Convent Green Lane Stretches Tall Again

loading SMK Convent Green Lane's new RM2.5mil school block now stands tall beside the school field.

Enrolment rates are flagging in missionary schools throughout the country, but SMK Convent Green Lane’s new building should help reverse the trend.

Convent schools – and missionary schools in general – have provided education in Malaysia since long before Independence. Establishing their first school on foreign soil in Malaysia in 1852 (Convent Light Street in George Town), the French Catholic religious order of the Infant Jesus Sisters (IJS) grew their base of schools here until World War II, establishing over 50 learning institutions across the nation.

Since then, all convent schools in the country have been nationalised and are now categorised as government-aided schools, with the salaries of staff being provided by the federal government. Other small allocations, like contributions for utility expenses, are also often offered but on the whole, funds for projects and the maintenance of the buildings largely rests on the Boards of Governors (BOGs) and the schools themselves.

Large undertakings like the building of new school blocks and classrooms are therefore well thought out, long-term endeavours conscientiously supported by school alumnae, teachers and supporters. And with every goal achieved, like the opening of SMK Convent Green Lane’s (CGL) new RM2.5mil school block on February 18, celebrations are abundant in both the heart and mind.

Planting Roots

Like most convents, SMK CGL had humble beginnings. Established in 1961 with 10 classrooms and 13 teachers, it began with 377 students under its charge.

IJS Malaysia provincial Sister Celina Wong says the school was formerly headed by three IJS sisters: Sr Helen O’Sullivan, Sr Canice Higgins and Sr Aidan Fitzgerald, a beloved Irish nun who, aged 84 in 2012, finally left Penang homebound for County Cork. She remains the school’s longest serving headmistress to date, helming the institution from 1972 to 1988.

“Between 1961 to 1988, laboratories, art and needlework rooms, a new staff room, a library and a new school hall were added. By 2010, SMK CGL was desperately short of space and in need of a new building to enable it to be a single-session school,” Sr Celina says.

Former SMK CGL head prefect Lim Yen Lee, who was the headmistress at the time, says the school had had to be innovative in housing its students over the years. Even with the timetable split into afternoon and morning sessions, she adds, space was hard to come by. “We initially had floating classrooms, but I did away with those during my time. I recovered some classrooms, for example from the second computer room, needlework room and pipe room. We wanted to put the students permanently in one place and if another class needed the rooms (for those specialities), the ones there would just move out for that time. After a while, however, we just reached capacity,” she says.

Around 2011, it was finally decided that a new school building was needed. A soft launch was held and the arduous process of fundraising began.

Lim says initially money was slow in coming, to the point where the committee decided to scale down the new block from three to two storeys. Plans to place the new block behind the existing building near the basketball courts were changed due to poor access to that building site. Obtaining the proper permissions and approvals also proved a challenge as state authorities had intended to use part of the school’s land for road-widening. Negotiations ensued and in early 2015, building plans were finally given the nod.

Meanwhile, fundraising kicked into overdrive with a Fiesta CGL food fair held in 2012 and a local corporation called Charming Green came forward with a big RM250,000 donation. Requests for pledges from alumni and sponsors continued, along with a jogathon and musical drama, and the undertaking was further boosted with educational charitable organisation ECM Libra Foundation pledging funds for a third storey.

(From left) Penang state executive councillors Chong Eng and Chow Kon Yeow, SMK Convent Green Lane building committee chairman Dr Manjit Kaur Hardial Singh, ECM Libra Foundation Board of Trustees member Lim Beng Choon, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, IJS Malaysia provincial Sister Celina Wong, Charming Green representative Dr Jon S.H. Lim.

When Lim retired in February 2014, the baton was passed to new headmistress Loke Bee Keow and the ground-breaking ceremony held in March a year later.

The new three-storey block, taking a total of one year and nine months to complete, now sits just beside the school field and is connected by a second-floor walkway to the old block of science labs.

It is named after Allin Leong from the Charming Green family who passed away in 2014. “Charming Green is run by siblings and the family’s mother and sister were both convent-educated girls. Although neither went to SMK CGL, the family felt that missionary and convent schools had done good work for the education of girls so they wanted to help,” Lim explains.

She adds that alongside Charming Green and the ECM Libra Foundation, the state and federal governments were the biggest sponsors of the project – the former giving RM526,000 – as well as the Lee Foundation that helped greatly by pitching in RM100,000.

With the new block, the school now comfortably houses 982 students, 64 teachers and six support staff.

