A public high school in Kanagawa Prefecture is providing a safety net to foreign students who face difficulties in their day-to-day lives, helping them with everything from the Japanese language to addressing family issues and preparing them for self-sufficiency.

Sagami Koyokan High School, in the city of Zama about 40 km southwest of Tokyo, has a unique entrance exam system, provides Japanese classes of various levels, uses a system of team teaching and employs a coordinator to help students from overseas or of foreign descent enroll and better understand classes in Japanese.

Foreign students or students with foreign backgrounds make up some 20 percent of a student body that totals more than 1,000.

The origins and backgrounds of students at Sagami Koyokan can be traced to more than a dozen countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Peru and Brazil, and the number of those with roots in South Asian nations such as Nepal and Sri Lanka has been on the rise recently, according to deputy head Kumiko Sakakibara.

“I find it easier to ask questions in this (special Japanese) class with fewer students because I feel nervous in a large classroom,” said 19-year-old Sri Lankan student Adhil.

One of his classmates, Manalo Dominic Piedad, 18, from the Philippines, said: “I came to understand more (in Japanese) compared to before. At this school, I made a lot of friends from various countries.”

He has passed the N3 level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, which measures ability to understand the language in everyday situations.

They were among five young people enrolled in February in a Japanese communications class for third-year students. Teaching duties in the class are shared by two teachers.

Fellow student Huynh Thi Ai Nhi, 18, from Vietnam, speaks Japanese fluently when attending the dedicated class for foreigners but struggles to comprehend kanji when in other subject-specific classes or when taking exams.

“Although Japanese syllabaries are attached to Chinese characters at school, indicating how to pronounce them (using the hiragana and katakana writing systems), I sometimes cannot understand the meaning of the kanji,” Ai Nhi said.

She added that she finds technical terms and honorific expressions for use in her part-time work especially difficult to learn.

Established in 2010, Sagami Koyokan accommodates foreign students, students with foreign backgrounds and Japanese students, some of whom have had truancy and other troubles in the past. It offers half-day courses in the morning or afternoon. Between the two periods, some students attend special Japanese lessons while others take part in extracurricular activities.

Students typically take four years to graduate, unlike at other schools that offer three-year, full-day tracks. Many Sagami Koyokan students need to work part-time jobs while studying, according to Sakakibara.

It is one of 13 prefectural high schools in Kanagawa that conduct special entrance exams for foreign students or Japanese nationals of foreign descent who have been in Japan three years or less. Text syllabaries are attached to exam questions and simple Japanese is used by interviewers, according to the board of education.

Similarly, those who came to Japan within the past six years can also qualify for special consideration in Kanagawa when taking a public high school entrance exam alongside Japanese students, including giving them additional time.

Sakakibara said that because the prefecture allows all applicants — no matter how they perform on the special exam for non-Japanese —to enroll as long as the school-by-school quota is not filled, some past students could not initially speak Japanese at all.

Regardless of the exam they have passed, about 20 new students each school year need special Japanese-language support.

In total, some 80 students across the school’s four grades receive assistance in small groups to help them negotiate classes conducted in Japanese, explained Mariko Saya, the school’s multicultural education coordinator.

Saya, who is dispatched from the Yokohama-based nonprofit group Multicultural Education Network Kanagawa and doubles as a Japanese-language teacher at Sagami Koyokan, serves as a bridge between students of foreign descent and teachers.

“As coordinator, I try to share information on each student with homeroom and other teachers so we can keep an eye on them and prevent them from becoming alienated,” she said.

To enhance awareness of teachers, some of whom had no prior contact with students from overseas, Saya has organized lectures on such topics as Muslim culture and invited foreign graduates of the school to provide feedback that can help teachers understand challenges from the student’s perspective.

Despite the support offered at Sagami Koyokan, about half of all students — both Japanese and foreign — fail to graduate. In the past, some students have simply disappeared, returning to their home country without notifying the school, Sakakibara said.

“Most of the foreign students did not choose to come to Japan. We try to motivate them to study and keep them from dropping out by providing role models,” Saya said.

The coordinator, one of 28 dispatched to 22 Kanagawa public high schools by ME-net, points out that many foreign students face problems they can’t solve on their own. Some, for instance, come from low-income families or face restrictions on their ability to work due to their visa status.

Some of these students are forced to forgo their studies when family members ask them to prioritize part-time jobs or to care for younger siblings, Saya said.

“Many students hold dependent visas that allow them to work for 28 hours per week only. Switching their visa status would cost money and they often end up landing an unstable part-time job,” she said. “In Japan, it is also difficult to find a decent job if you drop out of high school.”

Education ministry data show that the number of children across the nation — including Japanese and foreign nationals alike — in need of support to learn the Japanese language jumped 1.7 times in the 10 years to 2016, reaching 43,947, a trend in line with the increase in foreign workers coming to Japan with their families.

Among high school students, those in need of Japanese-language support marked a 2.6-fold jump over a decade. In the 2017 academic year, the dropout rate for such children stood at 9.61 percent, compared with 1.27 percent for all students in the 2016 school year.

With more foreign workers expected to come to Japan following the launch of a new visa program in April, Saya expressed concern that the talent and promise of many more foreign students could be “crushed” without increased support.

To deal with the situation, the education ministry has been developing a model program to nurture teachers in charge of educating foreign students and will boost support for such high school students, including career guidance, starting in the coming fiscal year.

In line with this move, Aichi University of Education, a government-run college for teachers, has made it mandatory for about 900 sophomores to take a course on guiding foreign students. Aichi Prefecture has the most students in need of Japanese-language support.

It is a much-needed start that will provide benefits for people arriving in Japan and for the nation as it attempts to overcome its long-standing demographic problems.

“High schools could be the children’s last safety net,” Saya said. “More Japanese-language teachers are needed and teachers of other subjects should also be made familiar with Japanese-language education.”

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