Every year, two graffiti walls are adopted by two Normal course classes to decorate as they please. Posing in front of the wall are Normal course students Muhammad Hazim, Sec 2T8; Puteri Qurratu Ain, Sec 2T7; Wong Xin Xian, Sec 3NA1 and Belson Soh, Sec 3NT8.
At Yishun Town Secondary School, there are two dazzling, spray-painted graffiti walls by the canteen, with the class names clearly painted for all to see. On the fourth floor, two toilets sport colourful outer and inner walls, including fish-themed motifs. Walk along the corridor past the Normal (Technical) (N(T)) classes and it becomes obvious that these students were given a free hand in painting and decorating their own classrooms.
You could say these are some of the "privileges" that are accorded only to Normal course students, as part of the school's broader approach to encourage inclusiveness and build a sense of ownership among them. The school's suite of customised initiatives has received much acclaim and this year it received the Lee Hsien Loong Award for Innovations in the Normal Course.
To encourage a sense of ownership and inclusiveness, classes "adopt" different areas in the school, including the toilets.
The award was first given out in 2009 and recognises up to two schools each year whose innovative practices lead to significant benefits in the all-round development for Normal course students. The other award recipient this year is Bendemeer Secondary School.
At Yishun Town Secondary School, there are three guiding principles in its framework for "innovative and differentiated Normal course programmes". Says principal Mr Tan Yee Kan, "We are inclusive, we recognise diverse pathways and choices, and our innovations are always student-centred."
All-round stimulation and support
Customising its programmes to meet specific needs is a big thing here. For example, My LIFE (Learning n Involvement 4 a Fulfilling Experience) for is a programme for N(T) students that aims to create lifelong engaged learners by providing engagement, exposure and enrichment. Students are taught life skills such as like dealing with challenges and making the right kind of friends. They attend excursions to different companies to provide a glimpse of future employment possibilities, and there are also elective courses and activities that run the gamut from nursing or making electronic devices, to self-defence, hip hop and sports, to multimedia classes.
Board games, comfortable seating and a cosy setting provide a conducive environment for students to "hang out" in school. From left: Belson Soh, Sec 3NT8; Principal Mr Tan Yee Kan; Puteri Qurratu Ain, Sec 2T7, Muhammad Hazim, Sec 2T8 and Wong Xin Xian, Sec 3NA1.
N(T) and Normal (Academic) (N(A)) classes have two form teachers per class, as well as two teachers who act as "year masters", following them through from Sec 1 to Sec 4. Alumni who are now working adults have been roped in as "befrienders" to current students. The school also works closely with external agencies to provide step-up counselling where required. These initiatives are part of the holistic framework to meet the overall developmental needs of the students.
This year, the school added an after-school drop-in programme aimed primarily at lower secondary Normal course students, although attendance is open to all. Twice a week, external vendors are engaged to teach new skills like balloon-sculpturing, chocolate-making, cookie- and brownie-baking and even conversational Korean. "We want to create a positive school experience and add to the vibrancy," says Mr Tan.
The Fern Lounge is a favourite gathering place for students. From left: Principal Mr Tan Yee Kan and student councillors Muhammad Hazim, Sec 2T8; Puteri Qurratu Ain, Sec 2T7; Wong Xin Xian, Sec 3NA1 and Belson Soh, Sec 3NT8.
Programmes aside, the school facilities are also designed to "create an inviting environment so that students enjoy being in school, and want to hang out here," explains Mr Tan. The library, for instance, offers a number of seating options that include Japanese-inspired tatami mats on the wooden floor and settee seating.
Another cosy spot in school is the Fern Lounge, an indoor and outdoor sheltered area constructed entirely of wood. Fitted out with a koi pond, hanging potted plants, the daily newspapers, and a number of board games and carrom boards, it's a popular gathering place for all students. The school counsellor's room is also located here.
Developing confidence and leadership
The library is a fusion of Harry Potter's Hogwarts and Japanese culture with all the shelves placed against the walls, and tatami-mat seating.
Another place that has become the students' pride and joy is the rooftop fern garden, which started out as the responsibility of the Sec 4N(T) students. It has evolved into a new school-wide CCA, the Eco Club, whose members now proudly tend to the vegetable garden where they grow cherry tomatoes, beans, peas and fruits. Their activities include researching hydroponic techniques and fertilisers to discover the best ways to grow these crops, and harvesting the fruits of their labour.
In CCAs, students generally compete for positions of responsibility by merit, say student councillors Belson Soh and Wong Xin Xian, who are in the Normal course. "There is no discrimination against Express or Normal course students. We all have to prove that we have the ability to lead," says Sec 3 N(T) student Belson Soh. He credits his own personal accomplishment to the level playing field and his teachers' encouragement. "I was very quiet and shy in Sec 1, and my teachers would spend time after school to talk to me about setting goals and how to achieve them."
The Innovation Room is a learning facility with layout that promotes group work and hands-on learning. Here, the students are discovering the concept of surface area in a Math lesson.
Today, Belson is Staff Sergeant for the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC) and eyeing a place as a school "Leopard". This title marks the pinnacle of student leadership at the school. Specially handpicked, Junior Leopards comprise leaders from the lower secondary levels, while Leopards are leaders from the upper secondary levels.
Sec 3 N(A) student Xin Xian is one such leader. She is the Company Leader in the Girl Guides, the top position in the CCA, and has been a student councillor since Sec 1. "The skills I've developed in my CCA, and from being a Junior Leopard and now a Leopard, can be applied in the classroom. For example, in group work I take the initiative to encourage everyone's participation. I can also lead the group discussions," she says.
Having the board games readily available to students at the Fern Lounge allows the students to demonstrate life skills like responsibility and accountability.
At a broader level, Yishun Town Secondary School has a good track record in terms of the number of transfers from N(T) to N(A) classes, and from N(A) to Express classes. "Based on our N(A) results, we are the only school that has remained in Band 1 for the last seven years," adds Mr Tan. The dropout rate among the N(T) is also low, and in the last five years, four of its former students have received the Lee Kuan Yew Award when they graduated from ITE.
The school also has an annual needs survey, completed by every student, to assess its programmes. The students' responses are carefully scrutinised as the school decides which programmes to retain, refine or remove the following year.
Receiving the Lee Hsien Loong Award caps off a fine year for the school. In January 2010 it was also accorded autonomous school status. "Every child deserves a good education," avers Mr Tan. "Being autonomous means we now have more funds and leeway to introduce even more programmes to stretch our students."