Amid the growing awareness of the increasing levels of truancy and drop-outs among Japanese junior high and high schools, the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) quietly started a new project involving pilot schools across the country. As the second high school chosen in Ibaraki Prefecture to be part of this project, Yuki Flex School not only provides an alternative to the often rigid and oppressive regular system, it also gives students a chance to explore different paths in education and self-awareness.
The main concept of the new variety of high school was based on the idea of flexibility (hence ‘flex school’), dividing the day into the three equal sections of morning, afternoon, and evening, and allowing students to pick their preferred section. For students who just can’t do mornings, the afternoon classes are perfect; for those who work during the day to support themselves or their family, evenings work best. Not to mention, it is structured so that high school is completed in four years, with the option of speeding up to the usual three; by turning the classes into a credit-based system the school made it possible for students to go at a slower pace. In fact, it is even possible to start with the three year plan and switch over to four mid-way through, providing a much more relaxed environment.
But beyond just the time of day, students can also choose more of their preferred subjects, from a varied pool that includes yoga, dance, sign language, kimono-wearing, haiku, and pottery. All of the teachers for these elective classes come from outside the school; some are university professors, some are local artists, some are simply fellow residents. This is another part of the school’s special mandate, to make the school open to the community and attempt to create deeper ties between the students and other residents.
One of the more interesting classes is the so-called ‘psychology’ course; contrary to what you might assume, this is not a review of the great thinkers of our time or different theories. Rather, this class serves to help students develop more self-awareness and coping mechanisms, including techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises. The reason a course like this was introduced, and remains popular, is that, according to the principal, Mr. Matsumoto, many of the current students stopped regularly attending school during junior high. In fact, it was in response to these needs of the community, specifically the lack of accommodation and acceptance in regular schools, that Yuki Flex School was formed.
However, this is not a Free School, such as the one that exists in Tsukuba. When I inquired as to the difference Mr. Matsumoto pointed out that the Free School system often offers coursework online or through the tv, making attendance no longer mandatory. In comparison, Yuki Flex School does not offer distance education and requires attendance to complete the credit-based units for graduation. Another difference is the dress code; my visit to a Free School was a pleasant surprise, with students arrayed in all kinds of different, personalized clothing. Meanwhile, Yuki Flex School has a designated uniform that must be worn by the students at all times. So a Flex School operates in the middle-ground between the regular school system and the Free School system, providing yet another option for students.
In fact, Yuki Flex School is so popular, despite its class-size restrictions to maintain more interaction between students and teachers, that there are students attending from places as distant as Gunma! It is easy to see why, as it provides all the support necessary to get into university or college while still giving students more control and freedom in their lives.
I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the school as part of a group that included three guests from the Chinese city of Xi’an who were observing Yuki’s municipal functions with the help of a local member of parliament. We toured an art class, where students were working on recreating famous paintings, a dance class, where the students were trying to increase their flexibility, and finally the kimono class. Here the students learn the traditional Japanese method of putting on and wearing a full kimono, including how to make the different knots in the sash that ties it. It was amazing to see the students hard at work learning how to make a ‘stuffed sparrow’ style bow, each dressed in a modestly-patterned silk kimono. The teacher was even kind enough to let us guests try one on ourselves, giving us a better sense of the true difficulty involved in not only getting the kimono on but in making it look the way it should. The students I talked to said they really enjoyed this class and felt it taught them something useful they couldn’t get at any other school, and seemed quite invested in doing their best.
Despite having only been around for four years, and finally reaching the curriculum goals only in the last year, Yuki Flex School has proved to be popular not only with students and the local community, but with other schools and prefectures as well. As part of the future of Japan’s secondary education system, Yuki Flex School appears to be a step in the right direction; one that understands inclusion and variation are necessary for all to flourish.
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