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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

Teacher gives dropouts free helping hand


Staff writer

Shotaro Namekata is one of many who believe education holds the key to stepping up the social ladder and obtaining a better job. But in reality, children from lower income households end up in low-paying jobs themselves because of their limited schooling.

News photo
Helping hand: Shotaro Namekata teaches a student at his free prep school, Keisetsu Gijuku, in the Yoyogi district in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo last Sunday evening. SETSUKO KAMIYA

Wanting to break this vicious circle, the 49-year-old Namekata, from Nerima Ward, Tokyo, operates a prep school to help them get out of that loop.

"I'm just trying to provide the stairway for people who have the strong will to make the effort to climb up," Namekata said. "And I want to do that for free, because these people often don't have the money to give themselves another try."

Namekata runs Keisetsu Gijuku, a completely volunteer-based prep school, to help people who couldn't go to high school or dropped out for financial reasons, to study for the high school equivalency exam.

Classes are held twice a week, on Sunday afternoons in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and Friday evenings in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

Passing the eight subject exams earns a "kosotsu nintei" certificate proving the holder has an education level equal to that of a high school graduate. People who get the certificate are authorized to take exams to enter vocational schools and universities, as well as qualification exams required to apply for certain jobs, the same as high school graduates.

For someone with only a junior high school diploma, which is given out for completing compulsory education, having a kosotsu nintei definitely opens up more opportunities in a society where graduating from high school is the norm, according to Namekata.

"Unless you're a high school graduate or above, there will be no jobs here," he said.

"If I were an employer and had to choose between a high school dropout and a person who has a high school diploma, I would definitely choose the latter because you assume the dropout may also quit the job. That's reality," Namekata said.

"What could then happen is that, when you're just a junior high school graduate, have no job or place to go, you have no choice but to steal and end up in jail. At least, people may view you with that kind of suspicion," he said.

The problem with families living in poverty is that the children are often unaware of the importance of education because the adults in their lives don't encourage them to study, Namekata said. And even if they come to realize the value of a formal education when they are older, there are limited places to seek assistance, he pointed out.

"It would be ideal to create a society without dropouts, but while we wait for that to happen I want to improve the situation for people in the real world."

Despite the seriousness of his words, Namekata is soft-spoken. His views and actions are a reflection of his own experience. Growing up in a family with no mother and leading a difficult youth, he said it was by luck that he realized in his first year in high school in Saitama Prefecture that he should study hard and go to a university.

Namekata said he had the worst grades of any student in his class that first year, and his teachers thought he was hopeless. "I nearly dropped out, but that's when I realized that I had to do something."

He developed a technique to pass the multiple-choice exam and made it into the education department at Utsunomiya University. He has refined this technique and now passes it on to his students.

His university education helped him obtain a teaching job and gave him skills to run his own business. He is married with three children, two of whom are in college.

Today, he earns a living by teaching young students who stopped going to school how to study for the high school equivalency exams. According to Namekata, the families of these students are not necessarily poor and can afford to support their children.

But with his free prep school, Namekata is supporting people up to age 45 who couldn't afford high school, for instance because they were in a single-parent household with a low income or their family was on public assistance.

Since Keisetsu Gijuku opened two years ago, about 20 of his students have achieved their goals, including people aiming to pass the qualification exams to enter nursing school, one of the services Namekata offers.

Namekata said his prep school is open for foreign residents having financial difficulties with similar needs and goals. Japanese-language proficiency and an alien registration card are necessary to take the kosotsu nintei exams.

Since the school opened in August 2008, more than 60 people have attended classes at Keisetsu Gijuku, four of them foreign nationals.

Through supporting them, Namekata said he has come to realize that although there are an increasing number of foreigners in Japan, the children who make it through junior high are offered few places to prepare for higher education.

He views that even opportunities such as the high school equivalency exams are not known among them.

"I'm looking for people who are willing to study and help themselves, regardless of their nationality," he said.

Namekata plans to hold a meeting to explain the exams to foreigners this Sunday at Yoyogi High School near JR Yoyogi Station. For those interested, call Namekata at 070-6664-6023.



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