IS your child intelligent but somehow underperforms at school? Do teachers
complain about naughtiness or lack of attention? Or is your child struggling in
the normal stream but too smart for a special school?
Areena Ng wants to help. Ms Ng, who recently won the inaugural Young
Entrepreneurs for Sustainability award from DHL, is the founder of Bridge
Learning, a "diagnostic learning support and specialised intervention centre
for mainstream children with learning difficulties", as she puts it.
It's a mouthful. But simply put, it means that Bridge caters to children in
mainstream schools who, because of learning difficulties that teachers fail to
spot, are not doing as well as they could.
"Most teachers recognise only autism or dyslexia, but there's a spectrum of
difficulties and disabilities," says Ms Ng, who spent five years with the
Ministry of Education (MOE) and has a degree in special education from Flinders
University in Australia.
One example is auditory processing disorder, in which a child has perfect
hearing but cannot fully organise and interpret aural data. If a teacher gives
lengthy instructions, the child may only follow the first and last and mix up
Bridge uses an activity-based diagnostic test to assess a child. This draws out
weaknesses in, say, visual spatial awareness, which Ms Ng says is directly
related to being good at maths. If a child has strong spatial ability but is
failing maths, this could mean the child could do well but was pushed from
basic calculations to abstract concepts too quickly.
Ms Ng, who is 29, originally studied tourism at polytechnic before joining MOE
as a primary school teacher. While teaching mainstream youngsters, she was
seconded to a specialised programme for children with learning difficulties,
and trained as a counsellor.
After three years, she joined MOE headquarters, where she was formally trained
to teach children with autism or dyslexia. She then spent two years training
teachers, but was dissatisfied.
At MOE, "the system got in the way", she says. "No matter what, there is
pressure to complete the curriculum, and children need support beyond that."
Yet, outside the formal system, there are few places that are able to deal
with the full spectrum of learning disabilities. And as parents might expect,
fees can be "exorbitant".
So Ms Ng - at her own expense - set off for further training in Australia, then
visited schools in the US, Australia and Taiwan to see how they handle the
issue. Bridge Learning, which she started out of her home in 2003, is the
The school, which is now based in Choa Chu Kang and has just opened a second
centre at Clemenceau, has more than 100 students. Ms Ng refuses to guarantee
results but says virtually all students make progress of some sort within six
months, in behaviour, communication or motor skills, if not always in grades.
As a social enterprise, Bridge must turn a profit, though it received seed
funding from the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. DHL's
field visit report shows the centre had revenue of US$233,500 in 2006, with a
profit of US$23,600.
Fees vary depending on a child's needs - sessions can be in groups of eight to
10, or individual - but are lower than at private schools or even some
charities, says Ms Ng.
Bridge also offers up to 90 per cent subsidies to families with monthly
incomes below $2,000.
Through referral schemes from schools like Nanyang Primary - "one of the most
supportive" - Ms Ng wants to grow enrolment at the two centres to 500 students.
She is also thinking of franchising the school overseas as well as asking for
donations to extend the programme to orphanages in Singapore.
To support these plans, Ms Ng needs about 25-30 more staff, on top of the
current dozen. Given that Bridge pays its teachers an average of $2,000 - she
draws a salary "slightly higher" than $3,000 herself - is it hard to hire and
"Hiring may be a problem," she says. "But my first two staff are still with
me, not starving, and enjoying it."
DHL YES award winner to represent S'pore in region
DHL launched the Young Entrepreneur for Sustainability (YES) Awards in the
Asia-Pacific this year, in support of the United Nations' Millennium
The awards were judged by a panel of six, including National Kidney Foundation
chairman Gerard Ee, the Singapore Environment Council's executive director
Howard Shaw and National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre chief executive Tan
The national winner - Areena Ng of Bridge Learning - received $5,000 of prize
money and will represent Singapore at the regional awards at the end of this
Besides Ms Ng, two other individuals reached the finals.
Kenny Low, 31, set up the City Harvest Education Centre as a non-profit school
to help private candidates take GCE O-level or N-level exams. The aim is to
give those who leave school a second chance to succeed in education.
Wilson Ang, 25, founded ECO Singapore, an organisation that aims to get
Singapore youth involved in protecting the environment. ECO Singapore publishes
a digital magazine on topics like bio-diversity, health and pollution, and
arranges environmental events and campaigns.