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Kanagawa high school provides strong Japanese language support to foreign students

Foreign students at Sagamihara Seiryo High School in the city of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, are seen on March 15, 2016 taking a class with their teacher, Tomoko Kusano, who is helping them in preparation for a school excursion. (Mainichi)

As the number of foreign students whose first language is not Japanese and who hope to enter high school in Japan continues to rise, one school in particular offers students a notably strong level of support both for entrance examinations and language needs after enrollment.

    During an integrated Japanese language class at Sagamihara Seiryo High School in the city of Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture -- a full-time, credit system-based, comprehensive institution located in the city's Minami Ward -- a total of five first-year foreign students, who are originally from China, the Philippines and Bolivia, took a separate course from the rest of their classmates that featured one-on-one instruction.

    "How would you define 'human kindness'?" the teacher asked the students during class one day in mid-March, prompting one of them to respond, "A gentle heart ... like family."

    The school has plans to take a trip to Hiroshima Prefecture this year in October. According to the foreign students' teacher, Tomoko Kusano, they had recently gathered in the school gymnasium to watch a Japanese language DVD together with Japanese students in conjunction with the upcoming journey. Her subsequent class lesson focused on explaining the content of the video, including the reading of place names and the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary.

    Kusano asked students at the end of the class, "What part (of the trip) are you looking forward to?" as she passed out a printout with various questions aimed at increasing their understanding of the lesson. In response, the students wrote, "I'm looking forward to the food," and "I probably won't want to end up coming back home!"

    During class, Kusano spends time deciphering the meaning of various memos that are handed out to students from the school, as well as explaining Japanese rituals to them such as the children's ceremony "Shichi-Go-San," as well as Oshogatsu, or the Japanese New Year.

    When one student missed school with the explanation that they simply didn't want to come, Kusano explained to them that in Japan, it is necessary to provide the school with a reason for one's absence, such as illness.

    The atmosphere of the classroom is upbeat, and Kusano explains that she feels the need to conduct things a bit differently than with Japanese students. "The phrase that students love hearing the most from me is 'That's wonderful!'," she notes. "They get really motivated when I express myself in a way that Japanese students would probably consider to be overreacting."

    "My goal is not only to teach the students Japanese, but also to explain Japanese culture and customs to them," she adds. "I'd like to help them function here using the Japanese language."

    The five students -- a mix of those with foreign nationality and those who have just recently obtained Japanese nationality -- managed to pass the school's entrance examination after applying for a special prefectural program that is geared toward foreigners living in the prefecture who hope to enter high school.

    Kanagawa Prefecture and the city of Yokohama had admission quotas for a total of 119 foreign students for the April 2016 enrollment at nine full-time schools and one part-time school. Applicants were eligible to sit for the entrance exams if they either had foreign nationality, or had obtained Japanese nationality within the past three years.

    Under the program, the high school entrance examination may be taken by students who have been in Japan for a total of three years or less as of Feb. 1 of the year they take the test. The subjects covered in the examination are Japanese, English, and mathematics, and the explanations for the test include phonetic readings for the Japanese characters. An interview is additionally held.

    At Sagamihara Seiryo High School, foreign students who have entered under the auspices of the special prefectural program take the specialized one-on-one instruction during their first year for almost all major subjects. Each student's progress is tracked individually, and they are returned to the regular class only after it has been determined that they have attained a particular level of ability.

    While the students primarily remain in the classroom together with Japanese students, the specialized personal instruction continues during the second year and onward for specific subjects such as contemporary Japanese language. This is done in a team-teaching style with several teachers -- with more teachers assigned for this purpose as compared to other high schools.

    The school additionally partners with a nonprofit organization to operate the Center for Multicultural Learning & Activities (CEMLA) at the nearby Sagami Women's University. Volunteer students from the university provide study support for students from the high school every Saturday, and professors additionally offer education-related guidance.

    Some of the high school students apparently also take Japanese language lessons at the center, which is additionally open to junior high school students. The center also serves the function of connecting junior high and senior high school students, as some junior high schoolers later ended up entering Sagamihara Seiryo High School due to having attended the center.

    CEMLA Director Yoshifumi Nagai explains, "High school teachers are able to provide up-to-date information (to junior high school students) such as the special prefectural (high school entrance support) program."

    In reality, however, the level of support that exists across the country for this type of initiative -- including both entrance examinations and language support after enrollment -- varies greatly by local bodies and by school.

    According to information compiled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, there are a total of 12 prefectures across the country -- including Kanagawa Prefecture -- that offer a special quota for young foreigners who wish to take public high school entrance examinations.

    Details regarding the way that such support is provided additionally vary by individual prefecture. Some require only interviews and essays, and additionally permit the use of students' native language; while others require testing in Japanese in all three standard subjects.

    The Committee for Localities with a Concentrated Foreigner Population, which is comprised of local bodies and organizations from municipalities with large numbers of foreigners, conducted a survey in the spring of 2012 among teachers responsible for teaching foreign students at public junior high schools in member local bodies -- eight prefectures and 29 municipalities.

    The survey results showed that about 80 percent of the students went on to enter high school, among which some 30 percent were either part-time or correspondence-style institutions. While 54.8 percent of those students who had gone on to high school were at a level whereby they were able to understand classes normally, 45.2 percent of the students displayed problems with reading, writing and/or understanding lessons.

    According to a basic school survey, a total of 76,282 foreign students were enrolled at public schools around the country as of May 1, 2015. Approximately 40 percent of them require Japanese language assistance -- and the number of students with such needs is said to be on the rise.

    The education ministry set up an expert panel this fiscal year on the topic of providing educational support for foreign children. In addition to the provision of entrance examinations and Japanese language instruction in high schools, an additional topic for discussion was that of securing teachers who are able to teach the Japanese language, as well as providing encouragement to potential teachers in this regard. The committee expects to release a report this year in June.

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