How a brave Hong Kong principal turned a failing school into an innovative success
At Baptist Rainbow Primary, educator Chu Tsz-wing dropped the exam-oriented approach for a curriculum based on technology and play
Taking over a school on the verge of shutting its doors was a risky career move, but principal Chu Tsz-wing is not a conventional educator. And in the end, his unorthodox administrative style helped turn the ailing institution around.
“We had two options then: one was to let the school close for good and another was to make changes,” Chu, 37, recalled telling the teaching staff on his first day at the helm of Baptist Rainbow Primary School in Wong Tai Sin in the summer of 2013.
Baptist Rainbow, located in a public housing estate, was once one of the city’s biggest primary schools. At its peak, it had 27 classes and 66 teachers.
But when Chu took over as principal, classes were down to six and only 14 teachers were employed. Only five new pupils were enrolled in Primary One at the start of the school year in 2013. The Education Bureau warned in a letter that the government would soon stop subsidising the school and would eventually close it due to its dwindling student numbers.
“Lots of people told me that my future would be doomed working at this school that was about to close,” said Chu, who quit a teaching job at a top school to join Baptist Rainbow. “But I am kind of a rebellious person who always wants to prove myself. I thought, if my innovative teaching method had previously worked in elite schools, then it should work in the less elite ones.”
The youngest staff member at the time, Chu urged the school’s teachers to change their old-fashioned chalk-and-talk teaching approach and embrace technology to nurture and prepare pupils for the future as part of a tech-savvy workforce.
He then reformed the exam-oriented school curriculum by introducing innovation and technology, a move that quickly helped the school to attract enough pupils to stay open.
Mobile apps, three-dimensional printing and electrical engineering were all part of the learning tools. A video gaming room with PlayStation and Wii consoles was built as one way to reward pupils for good behaviour.
The traditional classroom setting was partly replaced by a new school project called Dream Starter, which allowed pupils to spend their afternoons working on one-year-long personal projects, such as building a tree house or making an electric bike.
The changes were viewed as a bold move by many experienced teachers, who were accustomed to the exam-oriented local education system.
Chu said he was thankful to the staff for showing confidence in him and putting aside their long-held beliefs to help him with the reform.
“Learning is about evolution and making changes. But the local education system doesn’t always encourage creativity. In other words, if you follow what the teachers want, then you are a good student,” Chu said. “But that’s not the true nature of education.”
Baptist Rainbow, which now runs 20 classes and employs 47 teachers, is considered one of the most innovative local schools and is affectionately known as “a place for happy learning” among its pupils and parents.
With the school now doing well, its risk-taker-in-chief has decided to step down. Chu would not reveal his next move after bidding farewell to Baptist Rainbow in September, saying only that he would remain in education.
“If what I am going to do next could solve some of the problems in our education system, then I think it’s worth giving up such a happy job at Baptist Rainbow,” he said.