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Staff writer In an innovative attempt to make public schools more competitive, Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward has introduced a program through which parents can choose their children’s elementary school from several in their area. The new program, which begins in April, will allow children who are ready to enter public elementary school to go to any of eight to 12 schools within a designated bloc. Shinagawa’s 40 schools are divided into four blocs. Under the current system, parents can only send their children to the school selected for them by the board of education, which assigns a school according to the family’s place of residence. Requests to change schools must be backed by specific reasons, but the final decision rests with the board. In line with a government proposal two years ago to make the school district system more flexible, Shinagawa came up with the nation’s first systematic approach to offer parents a free choice among a number of schools. Masayasu Konno, principal of Daini Enzan Elementary School, said the new program was introduced to offer parents more opportunities to take the initiative on their children’s education and raise overall levels of public schools by introducing competition among them. “I hope that the new program will raise teachers’ standards, now that they will be seen and chosen by parents,” he said. To provide parents with firsthand information, all 40 schools held special “open school” days for parents to attend classes and events between mid-November and early December, with the duration of the visiting period ranging from one day to one week at different schools. Rie Shoji, a 38-year-old mother who visited Daini Enzan Elementary School, said it is hard to make a decision because she lives close to the border between two school districts. “My son seems to like this school (Daini Enzan) better because it has a larger schoolyard. I want to send him to a place where there is no bullying, but it’s hard to see what it’s really like at different schools,” she said. A 26-year-old mother said she is thinking of sending her daughter to neighboring Enzan Elementary School because all of her daughter’s friends from kindergarten will go there, although she falls under the Daini Enzan school district. Many parents cite a connection with kindergarten friends or living near a border as the main reasons for choosing schools outside their districts, while some look for a school with a good reputation, according to Konno, who also heads a group of Shinagawa elementary school principals. Konno said the good thing about the new program is that parents do not have to specify a reason for sending their children to a school outside their district when registering for enrollment, and that their choice is respected without question. The Shinagawa Municipal Board of Education closed enrollment registration Nov. 30. While the new system is generally welcomed by parents, there are worries that popular schools will get too many students and some small schools might face the risk of closure. The result of enrollment registration released earlier this week shows that at Oi Daiichi Elementary School — the ward’s biggest school, with 608 pupils — 48 out of the 107 pupils who will join next April will come from outside its school district. On the other hand, at Yashio Kita Elementary School, of the 25 children in its district, 12 have chosen to register at schools outside the zone, leaving total enrollment for the new year at just 13. Takayuki Kubota, chief of the school affairs section at the Shinagawa Board of Education, said the figures are “not surprising at all.” Demand from parents for their children to attend a school other than the designated one has been on a rise, with 190 children in the ward already attending schools outside their district this year as a result of parents’ requests, compared with 100 in 1993, Kubota said. Oi Daiichi’s case simply reflects this trend, he said, as the school already had 20 children from outside its district out of the 89 who enrolled this year. If a school was driven into a merger or forced to shut down because of a decline in enrollment, Kubota said, “We have to see it as a result of parents’ choice.” But he added that closures are unlikely because there are parents who believe small schools have advantages. Hideo Takeuchi, principal of Daini Hino Elementary School, the smallest school in the ward with only 83 children, said his school’s advantage is that teachers can pay close attention to individual students. “All of the children, from the first-graders to the sixth-graders, are very close at our school. We have no problem with bullying or truancy,” he said. Schools are trying to emphasize the differences in their education programs in order to avoid an overconcentration of students in some schools. Samehama Elementary School’s open house was held Dec. 4, coinciding with the annual “mochitsuki” (rice-cake making) festival. Principal Nobuko Shimamura said the school wants to promote its close ties with the people in the area at this kind of event. “People here have a deep affection for this school, which has a history going back 123 years,” she said. “Some families have sent children to Samehama through five generations.” Samehama also emphasizes its original programs, such as environmental studies, to make it stand out from other schools, Shimamura said. Some schools are trying to promote sports or arts, while others are taking up computer studies or foreign languages. However, Konno, of Daini Enzan, said the scope of what each school can achieve is limited because principals of public schools do not have authority over budget or personnel. “We can’t do anything about equipment and choice of teachers,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the education board to change that part for us to make a real difference.” Another important part of making the school-choice program successful is the provision of accurate school information to parents in a timely and clear manner, said Masami Uematsu, principal of Togoshi Elementary School. “We don’t want rumors overtaking the true picture of our schools,” she said. Shinagawa is considering applying the new school-choice program to students who already attend elementary schools as well as to new and enrolled junior high school students. The city of Hino, in western Tokyo, has announced plans to introduce a similar school-choice program for students entering public elementary and junior high schools in April 2001.

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