Tough love: how failing school in remote Hong Kong village became a success story
A school in faraway Tai O has revived its fortunes - and those of its students - thanks to the hard work and dedication of its teachers and principal
Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial College is what you might call an outlier. That's not just because of its remote location in the former fishing village of Tai O; it also departs from the widespread fixation on grades over other education goals. In recovering from imminent closure, the school has made helping young people turn their lives around its forte.
It has given students such as Owen Fung Chi-shing the boost they need to pull themselves out of a cycle of hopelessness. Fung, 19, is now sitting for his Diploma of Secondary Education exams, but it's a prospect that would have been unimaginable four years ago.
His father had died of cancer more than a decade ago; and when he lost his mum to cancer, too, five years ago, his world fell apart.
"I was so devastated I lost interest in studying," Fung recalls. "I left my school in Sheung Shui without finishing Form Three and did odd jobs for about a year, fixing computers and distributing leaflets. I kept changing jobs all the time and had no motivation."
His decision to enrol in Fat Ho and resume his studies changed all that. "I feel part of a big family [at the school]," says Fung, who is taking biology and English literature in addition to the four compulsory subjects for his DSE exams.
"Although it's difficult to remember the vocabulary in English literature, I have developed a passion for reading - William Golding's Lord of the Flies, for instance. It's the first novel in English that I've finished."
Yet Fat Ho, itself, was in crisis six years ago. The secondary school had just 280 students spread across six forms and was bleeding HK$5 million annually. The decline had been a long time coming: it hadn't conducted any music lessons for 17 years for want of a trained teacher, and the annual sports gala had been suspended for three decades.
However, the school has enjoyed a reversal of fortunes since Eric Yuon Fuk-lung took over as principal.
Fat Ho had just become a direct subsidy scheme (DSS) school when he arrived. His predecessor proposed the switch, arguing that it could reduce annual losses to HK$300,000; but this was not the case, Yuon says.
The government gives DSS schools an annual subsidy of HK$50,000 per student so Fat Ho would receive HK$15 million a year if it had 300 students. Staff salaries alone, however, added up to HK$18 million.
So to save the school, Yuon gave it a dose of tough love.
First, he weeded out more than 10 underperforming staff, including a Chinese history teacher whose students all failed the subject for years: "The pass rate for seven years was zero and he blamed the students, saying they were rubbish."
Rejecting the excuse, Yuon let the teacher go and instead hired a retiree who had taught at Fat Ho. Within a year, his recruit, now 72, had achieved a 100 per cent pass rate for his students.
Students were also screened more rigorously: of 120 applicants each year, including many referrals from social workers and correctional services officers, Yuon accepted only about 20. His main criteria for selection had little to do with the students' background or academic performance.
"What matters most is their attitude," he says. "They need to have the desire to improve. Turning away applicants with poor attitudes is a strategy; those selected will feel proud and it boosts their confidence."
A former university sociology professor, Yuon had swapped academia for a schoolteacher's life nine years ago so he could spend more time with his family.
"My wife is a senior business executive. Both of us were too busy to take good care of our two children. Leaving my university job to join a secondary school allowed me to devote more time to the kids. Later, when they went off to boarding school, I had more time to serve as a headmaster."
Yuon goes out of his way to set an example to his school.
To encourage students to turn up on time, he is at the gates to greet them every morning, even though it means having to leave his home in Fo Tan by 5am every day.
Then five years ago, he joined a school team taking part in the Trailwalker to demonstrate to students the importance of perseverance.
"I'd never done long-distance running before and finished it in 47 hours and 43 minutes. We were the second last team. I was aching all over," he recalls. "But the students were touched because I did it for them. I've been participating every year since then.
"In  when the school celebrated its 35th anniversary, I promised students that I would finish the Trailwalker in 35 hours. There were heavy downpours that year and 1,000 people withdrew from the race. But we eventually completed it in 35 hours and 35 minutes."
He also revived the school's annual sports carnival, and turned it into a community event by inviting participation from nearby schools as well as the correctional and fire services departments.
Vice-principal Cynthia Lee is an educator with a mission like Yuon. After relocating from Canada in 1996, she taught in top schools for 10 years. By then she felt it was time for a break from the constant stress and moved to south Lantau.
"The girls [in Band One schools] are nice and hard working and have a lot of family support. But I believe there's more I can do. I want to help students really in need. For a teacher, teaching is just a part of [the job]; they are also counsellor, social worker, mother, father and older sister."
Fat Ho, where a number of students come from troubled families or have a chequered past, fitted the kind of profile she was after.
Although she only learned about its background after joining Fat Ho, she says it reminded her of her own high school in Canada, which was also in a fishing village and had about 240 students.
It was also similar to the first school she taught at in Canada, where she was helping children of immigrants who were struggling in a new country; those from Russian and Cuban families, for example.
Despite having previous experience with disadvantaged children, Lee was still taken aback by the problems students were struggling with when she arrived at Fat Ho.
"I have never been around children that needed so much support," Lee says. "Some come with a lot of [emotional] baggage, and have many layers of defence. It takes a while for them to let down their guard and trust us because they had bad experiences."
The school is supported by the Po Lin Monastery, which offers students 80 boarding places at its hostel about 30 minutes' walk away. And for some troubled teens, the spartan environment without television and internet connection was a refuge where they could rebuild their lives.
Tsoi Cheung-chi is among them. He became so hooked on online gaming he dropped out of his band one school in Form Three.
"I went to the online cafe to play video games every day and even slept there. But after my mother made me realise there would be no one to care for me after she died, I decided to go back to school," he says. "I led a disciplined existence in the monastery which helped me kick my online addition."
With plenty of extra help from teachers, Tsoi has managed to catch up on his studies and is now sitting for his DSE, taking extended maths and science as elective subjects. "I'm confident that I can get into a local university to study maths. I have come a long way."
In switching to the DSS scheme, the school has been offering two language streams, English or Chinese, to cater to ethnic minority children who make up about one third of its enrolment. Minority students who can't cope with Chinese under the regular curriculum opt for the English stream.
As far as possible Fat Ho also tries to give students the chance to study any subject that interests them: four years ago, Lee convinced the principal to offer English literature classes even though there were only four students. One year there was just one person studying Chinese history for DSE.
"Of course it's very expensive to run these courses [with so few students]," Lee says. "But children need more choices and we offer as many subjects as we can because they should not be deprived of [the chance to study what they want]."
With 43 teachers and 350 students, the school is still in the red, although the annual deficit has been reduced to HK$3 million.
Despite challenges, Lee believes prospects are looking up for the school.
"One of my English literature students received a full scholarship for five years [to train to be a teacher]," she says proudly.
"I've had some really difficult students over the years. But my philosophy is that nothing can't be overcome with a smile. Sometimes when I am at my wits' end, I have a chat [with Yuon]. His spirit is to never give up on a child. That's why I continue working here."