SAITAMA – A program launched by the Saitama Prefectural Government for children of impoverished families is drawing much attention as a way to break the link — or even chain — between poverty and low academic achievement.
The program involves retired school teachers, social welfare counselors and university student volunteers, who teach middle school students from families on public welfare, after school, one on one, for free.
“What shall we study today?” Isao Shiratori, a 67-year-old retired high school teacher, asks one of the students after sitting down beside him, in a rented room at a nursing home for the elderly, for a typical tutoring session.
The program, launched in 2010, aims to break the cycle of poverty, in which children of poor families often perform poorly in school or drop out, only to become dependent on public financial support when they become adults due to poor job prospects.
Started at five places, the program grew to 17 locations in fiscal 2012, teaching 670 students.
Now that it has resulted in a rise in high school attendance among children in the program, education and welfare officials from all over Japan are visiting Saitama to study the program.
According to a welfare ministry survey, the child poverty rate in Japan — or share of children aged 17 or younger living in households with annual incomes of less than half the 2009 median national disposable income of ¥2.24 million — stood at 15.7 percent that year. And the number of elementary and junior high school students who need public subsidies for school meals and supplies hit a record high 1.56 million in fiscal 2011.
Shiratori, a native of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, leads the group of people who provide the private instruction.
Throughout his teaching career, Shiratori mostly taught at schools with large numbers of students with low academic achievement. Many came from poor families, sometimes very dysfunctional families, and often the kids had serious behavioral problems. Shiratori was eager to “do something for them.”
After much trial and error, Shiratori made it a routine to talk to each student person to person. “If students feel they are treated fairly as people by adults, they squarely respond to their approaches,” Shiratori says.
Around 2000, he found the number of students quitting high school for economic reasons began growing. The number of households living on an income just enough to make ends meet was rising. And once something happened, like some family member became sick, those families became unable to pay for their children.
Simultaneously, the number of students with extremely low academic achievement became more noticeable.
Concluding that the problem could not be addressed at school alone, Shiratori seven years ago joined a group of teachers providing educational guidance to parents and children of families in need.
But as he felt he should do more, Shiratori volunteered when the prefectural government solicited teachers to work for its free education program for children of families on welfare.
To begin, he visited families on public assistance to recommend their children of junior high school age study under the program — and was shocked by what he saw. These families faced harsher realities than even he expected.
For example, they could not afford to buy a study desk and study guides for their children. The children were often doing the housework, including taking care of younger brothers and sisters, as their parents were sick or working long hours. Many families were single-parent households.
An especially stunning finding: One of every six children of a family on welfare was a truant. “The children were not delinquents, just ordinary youngsters,” Shiratori recalls. “They quietly stayed at home.”
Since early childhood, these children often had no grown-ups to care for them, Shiratori says. They “thoroughly did not know how to rely on adults.”
Many of the students also had academic achievement levels comparable to third- or fourth-graders.
When students attend a free after-school class under the educational program, Shiratori always tells them at the very beginning that the class is “a place where you can say, ‘I don’t understand,’ without worrying about anything if there are things you don’t understand.”
Once children understand what he means, they begin to study and grow, absorbing what they learn like a sponge, Shiratori says.
Shiratori has found his life’s work in siding with children left behind in society.
“Children are unexpectedly strong and resilient,” he says.