Single-session Dreams

More classrooms and space is a boost to any school, but for SMK CGL, the new structure has finally fulfilled its long-elusive dream of becoming a single-session school.

Current headmistress Gurjeet Kaur Kabal Singh says challenges with teacher distribution and the organisation of co-curricular activities had all been straightened out with SMK CGL having only a morning session starting this year. “Firstly, I don’t have to worry about my teacher distribution because I have all my teachers in one session and I can utilise them. So, for example, when one teacher is on leave, we can cover the classes.

“Secondly, it fosters better unity among the students. When we carry out co-curricular activities there is no such thing as ‘seniors’ and ‘juniors’. Now everyone can come together and work together. It’s one family together and that’s very important,” she says.

Co-curricular activities as well as sports practice are now incorporated into the school timetable, enabling teachers to not have to return to school on Saturdays or in the late afternoons. Just as significant is the impact the single session has on parents and families. “Some parents had one child in the morning session and one child in the afternoon. So, the parents are very relieved that it is now a single session,” adds Gurjeet, an old girl herself from the class of 1981.

The new single session is also expected to have a crucial impact on enrolment into the institution, which was named a Cluster School of Excellence in 2011. SMK CGL gets its students primarily from the SK Convent Green Lane primary school (with which it shares a field and canteen) but has, in the past, lost significant numbers due to parents opting to transfer their children to single-session schools.

“Before this year, our Form One and Form Two students were in the afternoon session so a number of our girls from the primary school chose to switch to schools with single sessions. For years, we lost a lot of our top scorers this way, particularly to St George’s (Girls’ School). I foresee that with us going single session now, our enrolment will rise in the future,” Gurjeet says.

This prediction seems to be on point. As many as 99% of the school’s Form One students come from SK CGL this year, as opposed to about four out of six classes during Lim’s final years at the helm. The drop in enrolment has also fallen to just two students from 984 students in 2016 to 982 this year. (SMK CGL recorded drops of 55 students – from 1,060 to 1,005 students – in 2015 and 21 students the following year.)

Retaining high achievers from the primary school will also help maintain SMK CGL’s impressive Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) record. It topped the state with the highest number of top achievers several times in recent years, most recently last year with five girls scoring 10As.

The boost in enrolment is also a positive sign for convents in the country as a whole. Sr Celina says that for about a decade now, the bulk of convents nationwide have seen dropping student populations. “We have some convents that are maintaining their enrolment (figures), but we generally only see that in our Chinese-speaking schools – Convent Datuk Keramat in Penang, Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh and Notre Dame Convent in Malacca. The rest are declining,” she says.

The old school library has been converted into the staff room while old school staff room (right) has been converted into a library.

As to the reasons for these falling numbers, Sr Celina says there are many more schools now, especially away from city centres. “Many of our schools are in the town areas. So to avoid traffic jams, many prefer to send their children near their houses as it is more convenient. However, this (declining enrolment) is not a concern as such for IJS (who remains the landowner of the schools) as we now don’t have much say in the running of the schools,” she states.

She adds that a bigger concern are the falling standards of education and the original “ethos” or character of the convent schools which emphasised discipline and good values. “Things have changed a lot since the Sisters stopped teaching in the schools. For the first 10 years after they stepped down, it was still OK as the teachers had learned and picked up the way the Sisters ran the schools. Now, however, a lot of those older teachers are retiring,” Sr Celina says.

The contribution missionary schools in the country have made cannot be understated, especially in the education of girls. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who officiated the opening of the SMK CGL’s new block, says education has proved to be a great equaliser for all.

“Through good, sound education, you are able to improve your economic situation, life and whole world view. I think girls’ schools are more important than boys’ schools. The fact is that when you teach a man, you teach an individual, but when you teach a girl, you teach a family. That is why education for girls is so important,” Lim says.

Urging the students present at the opening ceremony to grasp every opportunity that came their way, he added that the future of the nation largely depended on female contributions. “If you look at developed countries in the world, they have a high female labour participation rate of at least 60%. In Malaysia, we are somehow stuck at about 53% to 54%. Penang has around 56% to 57%. So, it is important for our girls to make use of all the opportunities for education that were maybe not available in the past,” he says.

Pledging continuous support for convent schools in the state, Lim also urged the federal government to ardently support existing missionary schools all around the nation. “What is unique about mission schools is their emphasis on character-building and knowledge accumulation without regard to race, religion or background. For this reason, mission schools should be celebrated and supported. To all here, we say, seize the day.”

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