears baggy pants, reasons, he says, why he was told by his middle-school teacher that he is a misfit in a regular Japanese high school.

His Filipino mother, Elizabeth cites another reason her son cannot cope: poor language skills. ''My Japanese husband was working all the time so he could not teach Tommy even when he was in elementary school. So, right from the beginning, we were just looked upon as losers in the public school system,'' she says.

But not all is lost for Tommy and many others who do not seem to fit into conventional learning institutions. Thanks to alternative schools, a growing number of drop-outs from the regular school system are not being deprived of education.

''Tests are the basis for judging a child's intelligence. Children who cannot cope are just ignored by the teachers,'' says Elizabeth.

Tommy is now enrolled in a private ''free school'' which provides a more liberal learning environment, but at the same time follows a curriculum that is approved by education authorities.

What's more, after finishing his term, he can apply for admission in a Japanese university, a development, education specialists say, represents a major change in the Japanese education system.

''Twenty years ago, a child like Tommy, would either have had to give up on a higher education or just force himself to accept the public school system by studying harder. Today Japanese children have a choice and that's a good reform,'' says Prof Naohiro Higuchi, a curriculum specialist at Rissho University.

Last year saw the debut of the Japan Free School Association, an organization set up to coordinate the rapidly growing number of ''free'' schools, so called because of their non-rigid standards. There are 240 schools registered with the group.

The Education Ministry, which now recognizes these learning centers, says that 128,000 children, from 3 to 15 years old, are now enrolled in alternative school systems. After intense lobbying, the government six years ago allowed their graduates to take tests for admission into universities and high schools.

Free schools are commonly referred to as ''shelters'' by academics, children and their parents because these institutions provide a more caring alternative to public schools.

Government statistics show that in 1998, children from elementary and junior high schools who have been absent continuously for 30 days reached a record high of 127,692, or 21.1 percent higher than in the previous year.
Officials said the most common reasons for dropping out were bullying and the students' inability to cope with demanding curricula and the conventional classroom structure.

More recently, another reason that was cited was boredom, which experts say could be the result of children having to deal with too much information.

''The truancy problem is acute,'' says Michifumi Takasaki, head of Takasaki Gakuen, established in 1973. ''These children represent the dark side of Japanese education which ignores the weak.''

Takasaki says his school started out with three students and has grown rapidly during the past decade to reach 50 children, almost all of them escaping from the bullying they bore in their regular schools.

''They seek refuge in this school because the teachers spend time talking to them and being their friends. Japanese schools just force children to study and ignore their mental development,'' he says.

Takasaki says almost all the students in his school go on into regular higher learning institutions. ''We nurture their confidence by going slow on regular subjects such as math and Japanese language and instead allow plenty of time for playing and doing other activities such as art. The slower pace really helps,'' he says.

Another school which calls itself Dream Planet opened its doors in April last year in Okinawa. Its founder, Shirai Tomoko, a law graduate from the prestigious Tokyo University, describes its curriculum as one that ''encourages children to find out who they are''.
'Tokyo Shure', established in 1985 and now has 200 students, does not offer the conventional Japanese curriculum, and instead has subjects like dance, sign language, and listening to lecturers talk about their lives.

Keiko Okuzaki, spokeswoman for the school says teachers do not follow the regular system of grading. Instead, they are more concerned with helping students to relax and learn to smile more.

The wide acceptance of the alternative school concept has given rise to a new type: high schools that offer classes on the Internet, many of which have sprung up recently.
The @mark Learning Inc is a high school that allows students to graduate by studying through the Internet. The school is affiliated with Washington High School in the United States.

The school has 20 new registrants between the ages of 16 and 35 years. Says Takeshi Yanagisawa, a teacher: ''Subjects are chosen by the student who also decides on his own study timetable. We hope to nurture students who value individuality, and away from the group-oriented mentality of the Japanese.''

Another just made its debut last April 1. EikohWeb International School has five students. It is affiliated with the Eikoh Seminar, a prestigious cram school providing tutoring services for students from regular schools who are preparing for entrance examinations to top universities.

''An alternative school follows a philosophy quite the opposite of the cram schools. But we think the concept of individualized learning will be very important in the future,'' says EikohWeb spokesman Yasuo Yanagimachi.

* Suvendrini Kakuchi is a writer for Inter Press Service.

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