Ota schools turn to innovation to educate Latino children

by Michiko Munakata

Kyodo

One city is taking up the daunting challenge of enabling children of foreign workers to achieve a high level of scholastic ability in the Japanese language.

“Children from abroad are the same as Japanese transfer students,” said a municipal education official in Ota, Gunma Prefecture. “It is the responsibility of public education to foster educated workers.”

The project was initiated by Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu, 63. A number of automobile and other factories are located in the city, about 80 km north of Tokyo, and about 9,000 foreign nationals live there.

Roughly half are Japanese-Brazilians and other Japanese-Latin Americans, and they are increasingly opting to settle permanently in the city. But many of their children drop out of school, discouraged by the language barrier and bullying.

In his speeches, Shimizu has repeatedly said, “The central government has no policy (for teaching children of foreigners), while all scholars do is conduct studies on multiculturalism. These children are victims of such research.”

Chikashi Negishi, a 27-year-old student at the graduate school of Osaka University studying foreign children in Japan, responded to Shimizu’s criticism.

Believing that the findings of his studies have always been returned to those actually involved in teaching foreign students, he immediately packed a sleeping bag and went to Ota.

Most municipalities are at a loss as to how to deal with increasingly internationalized classrooms, and Negishi said he wanted to experiment with new programs that would prod them into action.

As coordinator, he conferred with parents and guardians, education board members and teachers, and a plan began to take shape.

Believing that a good educational environment could not be created under the central government’s regulations, the city applied for permission to create a “special education area,” which was granted in spring 2004.

Armed with this authority, the municipal government recruited seven Japanese-Latin Americans who can speak both Japanese and Portuguese. Two were scouted by Yoshiyuki Onda, 46, a senior board of education member who traveled to Brazil.

Last winter, the city launched a system in which homeroom teachers and teachers tasked with helping children catch up in their Japanese join hands to improve the overall scholastic abilities of their charges.

“Many local governments think instruction in Japanese is unnecessary if children can take part in everyday conversations, but that is a big mistake,” Onda said. “The acquisition of ‘study language’ which is different from living language is imperative to bring children to levels where they understand lessons.”

In addition to the Japanese classes, Principal Narito Ishida, 53, is giving priority on improving communication with parents, who often have to work long hours.

The principal started by explaining to parents that in Japan, children go to school daily, whereas in Latin America it may not be unusual for children to attend less frequently.

The school started holding meetings with parents at a housing complex where many foreigners live. But despite setting the date on Sundays, when they did not work, and distributing handbills in Portuguese, nobody came. Teachers then visited each family to get them to attend the meetings.

A year later, about 30 foreign parents come to the school on Open School Day, and two Latin Americans have become officials of the Parent-Teacher Association.

“It is an undeniable fact that without Japanese scholastic ability, the path to senior high schools or universities, or to acquiring qualifications, will not open up,” Ishida said. “There is no time to lose in educating these children amid the rise in the number of foreigners living in Japan. Japan can no longer turn its back.”