The Gutsy Little School by the River

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It may be small in size, but SJK (T) Jalan Sungai has a quaint history and a big heart.

River Road Tamil School, like most schools, had humble beginnings. Established in 1947 by P. Gopalakrishnan, the state Tamil school coordinator at the time, it only had 16 enrolled students and a wooden hut in which to teach at Jalan Timah.

Enrolment soon increased to over 200 students, though, taught by nine teachers. More space was needed, and the school was relocated to a bigger compound at Jalan Sungai in 1949.

In the early 1950s the school had 250 students in an attap-roofed building. By the end of the decade, in 1959, a concrete edifice had to be built to house the growing number of students – which had increased to 670 – and 24 dedicated teachers.

SJK (T) Saraswathy was a school located nearby, on a property owned by the Penang Hindu Sabha Association. In 1961 it was also suffering from a lack of space due to its overwhelming number of students. It soon merged with River Road Tamil School, for the two to become River Road School A and River Road School B, with Ahmad Hussain and Xavier Rajah as the headmasters for the schools. After a new two-storey building housing 10 classrooms and a canteen was opened in 1971, the schools were fully integrated and renamed SJK (T) Jalan Sungai the following year. However, the school operated with two headmasters for two sessions until 1990.

The headmaster back then, P. Mogan, upgraded the school hall into an indoor hall complete with air-conditioning with help from the state government. In 2003 a new four-storey building block was built by Ministry of Education with better facilities: a larger teachers’ office, science and computer lab, library, integrated living skills room, music room and a bigger canteen.

The old school compund.

Passion for Education

K. Anjalay Devi.

According to the current headmistress, K. Anjalay Devi, who has been with the school since September 2016, SJK (T) Jalan Sungai offers preschool, Primary 1 to 6, and special needs education. She presently has 132 students, including the special needs students, with an average of 25 students per class, and 19 teachers and five general staff. Enrolment for 2018 increased from 16 to 21 students.

The kids here mostly come from middle-class and underprivileged families, so we organise a day where we let them dip in the pool to make them happy.

All Tamil vernacular schools in Malaysia use Tamil as their medium of instruction, as does SJK (T) Jalan Sungai. The syllabus for the school is the same with other vernacular schools: the students have to learn Tamil as an additional subject. The teachers are trained and capable of teaching in all three languages – Malay, English and Tamil. The Indian Muslim students are required to take extra classes in Islamic studies and the school has an ustaz to conduct those classes.

With the redevelopment of Sungai Pinang, most of the Indian population, who were mostly government servants, migrated out of the Sungai Pinang area. This has hurt student enrolment: “There are many Indians and Malays in Chinese schools, but only a small percentage of parents will choose to send their children to a Tamil school,” says Anjalay. “I don’t have students of other races in the school, and only a few Indian Muslim students.”

Most of the students come from working-class families, and some are badly underprivileged. To help ease the families’ burden, the school caters meals for its students and teachers, providing breakfast and food during recess and even at after-school extra classes and cocurricular activities. Sponsorship from private entities such as Budimas, SP Setia and the Rotary Club supports the school’s initiatives.

Also, the teachers voluntarily organise extra classes to help slow learners who are unable to afford extra tuition classes. On top of that, with the help of the state assemblyperson, NGOs, private entities and the government, the school has been able to give out a pair of school uniform to each student.

The special needs students at SJK (T) Jalan Sungai study a syllabus that covers basic living skills such as cooking and groceries shopping. Besides that, the school uses swimming as a teaching therapy, using portable swimming pools. “Sometimes the pool is used to reward students who show improvement in their studies. The kids here mostly come from middle-class and underprivileged families, so we organise a day where we let them dip in the pool to make them happy,” says Anjalay.

Last year, the school also managed to provide proper full graduation attires for both pre-school and Primary 6 students, which made the ceremony both meaningful and complete.

Special needs class.

SJK (T) Jalan Sungai's fully equipped classroom.

Every Little Bit Helps

The school's computer lab.

Presently, all Tamil vernacular schools have been nationalised and categorised as government-aided schools, receiving funds from the government for the staff and teachers’ salaries.

As SJK (T) Jalan Sungai is fully government-aided, it does not have a board of directors like most Chinese vernacular schools. After Anjalay took over the school management, she aided in forming a small board to help raise funds for the school, which is affected by floods every now and then. It is often not serious, but if the water rises more than six inches high, it could damage the cupboards, tables and chairs in the classrooms on the ground floor. The roof has leaked in the past as well. Fixing and replacing the furniture can be very costly, but the school has the support of its alumni, teachers and sponsors, who actively chip in.

A point for concern is the lack of Tamil vernacular secondary schools in Penang and Malaysia. This has pushed students to continue their secondary studies at national secondary schools and to stop learning Tamil as an extra subject. In addition, Anjalay says many parents prefer to send their children to schools located nearer to their homes.

While the school is small in size, its achievements are larger than life. Their Primary School Evaluation Test (UPSR) results prove that the students are doing well, and improving as well. They are also competitive in co-curricular activities: their kabaddi team actively competes with other schools, while its Language and Cultural Club teaches and exposes students to other races and cultures.

Many have walked through its gates and gone on to serve society. “I am very proud to say that in the past years, SJK (T) Jalan Sungai has produced lawyers, doctors and successful businessmen,” says Anjalay.

The school's playground provides a healthy balance of work and play.



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