NY1 education reporter Lindsey Christ recently traveled to Tokyo, Japan where she found some aspects of education are very different than here in New York, yet some of the challenges they face are quite familiar. In part one of her series, Lindsey takes a look at the structure and length of a typical school day and filed the following report.
TOKYO - At 7 a.m. the narrow streets near Amanuma Elementary School begin to fill with students. The youngest are in first grade when Japanese education begins. Yet even these six-year-olds, so early into their education, manage the commute on their own.
But even without a parent's hand, they're being watched over. First graders are branded by bright yellow hats and backpack covers, so the whole city knows to take special care of them. Senior citizens in uniform stand on almost every corner, guiding and greeting students on their way.
The school principal says that for Japanese elementary schools, the key lesson is teaching students to feel safe and part of one harmonious community.
"As long as children can build trust with their teachers, even those who fall behind will easily catch up," said Principal Harukazu Fukuda.
There are 1,300 public elementary schools in Tokyo -- more than twice as many as in New York. Students attend neighborhood schools like Amanuma. And even though their days are long, many students choose to arrive early so they can play their instruments or just play.
Every morning they greet each other and their teachers before entering school. Once inside, shoes are exchanged for slippers. Older students help the younger students and welcome them with a banner.
The sixth grade classroom is right next to the first grade classroom and the older children mentor the younger children throughout the day.
Many lessons and activities teach groups of students to work as one, and students learn to thank one another, and their teachers, often.
The principal says he works hard to make sure the school is a joyful place. But still, there are many things out of his control. Japanese schools are strictly regulated, with almost every detail - from the textbooks to the length of each lesson - prescribed by the government. Large classes are the norm, with up to 40 students in every room.
Recently, the national curriculum has shifted back toward the fundamentals, with a stronger focus on math and science and much less time for special lessons, like hands-on classes about rice farming.
And the school year, already a month longer than it is in New York, is poised to get much longer. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports a return to the six day week, which was phased-out more than a decade ago. But most educators, including the principal at Amanuma, disagree with the idea that students should spend even more time in school.
"We'd like to offer classes about earthquake evacuation, food and being kind to everyone. Not reading, not writing, not math," Fukuda said.
But in Japan, decisions like that aren't left to principals and teachers but are determined by the government, for the whole.