How SK Ulu Lubai came out tops

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Story and pic­tures by MENG YEW CHOONG

WHEN SK Ulu Lubai (SKUL) head­mas­ter Jaul Bun­yau in­tro­duced the first “Speak English Mon­day” in his school, it failed mis­er­ably. The rea­son: no one, in­clud­ing the teach­ers, ut­tered a sin­gle word that day, as none wanted to be seen mak­ing the first clumsy move.

“So, the Speak English Day prac­ti­cally be­came Silent Day,” says teacher Mar­lina Zaini, 29, who was posted to the school five years ago. “Be­fore the English rul­ing, teach­ers spoke to the stu­dents in Malay, they an­swered in Iban, and they used Iban with their friends. In fact, it was the teach­ers who ended up learn­ing Iban from the stu­dents.”

That was in 2004, six years af­ter Jaul be­came the head­mas­ter of this re­mote school in the Lim­bang divi­sion, which is the fur­thest divi­sion from Kuch­ing, the state cap­i­tal. To­day, if one were to visit the school, they would be pleas­antly sur­prised to find that all the pupils can greet them con­fi­dently in English, and hold a con­ver­sa­tion with teach­ers and vis­i­tors in English, too.

The trans­for­ma­tion led by Jaul, 48, was slow but steady. “In those early days, stu­dents had to walk around car­ry­ing dic­tio­nar­ies in or­der to com­mu­ni­cate with each other as well as with teach­ers. We were in­structed to ig­nore stu­dents if they spoke to us in any­thing but English,” says Rita Ri­nai Maripa, the school’s se­nior as­sis­tant who is now into her 10th year at the school.

It is en­cour­ag­ing to note that no stu­dent from Ulu Lubai failed English in the Ujian Pen­ca­pa­ian Seko­lah Ren­dah (UPSR) for the past eight years (2003-2010). This trans­for­ma­tion from a com­mu­nity which is largely demetrius Ivan Kim Lee, 11, help­ing preschooler etyson Ipan, 6, with his pho­net­ics. SKuL aims to en­sure that its year One pupils are able to read within a year of en­ter­ing school. mono­lin­gual (Iban) into a bilin­gual and even trilin­gual one, hap­pened largely due to Jaul’s vi­sion of do­ing things dif­fer­ently for a re­mote out­post which houses four Iban long­houses with a com­bined pop­u­la­tion of around 650.

“The school started off with the Speak Malay cam­paign in 2003, just to get ev­ery­one out of their com­fort zone be­fore em­bark­ing on the jour­ney to­wards English as the de facto spo­ken lan­guage six months later,” says Rita.

The chil­dren are as friendly as those you would ex­pect when you ven­ture into the heart­land ar­eas of Malaysia. As a vis­i­tor, I am greeted with cheer­ful cries of “Good morn­ing, sir” wher­ever I go.

The stu­dents are used to vis­i­tors, and are def­i­nitely not cam­era shy. In fact, they are so com­fort­able that they do not ap­pear to be dis­tracted by my pres­ence, though be­ing the lone vis­i­tor dur­ing my four-day visit to the school, I am nat­u­rally the ob­ject of in­ter­est to the older stu­dents, who con­fi­dently but re­spect­fully ask for my name, in English, of course.

It is in­deed a pleas­ant sur­prise to find chil­dren in such a re­mote part of the coun­try con­vers­ing with each other in English with none of the awk­ward­ness or shy­ness of ru­ral school­child­ren in other parts of the coun­try.

The em­pha­sis on English aside, SKUL is ob­sessed with en­sur­ing that its Year One pupils be able to read and count within a year of en­ter­ing school, in line with the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s thrust of 3M (read­ing, writ­ing, and count­ing) for pri­mary school stu­dents.

