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Education trust boosts Chinese skills of Hong Kong ethnic minority pupils

IBET programme educates and empowers children from households of modest means and is the first to directly address lack of support for second-language learners

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 7:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 6:11pm

That ethnic minority educational support is an important, yet slow-to-evolve, agenda item for the Legislative Council and the Education Bureau is a well-known fact. And while there are a handful of organisations lobbying for policy change, none have gone out of their way to tackle the underlying challenges directly. Well, not until a few months ago when the Integrated Brilliant Education Trust (IBET) was set up.

IBET is not a school but a programme to support the local school curriculum. The first ethnic minority education support centre of its kind, it tailors its offerings to meet the individual needs of each student. Parents of students struggling in mainstream schools couldn't be more thrilled with this approach.

"Learning Chinese is difficult at local schools because our children just don't have any additional support," says Dinesh Subba, who has a child going to IBET in Jordan. "The centre has an excellent atmosphere for studying, the fees are very reasonable and the children are learning."

For secondary school students, the IBET advantage is even more marked.

"Already at [a] younger age, the children find that they cannot cope with school studies," says Rajalaxmi, another parent. "As they go to higher classes, it becomes even more difficult. Here, at the Jordan centre, my child can actually get his homework done. He learns… it all works out very nicely."

At enrolment, students are each given an in-depth consultation to understand their particular needs.

"Some simply need a top-up in Chinese, others need to learn the language from scratch. While an entirely different set might need to gain mastery of science concepts or liberal studies terminology in Cantonese," says IBET founder and CEO Geetanjali Dhar. "So we customise the tutoring plan for each child."

But the initial lesson plan only serves as a starting point. Each student's educational strategy is dynamic and evolves continually based on individual progress. Because the students attend every day after school, teachers can change things on a daily basis to keep students engaged and challenged.

Aside from trained teachers, IBET draws on a large pool of volunteers. This allows them to go even more in-depth into the needs for each student. "Before the exams in June, we were literally sitting and doing one-on-one tuitions," says Geetanjali.

It made a huge difference. Parents have found a marked boost to their children's language fluency, results and confidence. In the IBET format, parental buy-in is arguably the most important element. Left to their own devices, students might just show up for class once or twice a week but a gentle nudge from parents changes the whole story.

"The parents make sure their kids arrive on time, that they answer our questions so that we have a very clear understanding as to how they are placed in school that day," says Geetanjali. "It's the parental commitment along with our input that is a critical component for each child's success."

That is why despite its charity status, IBET charges a basic fee of HK$675 per month rather than provide free services.

This highly subsidised fee is extremely important for accountability. It is why parents, largely blue-collar workers who earn between HK$6,000 and HK$15,000 per month, make sure that their children arrive on time and, in many cases, request 10 to 15 minutes extra help, over and beyond the designated class time.

When you break the fee down, it works out to HK$22.50 per day compared to Chinese-language tuition centres that charge from HK$400 to HK$1,500 for once-per-week workshops.

One lingering problem is the bureau has put a cap on the number of students per class. This is due to safety concerns rather than any intent to curb services. But it does make it difficult for a charity like IBET to become self-sustaining.

To overcome this hurdle IBET plans to provide outreach programmes to schools .and is in talks with principals about extending their tutoring model as an after-school programme at their facilities.

But until then, IBET must rely heavily upon donor support. Smaller individual donors as well as larger fundraising organisations are quick to recognise that IBET has taken on an issue that is vital to the success of the ethnic minority community, one that neither the government nor any other organisation is currently addressing.

Language support is a vital part, as without the necessary language competences, ethnic minority members would be hard pressed to find jobs that give them upward social mobility
Regina Ip, legislator

"Ethnic minority education is an area in which our government has been slow to take action and we wish to support a key Commonwealth principle: the importance of tolerance, respect and understanding and the fact that diversity of culture equals strength," says Peter Mann, chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Then there is the question of marketing. Up until now, it has all been word of mouth. IBET staff members venture out to ethnic minority community gatherings to present seminars about the various programmes that IBET has to offer.

Unlike Unison or other organisations that lobby for policy change, IBET works on the premise that while policy change may or may not happen, educational support will make the difference.

"Language support is a vital part, as without the necessary language competences, ethnic minority members would be hard pressed to find jobs that give them upward social mobility, such as jobs in the civil service. Support for IBET would help achieve this goal," says legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

IBET is a pioneer in ethnic minority education. But while word of mouth is spreading, the needs of this demographic are immense. Will one IBET be enough?