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High Poverty, High Achievement in Hong Kong

In my first dispatch from Hong Kong in this series, I described the Diocesan Boys School: low beautiful colonial buildings on a leafy campus scattered across acres of land on a priceless Hong Kong hilltop, the lovely harmonies of English choral music being practiced by the school's choir, which has sung at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; the sons of Hong Kong's elite acquiring the skills they would need as the next generation of the city's leaders.

Ho Yu College and Primary School is not like that. Located far from the city center on Landau Island, in an area that has long been home to Hong Kong's poor, Ho Yu is concrete and functional, located on a plot of land that would fit into a tiny corner of the DBS campus. The principal, Ms. Lee Suet Ying, came here about 15 years ago to find a school controlled by street gangs, the faculty cowed, their morale broken, and the students frightened and angry at a world that seemed to have abandoned them.  Almost all who made it to graduation became truck and taxi drivers, got factory jobs, or cooked, washed dishes and served customers in the countless roadside food stalls and shops.

We arrived a little after 8:00 am.  Ms. Lee was standing in the schoolyard with other faculty members, greeting the students.  On my first trip to China years ago, as often as not I would see schools begin with an overbearing pep talk, delivered in the schoolyard by the principal to students who would then turn to calisthenics, all lined up in their uniforms, military style, loudspeakers blaring out marching music.  This was not like that at all.  Ho Yu is a "through-train" college and primary school, meaning that it enrolls students from grades one through twelve.  We watched the older students shooting basketballs in small groups and the younger ones racing up to Ms. Lee and the other faculty members, grinning, looking for a hug and laughing when they got it, folding themselves into Ms. Lee's skirts, her hand curling around their faces in a caress that was returned in their eyes. 

Ms. Lee had started out as a high school history teacher and then became a high school principal, at a school run under the auspices of a group that embraced the teaching of three religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.  And then they asked her to add a primary school to her high school, to become the principal of this through-train school.

The students' parents were often illiterate, their homes violent, and their future bleak.  Many of the students were afraid to come to the school because of the unchecked power of the Triad gangs.  Expecting little from their teachers, they would sit in class sullen and unresponsive, hardly learning.

Her first task, Ms. Lee said, was not to educate her students&mash;that would come later—but to get the students to trust the faculty and staff.  Her top priority was to find staff who had both the desire and the skill to reach out to the students, take a personal interest in them, and help them address the problems they faced in their daily lives.  They took the kids on trips to places they had never been before, took an interest in their personal lives, tried to run interference for them when they got in trouble, got help for them when they could. They were there for these young people day and night, and in the process earned their trust. 

It was a very slow process.  It took, Ms. Lee said, five years.  Which is to say that Ms. Lee paid very little attention to academic achievement for five years after becoming principal of this school.  She knew that she would not be able to lift the academic performance of her flock until the school had become a refuge from a very difficult world and the faculty had become people with whom the students could feel safe and, indeed, loved.  The students would not have confidence in themselves and believe they had a future worth investing in until they had adults in their lives who believed in them. 

To this day, the faculty is there for the students, whatever it takes.  The gates open at 8:00 am.  Classes end at 4:30 pm and that's when the sports and extracurricular programs begin.  Most students and teachers are gone by 6:00 pm.  But many stay, partly because they are so deeply engaged in what they are doing.  Ms. Lee recently tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm.  Many teachers objected, saying that their students had nowhere else to do their homework and, in many cases, there was no one home and they wanted to make sure their students were safe.  But the teachers, I said, must have their own families to go home to.  Oh, said Ms. Lee, it is the younger teachers who do not yet have kids of their own who are objecting to closing the school at 8:30 pm.

But when the time came, Ms. Lee was all business.  I asked her whether her teachers specialized in math and science or language and social studies in the primary grades, as is so often the case in Asian schools.  Ms. Lee looked at me with eyes of steely determination. All my teachers, she said, have majored in the one or two subjects that they teach.  Even the primary school level teachers specialize.   You cannot, she said, really teach a subject well, even at the primary school level, unless you have studied it hard at the graduate level. When students are having trouble, she said, the teachers must be able to make accurate guesses as to the nature of the student's misunderstandings.  That requires deep understanding of the subject. 

We asked Ms. Lee how she selected her staff.  She turned to two other faculty members in the room.  Both vice-principals, they had been with her for fifteen years.  One had served at the Diocesan Boys School, the prestigious Hong Kong high school referred to earlier, before coming to this school.  We asked why she had come to Ho Yu.  Because, she said, these students needed me more.  We asked Ms. Lee why she picked her.  Because of her smile, she said.  She explained that her vice-principal had met all her academic standards, which were very high, standards on which she would not bend.  But that was not enough.  She was determined to have teachers who could earn the trust of the students.  She wanted she said, "teachers who could bring sunshine into the lives of these students."  The capacity to bring sunshine was just as important as deep knowledge of the subjects they would teach.  She wanted teachers who would love their students and do whatever was necessary to help them succeed.

We took a tour of the school.  The last classroom we visited was its pride and joy, a biotechnology lab.  A few years ago, a wealthy businessman and scientist had donated a sophisticated biotechnology laboratory, focused on genetic research, to a local university.  He had included in his gift equipment that would enable the university to engage school children in the study of biotechnology and genetics, but, as it turned out, the university had no interest in educating the wider community.  Ms. Lee, ever alert, seized the opportunity.  The donor was delighted.  Ms. Lee worked with him and with her teachers to develop a curriculum, materials and training for the teachers.

The students were off-the-wall engaged. When we walked in, we found not only a very impressive array of equipment, but carefully framed materials that did a wonderful job of explaining in plain English some rather complex topics in technology and biology. The whole instructional system was project-based.  Ms. Lee explained that access to this kind of equipment gave the students the feeling that the sky was the limit for them if they were willing to put in the hard work needed to gain the necessary skills; they were valued not just by the staff of the school, but by the wider community. 

Then Ms. Lee took us outside to a paved parking space marked off by carefully painted yellow lines.  Parked with perfect geometric accuracy within those lines was a bus.  She explained that they had worked with that donor (who had paid for it all) to custom design every facet of that bus apart from the frame and its Volvo power train.  It was gorgeous.  Inside was a mobile laboratory, outfitted to enable everyone from the very young to the very old to learn about biotechnology, not just by reading about it or watching videos, although they were certainly there and very well done, but to do it. It was bit like a modern crime lab, a place where the visitor could take a tissue sample and analyze the DNA.  It was, we thought, impossible to visit this bus and not walk away excited about biotechnology, what it is, how it works, and what it could accomplish.  The bus goes all over Hong Kong, a roving educational facility, realizing the donor's dream.  

Today, Ho Yu College and Primary School sends 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education.  There are, of course, schools in the United States with dedicated staffs who have taken their school from the ranks of poor performers to much higher performance.  But this school visit made me think.  Would our accountability systems tolerate a principal who spent five years building trust in her teachers before turning to academic performance?  How many principals of our elementary schools would insist that all teachers specialize and all have bachelors' degrees in the subjects they teach?  How many of our elementary school faculties would get upset if the principal tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm?  How many local business owners would equip a school in the worst section of town with a real biotechnology lab?  How many of our schools serving almost entirely free and reduced lunch students are sending 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education? 

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