Ruth Cheah has a reason to share her story. She managed to turn around a school that was failing badly to one that is making tremendous progress in just three years!
IT was dangerously close to being the lowest ranking school in the country.
In fact, SMK Tropicana was marked as a Band Five school and ranked in the bottom 12% nationwide.
All this changed when Ruth Cheah Kah Yok, 59, stepped in as the principal in 2012.
SMK Tropicana now ranks 819 out of the 2,300 schools in the country.
Inspiring students: Cheah with one of the murals done by volunteers to beautify the school
“That’s a jump of 1,202 spots!” she exclaims.
Cheah is quick to point out that it has not been an easy climb over the short time period. She shares that when she first stepped foot in the school, vandalism and gangsterism were rife.
“Staff morale was low and teachers discouraged, because the children were all so rude,” she says.
It was so bad that teachers sometimes dreaded coming to work. Cheah describes the situation in the school then as a “broken culture”.
Her definition of “broken culture” is where school furniture, including its fittings such as fans and plug points, were damaged.
“Chairs, tables, switches, doors ... you name it, all were probably faulty or badly vandalised, they were useless.
“The doors were punched through and the plug points were dangling from the walls. It was so bad that I was embarrassed to take visitors around the school,” she says.
Cheah says the majority of the pupils come from nearby Kampung Cempaka, a Chinese village where the majority of the residents are from the lower-income group.
“Many of the parents work as hawkers and spend so much time trying to make ends meet, they neglect their children,” she says, adding that some of the students even work at their parents’ stalls after school to supplement the family income.
Cheah believes she was sent to head the school for a reason – she had the experience and talent to raise the school’s rankings.
Her 25 years as SMK Damansara Jaya principal stood her in good stead and would certainly see her bring positive changes to a school that was in the bottom rung.
Looking back, Cheah says it wasn’t easy. Her close friends had advised her against taking up the position, but she saw it as a challenge.
When asked how she persevered when things became tough, she leaves it to divine intervention.
“I believe I got my strength from God and prayer,” she says.
When Cheah first stepped foot into the school, she says she had to quickly diagnose the situation and come up with a plan to “fix things”.
“I had to figure out what actually caused the school to drop so far in its rankings. Why the teachers were so down. Why those in charge could not make headway in the school,” she adds.
One of the first things she did was to seek help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by sending them pictures of the school and every broken item in it.
“I knew I could not do this alone,” she says.
Next, she reached out to the parents by sending a letter in both Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin.
Surprisingly, she received RM17,000 from the first collection drive and she says the first item on her agenda was to instal grilles in the school.
“I needed the grilles (which were installed at the base of each staircase) to prevent the students from freely roaming around the school,” she says.
She emphasises that she needed to control the students’ movements if she wanted to instil law and order back in the school. She also had new doors and even added grilles on the classroom doors and windows. There was also enough money to change all the electrical switches and paint over the graffitied walls. Companies and NGOs also stepped in to help with the painting, with volunteers even showcasing their creativity on the murals dotting the school walls.
Fixing the school’s outward appearance was easy. But changing the mindsets of students proved to be the biggest challenge. After meeting with her fellow educators, they came up with a discipline guidebook that clearly spells out all school rules and regulations. It included a demerits that would be handed out if the rules were broken.
Cheah says it was important that a demerit system was introduced, before a merit system.
“I needed to lay down the law,” she explains.
She also says that when she disciplined the students, she would receive backlash from some parents. There were some who were willing to see and listen to reason, but there were plenty who accused her of being too harsh. Still, she says, she persevered as she insists the school is not a “babysitting service”.
“ A school is an institution where a teacher teaches and a student listens and learns. If these two basic functions are not carried out, then this is not a school,” she says.
Cheah is not without a heart. She made it a point to provide spare school uniforms and school shoes to students who would come in tattered uniforms or slippers because their only pair of shoes were wet.
“You must understand that these are poor children,” she says, adding that she also managed to convince a local NGO to provide free breakfast to 50 poor students every day.
All her hard work paid off as in under six months, the school received an award for the highest jump in the PMR 2012 results.
Parents were also asking to enrol their children in the school - a place they once tried to avoid. It really boosted the teachers’ morale and they are now inspired to teach and go the extra mile.
She thanks the school’s teachers and staff, for without them she says “this success story would not have been possible”.