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The secrets of the most improved school in Malaysia

Posted: 31 Jul 2013 12:58 PM PDT 

(Business Circle) -  It's not enough to know your students as students; you've got to know your students personally, and love them as your children.

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.

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