As part of im­prov­ing its aca­demic achieve­ment, Jaul also went on a mini-cru­sade against un­re­stricted tele­vi­sion watch­ing, even though it is one of the main ways in which ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties keep abreast with cur­rent de­vel­op­ments. But the tele­vi­sion was also a ma­jor dis­trac­tion for the chil­dren from what was truly im­por­tant: home­work and re­vi­sion. “We found that as a re­sult of un­con­trolled tele­vi­sion view­ing, the stu­dents did not do their home­work. The Par­ent-Teacher As­so­ci­a­tion then per­suaded the long­house folks to su­per­vise their chil­dren’s home­work ses­sions first, be­fore ev­ery­one could watch TV.

“Nat­u­rally, there was re­sis­tance in the be­gin­ning, with some par­ents ar­gu­ing that since they had paid for their Astro subscriptions, they should not be de­nied their en­joy­ment. But in the end, ev­ery­one saw the div­i­dends of tight su­per­vi­sion, and they are the ones now help­ing to keep an eye on their chil­dren’s TV view­ing habits.”

In 2006, Jaul was in­tro­duced to the widely-hailed 2005 man­age­ment book, Blue

Ocean Strat­egy, by W. Chan Kim and Re­nee Mauborgne. “The book was quite pricey, but I man­aged to get a copy,” says Jaul, who con­tin­ues to up­date him­self with the lat­est man­age­ment books and ex­horts his teach­ers to read the same.

Dis­till­ing the essence of what he be­lieved would work, Jaul ca­joled and coaxed his staff to over­come the fear of change, as well as to dis­card the men­tal­ity that change is al­ways neg­a­tive. “The erad­i­ca­tion of the 4M cul­ture ( malas,

malu, manja and monyok or lazi­ness, shy­ness, the de­sire to be pam­pered, and a ten­dency to eas­ily give up) also ex­tends to teach­ers, and non-per­form­ing ones do not last long in this school,” says Rita.

In­deed, teach­ers at Ulu Lubai can­not get away sit­ting in their staff room, mop­ing about how iso­lated the place is, or how tough their liv­ing con­di­tions are.

“It has been in­grained in us that we can­not wait for things to hap­pen, or wait for things to fall on our laps from the sky. Some­how, we have to make things hap­pen,” says Stephanie Lim Leng, 26, the youngest teacher in the school who is now eight months into her first post­ing.

With re­stric­tions on tele­vi­sion at home, the cor­re­spond­ing chal­lenge is mak­ing the school so at­trac­tive and con­ducive that the stu­dents will want to spend long hours there, rather than loi­ter around the vil­lage aim­lessly. For that, SKUL teach­ers have to work ex­tra hard in meet­ing the needs of their stu­dents, and thank­fully, the par­ents read­ily throw in their weight to as­sist when­ever pos­si­ble.

SKUL is now reap­ing the har­vest of the teach­ers’ push­ing and prod­ding. Over the past decade, its achieve­ments have been im­pres­sive by any stan­dard. In 2002, the school recorded a 78% pass in the UPSR. The pass­ing rate rose to 80% in 2005, and has been at 100% since 2006.

Jaul’s ef­forts at rais­ing stan­dards is clearly ev­i­dent, even to the stu­dents. What Mis­mona Mang­gai, 13, who scored 5As in the 2010 UPSR, liked about her old school is that the teach­ers are to­tally ded­i­cated to their craft.

“They do not dis­crim­i­nate against chil­dren who hail from the ‘in­te­rior’. The school’s clean and safe environment is also very invit­ing and it is rel­a­tively well equipped. Fur­ther­more, the head­mas­ter is also very de­voted to his stu­dents,” says the bub­bly girl who is now in Form One at SM Sains Labuan.

Buoyed by the im­prove­ments they saw in their chil­dren af­ter at­tend­ing ex­tra classes in school and watch­ing less tele­vi­sion, par­ents now take a keen in­ter­est in the school, with the PTA meet­ings al­ways well-at­tended. The school’s no­tices and an­nounce­ments are dis­played promi­nently on the no­tice boards of

There is a strong read­ing cul­ture at SKUL.

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