Satellite schools strive to keep evacuee kids

Student ranks fall but many try to keep affiliation with Fukushima

Kyodo

Tatsuma Hangai will be entering his third year at Namie High School in April, but he has never taken a class at the home campus in Fukushima Prefecture.

The 17-year-old is one of more than 1,000 students at eight high schools in the prefecture who evacuated because of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant that started in March 2011. They go to school at 11 satellite campuses set up away from their radiation-tainted hometowns.

Given the 40-year timeline for decommissioning the plant, the schools face an uncertain future amid a sharp drop in enrollment.

Namie High’s main campus is in an evacuation zone in the town. It resumed classes in May 2011 by using spare classrooms at two high schools in the cities of Nihommatsu and Iwaki, where many of the students took refuge.

The two halves were reunited last spring when the satellite campus was set up in prefabricated buildings built on the grounds of Motomiya High School out west in nearby Motomiya.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, struck on the day Hangai was graduating from junior high school. After fleeing to Minamisoma, then to Satte, Saitama Prefecture, and other places, the teen and his third-generation family of eight ended up in the city of Fukushima.

Asked why he continues to attend Namie High’s satellite campus instead of a new school, Hangai said graduating there would allow him to “be able to be involved in the reconstruction of our hometown.”

Since his grandparents and mother used to run a barber shop in Namie, Hangai is determined to continue the tradition, and the school links him to his hometown.

The family has yet to come to a consensus on whether to return to Namie, but Hangai said his dream is to reopen the barber shop there as a family business some day.

Namie High had about 300 students before 3/11, but the number continues to fall amid difficulty commuting to the satellite campus. The number of prospective students is also declining. Last year’s graduating class took away 47 students, leaving the school with only 22 second-year students and seven first-year students. The number of new students next month is also expected to be lower than the school’s quota of 40.

Although the school may have shrunk, Hangai is staying positive.

“This enabled us to all become good friends and I can also ask questions easily if there’s something I don’t understand in class,” he said.

School life has also been fulfilling. As a member of the new extracurricular activity club aimed at fostering people who can contribute to Namie’s reconstruction, Hangai is gaining firsthand business experience serving customers at a luxury hotel and submitting project proposals to a leading cosmetics company.

Hangai does have his concerns.

“I am worried whether this school is going to continue,” he said.

According to the Fukushima Prefecture’s board of education, there were a total of 1,086 students at the 11 satellite campuses for the school year ending in March. This includes 57 in the Japan Football Association’s JFA Academy Fukushima, who are attending class in Tomioka High’s satellite campus in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture. For the new school year in April, enrollment is expected to drop by another 200.

While the satellite campuses are set to run for another year, what the prefecture will do with them after April 2014 remains unclear.

“We’ll have to see whether the students preparing for high school entrance exams next year — students who would’ve spent all three years of junior high school as evacuees — will want to apply to these ‘hometown’ schools,” a board official said.