It's an overcast morning at the Holy Carpenter Primary School in the To Kwa Wan section of Hong Kong. Blue-uniformed students are exercising in the playground, surrounded by walls with brightly painted murals celebrating the school's 25th anniversary. On the second-floor balcony, principal Yue Yun Fai, 49, beams as he shows a visitor around. But then Yue looks beyond the playground walls to a public park next door. There, a group of middle-aged men huddle in a circle. "They're gambling," Yue explains. Later, he adds, prostitutes and drug dealers will show up, too.
The proximity of vice to Holy Carpenter School has helped turn Yue into one of Hong Kong's most innovative principals. Students at Yue's school come from working-class families, and many are immigrants from mainland China. They live in the surrounding neighborhood--a gritty section of town far from the glitz that tourists and businesspeople see. Yue is determined that Holy Carpenter, a church-owned but government-financed school, will help integrate these families into a city whose natives are often less than welcoming to their mainland cousins. The son of working-class parents himself, Yue's mission is to give his pupils a top-drawer education, both to prepare them for jobs in Hong Kong's increasingly knowledge-based economy and to keep them off the streets.
In his own way, Yue reflects a broad--and important--movement that is sweeping across much of Asia. Throughout the region, parents, educators, and policymakers are debating how to enliven their ossified school systems and turn out better-qualified employees for companies. In the aftermath of the late-1990s financial crisis, Asians are realizing that education reform is vital if countries are to cope with the more competitive climate created by foreign investment.
In Hong Kong, that movement is taking shape as a drive to broaden students' educational experiences. Hong Kong schools face "a real crisis," says Cheng Kai Ming, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading advocate of educational reform. Parents and employers alike are dissatisfied with student proficiency in English, Chinese, and other subjects. One reason, reform-minded educators believe, is that students spend too much time memorizing data and preparing for standardized tests. It's more important, reformers say, for students to learn to think creatively and begin preparing early on for the high-tech and service jobs Hong Kong's economy has to offer. As a step in this direction, local authorities are eliminating some of the many standardized tests that students must take.
At Holy Carpenter, Yue is broadening his students' education in many ways. Perhaps most important, he provides a place for them to study, relax, and engage in activities after school--safe from the dangers of the area. That's key, because there is no place to study in the tiny apartments where many of the students' families live. Yue allows pupils to stay at school until 6 p.m. during the week and from morning until dinnertime on Saturdays. On a typical day after school, some 150 students are playing basketball, reading in the library, or using the computer rooms.
Yue is also expanding the range of extracurricular activities available to Holy Carpenter's 560 students. Four days a week, students choose from options including choir, knitting, basketball, dancing, badminton, and flower arranging. Most other local schools only offer activities one day per week. "Learning shouldn't be confined to academics only," Yue says. He is reaching out to parents--many of whom make ends meet by holding down several jobs--by inviting them to attend computer classes with their children. "Parents are my clients, too," he says.
Yue is the first to admit that his school, like others in Asia, has a long way to go. Even as he offers his students alternatives to the traditional grind, he is doing what he can to improve their test scores to ensure that they get into decent secondary schools and qualify for higher-level jobs. "In the next few years, the goal is to improve academic performance," he declares. This star educator couldn't be more committed to helping his students thrive--and stay out of harm's way.