Lamma kindergarten heads outdoors to teach children through experience

Learning through experience, not just books, is one of the goals of a new kindergarten on Lamma

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 10:40am

It's a sunny morning in the village of Sok Kwu Wan on Lamma Island and kindergarten principal Orlando Salazar and a teaching assistant are taking preschool children to the park. On the way, they meet a group of volunteers cleaning up the beach. Salazar seizes on the chance to teach the children a life lesson.

"Do you know what they're doing?" Salazar asks. "They're here to help clean the beach and make it more beautiful. Do you want to give them a hand?"

His pupils eagerly pitch in.

We want to bring affordable education to the children who need it
Orlando Salazar, teacher

In challenging the children to participate, Salazar drives straight to the heart of the guiding philosophy at Brighton Academy, a non-profit kindergarten that started its first classes in August.

"At Brighton Academy, we believe that children build character and discover their potential by applying what they learn in the classroom to life experiences in the real world. We want them to be active participants in their education," he says.

Salazar's job at Brighton Academy is voluntary. A full-time teacher at the American International School, he and venture capitalist Adam Bornstein, set up the Lamma kindergarten to provide a more balanced approach to learning, particularly to families in need.

At the moment, they just run lessons on Saturday from 9am to 3pm for 10 pupils. The school offers a pick-up and drop-off service at Central Pier for children who don't live on the island.

Despite its modest start, the school has big dreams. It eschews the top-down approach of teaching common in most Hong Kong schools and concerns itself with the psychological and social needs of children as well as their academic development. The academy encourages creativity and communication in the classroom, and exposes children to nature.

"When we were walking down the beach, a student happily told me she saw three butterflies. It's a beautiful environment here, where they can stop and smell the roses. You can't do that in Wan Chai," says Salazar.

Bornstein believes the academy will offer opportunities that other kindergartens in Hong Kong cannot. In a letter to the South China Morning Post in April, he said pupils would benefit from smaller classroom sizes - classes are capped at 12 - "on an island free from vehicles and noise pollution, rich in natural assets, and which encourages creative thinking and exploration".

The academy says its curriculum is unique. Bornstein describes it as "going native", a process of allowing students to gravitate towards a specific approach to learning rather than having the curriculum dictated to them.

"Brighton would be the first kindergarten in Hong Kong to use eight educational approaches so that no child is left behind," Salazar explains.

The eight styles are: International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme; Montessori; developmentally appropriate practice; Multiple Intelligence; HighScope; the Reggio Emilia Approach; Early Years Foundation Stage and Special Education Needs.

Salazar says only three out of about 500 kindergartens in the city have adopted two methods; the rest restrict their teaching to one.

He has first-hand experience in using different approaches to help students study based on their own learning style.

"It's not fair for [schools and teachers] to limit our children to learning through one single approach. We should cater for them according to their needs."

Parents who send their children to Brighton are impressed with its philosophy.

"I feel safe putting my son in here because I know what kind of experience he's going to get," says Alisa Lunty, a single mother living in Yung Shue Wan, in Lamma's north. A kindergarten teacher herself, Lunty feels a typical Hong Kong education puts too much emphasis on academic results.

"The education system is going out of control. It's demanding a lot from children as young as two years old. What they need is to be able to enjoy themselves and play. My son is only five and I don't want him to stop enjoying learning at this young age. He still has many more years to learn."

Lunty has worked with Salazar before and seen how he interacts with students in the classroom.

"His world view allows him to expose children to different cultures and people with respect. In his classroom, it's not about worksheets but learning through doing and exploring. That's what I want for my son, to learn to be creative and to use different ways to come up with a solution."

Odessa Casabuena is another grateful parent. She and her husband are domestic helpers living in Sok Kwu Wan. Brighton is the first school they have sent their three-year-old son to and they don't pay fees. The academy charges fees - or doesn't - based on the parents' ability to pay.

"With our salaries, we can't afford a good education for him. Our work schedule doesn't allow us to take him to the school off the island. Here, he learns to read and socialises with other kids. He is so happy that sometimes he doesn't want to come home with us," she says.

The school's attitude to education has led to attempts to build connections to organisations such as Mother's Choice, which supports teenage mothers and cares for children awaiting adoption. They have also received positive responses from PathFinders, a support group for migrant families, and the Rainbow Project, a charity for autistic children.

Meanwhile, the academy's management team, made up of Salazar, Bornstein and his wife, Maral Sukhbaatar, is seeking funds to sustain classes and expand operations. It has applied for HK$500,000 from the government's Community Investment and Inclusion Fund, and will seek a grant from the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund. A number of private-sector investors have also expressed interest.

"At the moment, we've been bootstrapping the business with generous funding from friends and family, for which we are truly grateful," Bornstein says.

One of the academy's greatest supporters is Barry Chan Ho-yin, Sok Kwu Wan's village chief, who has rented out the ground floor of a village house to the school.

"What they do is meaningful and good for the community," says the 35-year-old, who was born and raised on Lamma.

Chan recalls that a shortage of students forced the closure of Lamma's primary school seven years ago. "My three nieces had to find a school off the island. It's very inconvenient for them," he says. "Although we're a small community of only 500 people, our children also need a good education.

"Being neighbours, I know they are good people. We trust them to teach our children well and improve their standard of English."

For now, Salazar is focusing on his first pupils at Brighton. "All I want to do is to instil in them a true love of learning. I see myself as a guide to further their journey to reach their full potential," he says.