By Jane Ng
SECONDARY 3/1 at Shuqun Secondary has 30 students on its register, but there are usually no more than 24 students present on any one day.
Among the six chronically absent teenagers in the Normal (Technical) class are those whose parents have lost control of them, others whose parents think they are in school, and one who stays home to babysit his siblings.
Skipping school is one of the first signs that a student is at risk of dropping out, said the school's head of N(T) stream, Mr Adrian Tan. It has thus deployed a team assigned to track 10 to 12 'potential dropouts' closely.
Even though they make up just 1 per cent of the student population, no effort is spared in getting these youth back to the classroom. Aside from making home visits and calling parents, the school sometimes also provides money for ez-link fare cards, meals and haircuts, or gives them free school uniforms and textbooks, if these are the problems.
A red flag goes up once a student is absent from school three times a week. While the class teacher calls the parents, a clerk notifies the principal and school counsellor. The discipline master also keeps his eye on students who are frequently absent.
A long process of home visits and consultations takes place, to get the child interested in going to school again. To help the academically weak, students in N(T) classes are divided according to their learning abilities and taught separately.
Said principal Adolphus Tan: 'Previously, the weak ones couldn't follow lessons. Imagine being always lost in class. Pitching it at their level leads to greater motivation. It makes catching up with the rest easier.'
Their curriculum also includes non-academic activities which they may be more interested in. These include ice-skating, hip hop, bowling, judo and golf.
The school's efforts seem to have paid off, with the truancy rate dipping from 9.7 per cent last year to the current 8.3 per cent.
Only the most recalcitrant students are dropped from the school enrolment altogether. Even for the one or two a year who do eventually leave, the principal is optimistic that they will return one day.
He said the school re-admits three or four students every year, including some who have dropped out from other schools.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on August 29, 2008.