IF necessity is the mother of invention, then SK St Bernard Sadir has certainly hit on an ingenious and enterprising solution on how to enrich the schooling experiences of its students as well as impart critical living skills to them.
This small rural primary school of about 109 students has set its sights set on being the first resort-style school in the country.
Tucked among the picturesque mountains and valleys of Padawan, about 70km from the city of Kuching, St Bernard is just a stone’s throw from some of the area’s most popular tourist attractions and destinations.
One of the most well-known is the Annah Rais hotsprings, literally just a 10-minute drive down the road from where the school is situated.
On-going efforts by local government agencies and local bodies to promote Padawan as a tourism destination have encouraged the growth of the local homestay industry as well as created greater public interest in the area’s natural beauty as well as many cultural attractions.
So what was the motivation for SK St Bernard to embark on its journey of transformation to become a resort-style school?
“There are many schools that have adopted concepts such as school-within-a-park and so on, so we thought why not try to make our school different,” said Simbas Mair, 54 years, the school’s Parent-Teacher Association (PIBG) assistant chairman and also a teacher and senior assistant for student affairs at St Bernard.
“With so many places of interest nearby, we felt we had the strengths to make a resort-style school. Not only would it help our students but it would also transform our boarding school and make it stand out,” he explained.
A common problem in rural schools concerns student enrollment and attendance. Due to low population density and lack of access to roads and other infrastructure, hostels are very often a necessity to ensure students are able to consistently attend classes and have access to teachers and educational resources.
One of the reasons behind setting up a resort-style school was that by providing an attractive and safe environment, students would feel motivated to stay in school and parents would feel comfortable sending their children away from home to study.
Indeed, this approach appears to have achieved its goal.
“The environment and facilities here are better than what our students have at home. They feel happy to be here and the parents feel happy to send their children to school,” Simbas noted.
Presently, the school only offers boarding for primary school students but has submitted an application to open a hostel for about 20 pre-school pupils.
Simbas added that the school had to ensure at least 80 per cent attendance of students enrolled to keep pre-school classes open in accordance with Education Ministry requirements
The school hopes its application will be approved soon to resolve the problem of fluctuating attendance and ensure the school can continue to offer pre-school classes.
Creating the ambiance of a resort was no easy undertaking for a small rural boarding school like St Bernard, recalled Paulus Jerome, the co-ordinator for the school’s beautification programme and also a pre-school teacher at the school.
One of the first things they focused on was landscaping.
“Initially, people didn’t understand our rationale and questioned why we wanted to do it. Now, people don’t question anymore but actually come forward to help because they can see the benefits for themselves,” the 52-year-old said.
Since the beautification programme started three years ago, the school has been gradually transformed into a tranquil green space planted with shady trees and other native species and incorporating local culture and influences.
This also includes fish ponds, art sculptures, a gazebo, a man-made waterfall feature and even a small museum hosted in a type of traditional dwelling called panggau asar.
The school has been crowned champion two years in a row in the Mission School category in the Padawan Municipal Council’s (MPP) annual landscape project since it first took part three years ago (the first year, it placed third).
In last year’s competition, the school was awarded the Jury’s Special Award for managing to place in the top three for three consecutive years.
During an interview last December, headmaster Edward Peter Bajat said these achievements were possible because of the co-operation between the school and parents to not only beautify the school and improve its security but also create a comfortable environment for the students.
The school’s beautification efforts have also been greatly boosted with help and support from MPP and volunteers from various non-profit groups and corporate entities.
More than 1,000 plants were donated by the MPP to be planted in and around the school compound. A nearby luxury eco-resort also supplied specimens of native plants as well as generously extended the professional services of their horticulturalist to help the school design and plan their landscaping.
Once a week, parents, teachers and villagers come together in a work party to carry out general landscaping duties and ensure that the school compound remains clean and kept.
Many of the cheerful and colourful murals which decorate the walls of various buildings were painted by volunteers and visitors.
The communal spirit of gotong-royong at St Bernard’s also extends well beyond just the landscaping.
Since April this year, St Bernard started an after-school programme whereby parents and volunteers would come by for one and a half hours every evening from Monday to Thursday after dinner to help students with their homework.
There are activities such as singing and playing games to add variety to hostel life and encourage the students to interact with and feel comfortable around different people.
There are also church workers coming in to help conduct religious classes, and volunteers to tutor students on basic skills like reading and writing.
So far, the response had been quite encouraging and the pupils seemed to enjoy it, Paulus noted.
“It has made a positive difference,” Simbas concurred.
In recent years, the school has also managed to upgrade existing facilities as well as build a number of new buildings – thanks to over half a million ringgit in government grants and funding.
The new buildings include hostels, teachers’ quarters, toilets, a science lab, a sports equipment store and a car shed.
Wherever possible, local influences are incorporated into the buildings such as a small, bamboo balcony – a common feature in many of the local village homes – in the girls’ hostel where the occupants can relax and enjoy the scenery with their friends after school.
“We included this feature because it’s something reminiscent of home and can help them to feel more comfortable while they are away from their families,” Simbas said.
However, one addition the school is particularly proud of is their brand new dining hall called Anjung Sri Spisa, named after a native bamboo plant (spisa) which grows throughout the area.
With a simple but modern design, a portable sound system, circular tables with lazy susans, restaurant style lighting, and a large flat-screen TV, the dining hall looks nothing like your typical school canteen.
Part of the students’ daily routine is to take turns to serve their fellow pupils.
“They learn how to serve food and drinks, clean the tables as well as proper food hygiene. They also take turns to wash the plates, cups and utensils. This place is kept so clean that you will hardly ever find flies in here,” Paulus shared.
Nevertheless, due to limited resources, much of the work to transform the school gets done by hand to keep costs down and stretch every ringgit. Expenses are further controlled by building their own furniture and carrying out maintenance work themselves, he said.
During a recent visit by thesundaypost, the normally busy school was deserted as students had just been dismissed for their Gawai holidays a few days earlier.
However, what could clearly be seen was the pride in the eyes and voices of school staff as they showed a few visitors around the premises.
One of the school’s prized attractions is a crystal river just behind the school. It’s a popular feature with visitors who make full use of the opportunity to take a cooling dip in one of its many clear, shallow pools.
There is now only one temporary open air shelter next to it but the school hopes to convert it into a more permanent structure so that more visitors can spend more time by the river.
St Bernard’s vision of a resort-style school is gaining recognition among their peers and has earned praises from various government agencies, including Education Ministry officials who visited the school recently.
Thanks to an arrangement with a local homestay operator, the school is also turning into a tourist attraction with a number of visitors from all over the world having already stopped by to admire it.
Right now, the school does not charge for entry.
However, having a resort-style school is just the first step in long-term plans for the school’s development.
In the long-run, the PIBG also hopes to make use of the school’s attractions to offer homestay services.
There are plans to build small chalets by the clear-water river behind the school as well as within the school compound. Profits will be channelled back to the PIBG and used for school development activities as well as to subsidise other expenses. The main objective is to help the school to be more self-sufficient.
“It will also be a chance for students to practise speaking English and help them get used to interacting with tourists. Eventually, we would also like to use the homestay to teach our students life skills they can use such as managing expenses, keeping basic accounts, serving food and drinks, and what it means by good customer service. Of course, this will be done outside of school hours and under the supervision of teachers and adults,” Simbas explained.
It is hoped imparting such skills will improve the students’ confidence and provide them better employment prospects once they leave school.
Just last month, a pre-Gawai and thanksgiving cum launching ceremony for its resort-style school concept was held at St Bernard.
The ceremony was officiated at by Tarat assemblyman Datuk Roland Sagah.