FOR 58 years, SK St Mary in Sibu could be the only school in the country ‘floating’ on a fish pond.
Although the pupils might be fascinated with fish swimming under the wooden school block built on stilts, the teachers thought it did not look good or safe.
“The water was too deep for my liking, not to mention the unhygienic surroundings, and I was quite worried for the safety of the students with so much water around,” the headmistress Alice Ong Suk Fong said.
She was afraid the fish might pose a danger as the pupils were always leaning over the verandah to look at or feed them.
In fact, she had really good reasons to be worried because just earlier this year, the school was hit by the leptospirosis scare.
Last year, a part of the floor leading to the science lab collapsed although no one was injured.
“Just as we were experiencing bad things, good things were happening to us. It’s truly a blessing. In that sense, the recent move to the new site was a great relief for me,” she said.
So after more than half a century, the stilts-based SK St Mary has reached a new milestone when it shifted to its new building on June 11.
The recently-completed RM3 million re-development school project was the brainchild of the late Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chiew.
The new building has 28 rooms, including 12 classrooms, a science lab, a computer room, an information centre, a headmistress office, a teachers’ office, a canteen, a dentist clinic and a bilik agama (religious room).
Oldest English stream school
Built in 1954, the old wooden SK St Mary consisted of only six classrooms (primary one to six). The wooden canteen was at one end of the building, and the toilet behind the academic block.
Founded by a Catholic missionary Father Adrian de Vos, the school was the oldest English stream school in Sibu Division.
Father Adrian, the first headmaster, held the position for just over a month before being replaced by Mother Ursula Wong.
Sister Theophane took over as headmistress in 1956 and remained in that post until September 1968.
In 1969, Sister Ignatia Teresa Soon was appointed new headmistress, serving until her retirement in 1995. She was succeeded by Jerome Harry who held the position until Nov 15, 1996.
The next headmistress was Margaret Agnes Lee who served from Nov 16, 1996 until Nov 15, 2007.
Beruin Luang took over as the headmaster on Nov 16, 2007 and served until Dec 13, 2011 before being succeeded by the present headmistress, Alice Ong Suk Fong.
When the school sent out the message for a gotong-royong-style move from the old to the new building on June 9, the response was overwhelming.
“The church parishioners, parents and students all came to help. They were very supportive and I am very grateful,” Ong recalled.
The move took about three hours.
More facilities needed
When the school reopened on June 11, everybody was very excited.
The pupils were happy to have a bigger space to play on, concrete classrooms for lessons and a roofed assembly hall.
“When we first moved in, the pupils would go and run around in the school hall. It was good to see them so happy although at times, it could get a bit noisy and out of control but it’s okay now,” Ong noted.
Year Six pupils said they were very lucky to be studying in the new building before leaving school while the teachers are elated to be teaching in a town school for a change.
Over the last 58 years, SK St Mary had built a strong foundation for academic excellence but to move even further afield, more facilities are still needed.
Although it has a new building, the school has no extra funding.
A little tight with money, Ong has decided to make do with what is at her disposal until there is enough money to buy new furniture.
Apart from new desks — thanks to contributions from the school’s management board — most things are old albeit still usable.
The new library, for example, is the size of about two classrooms but with only old shelves, books, probably more than 10 years old, and no desks, it looks vastly under utilised.
The decades-old school bell is already cracked through constant use.
“I’m afraid it will break off one day — so it definitely needs a replacement,” Ong said, adding that she preferred the traditional bell to the electric one.
The school also needs new cupboards to store equipment for the science lab — maybe also some new equipment to facilitate wider learning, or even new chairs and desks.
Apart from the offices and six classrooms on the ground and first floors, the other rooms are empty. However, that is not the main concern as the number of pupils is likely to increase over the years.
The main thing now is to find ways to get funding for better facilities and equipment.
Apart from some government contributions, the school is largely dependent on the Parents Teachers Association for development .
“Right now, we are using old furniture. Apart from desks given by the school board, the rest are old things.
“So, we really need to find ways to get money to fill up all the empty classrooms and the other rooms as well,” Ong explained.
She hoped the school could have more pupils and the Sibu Education Department would approve the opening of more classes next year.
“Things will grow — it just takes time.”
Room for prayers
SK St Mary is a Catholic mission school. Everyday at 6.45am, rosary prayers are held at the chapel on the groundfloor.
Ong said she decided to turn a room into a chapel since the church was quite far from the new building.
“Before this, prayers were held at the church but since the church is now some distance away, I thought why not turn the extra room into a chapel to keep up the school’s tradition.”
There are about 40 Catholics in school.
When SK St Mary started, Catholic pupils were required to pray out loud every first period. For decades, the school maintained the tradition but with a diverse population of pupils today, prayers are said silently according to the pupils’ own beliefs.
Ong is continuing with the children mass for Catholic pupils every Monday.
“It was stopped for a while — I’m not sure why. I think it’s a good to continue with this tradition, so I revived it.”
There are now 234 pupils at SK St Mary and 20 teachers and staff.
The old site has been given back to the church and the building there is being dismantling.
Ong said: “The new school has given us a boost. The teachers are proud to be on par with their counterparts in big and beautiful schools around Sibu.”