Newsday: A Newspaper in Education workshop in Jepara involved students perusing issues of The Jakarta Post. JPOn May 9, at around 8:30 in the morning, I and three colleagues from The Jakarta Post Foundation were treated to the clear, deep tones of a young high school student from SMK Roudlotul Mubtadiin pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Balekambang village in Jepara, Central Java, who welcomed us with a sung recitation from the Koran.
We were there as part of a week-long visit to Semarang, the capital of Central Java province, and its surrounding areas to bring the foundation’s Newspaper in Education (NIE) program to teachers and students of English at a number of schools in the district.
The NIE program was originally established by The New York Times in the 1930s, since which time newspapers and periodicals from around the world have joined the program, the aim of which is to encourage schools to use print media as a resource in the educational development of their students.
Indonesia first joined the NIE program in 2003 and now 32 daily newspapers and weekly publications across the country are members of the international NIE Institute. The Jakarta Post joined the program in 2007 and was the first newspaper in Indonesia to launch an English-language NIE program.
In December 2011, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between The Jakarta Post Foundation and the Education and Culture Ministry with the aim of furthering English skills among students at 100 junior high and senior high schools across nine provinces — Bali, Central Java, East Java, East Kalimantan, Jakarta, North Sumatra, Riau, West Java and Yogyakarta — in 2012. With generous financial support from our program’s sponsor, the oil giant PT Chevron Pacific Indonesia, this goal is well on the way to being achieved.
Our visit in May to the pesantren in Jepara constituted just one of several schools visited in Central Java. Jepara, a small town located about 76 kilometers from Semarang, is renowned for its furniture industry, especially the production of teak wood.
As we made our way by car onto the small lanes leading toward Balekambang village, we attracted a degree of attention from interested locals, curious to know what brought us to their secluded, rural idyll. Upon reaching the front gates of the Islamic school, we discovered several attractive, modern-looking school buildings — funded by AusAID (Australian Government Overseas Aid Program) — that were laid out as if forming the four sides of a square and rising at a sharp incline up a steep bank, with a wide expanse of lush green grass in the middle.
Founded in 1884, with around 2,000 students in total, the school is the oldest pesantren in Jepara. It is a vocational school, offering classes in electronics, automotives, fashion and information communication technology (ICT). Although the school remains faithful to its Islamic roots, it does not try to shut itself off from the world outside its gates. On the contrary, it has become well-known as a center of learning that successfully embraces both its religious practices and openness to the modern world, which its students will enter when they graduate.
After first being welcomed by the school’s principal, Pak Miskhahuddin, we made our way along the concrete paths that ran alongside each of the classrooms heading toward one of the buildings, situated at the top of the bank, which had been allocated for the workshop. Apart from boasting some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, the classroom was light, airy and fresh – a welcome sight following our more than two-hour drive that morning from Semarang.
Inside, we found 60 students – girls and boys – all smartly dressed and patiently waiting for us, seated in groups of six around 10 large wooden tables. There were, of course, indications that this was a religious school; for instance, all the female students were wearing hijab, while the boys wore peci or songkok (cone-shaped, black felt caps) and, unlike in the other schools we visited that week, the girls and boys were separated so that girls worked together in their own groups and the boys the same.
Aside from these observances, however, the atmosphere at the school was not as formal or serious as one might have anticipated. In fact, it was refreshingly relaxed due in no small part to the influence by Pak Miskhahuddin, who had a ready smile both for us and his students and an open, generous nature.
During his welcome speech in front of the class, it was quite obvious that he enjoys a good humored, positive relationship with his young charges, as was indicated by a few jokes he shared, which were greatly enjoyed by the students.
The workshop itself was very well received, with the students, who were shy at first, slowly coming out of their shells and entering into the exercises with a great deal of enthusiasm. When the workshop had ended and we were preparing to leave and make our way back to Semarang, Pak Miskhahuddin had one more surprise in store.
He got on his motorbike and asked us to follow him in our car. He led us to his modest house in the heart of the village, where lunch had been prepared. Rice, ikan bakar (barbequed fish), soup and vegetables, all of which had been cooked by 15 students, awaited our arrival.
We ended up staying for more than an hour, chatting about the NIE program and the pesantren with Pak Miskhahuddin and the school’s overall guide, KH. M. Ma’mun Abdullah ZA, who is a descendant of the school’s founder. The food was delicious and the hospitality shown to us was a definite highlight of the week.
It was quite obvious from the conversation we had that, despite the school’s modest surroundings, it is run by forward-thinking people who have great dreams and aspirations for the future opportunities and wellbeing of their students.
On a personal level, as an expat living in Indonesia, it was a rare privilege to be afforded the opportunity to visit this pesantren and, speaking on behalf of my colleagues who accompanied me on this trip, we were all highly impressed with both the students and their principal and would like to extend a big “thank you” for the warm welcome we received. We feel sure that under Pak Miskhahuddin and Pak Ma’mun’s guidance, the students at SMK Roudlotul Mubtadiin will go on to achieve all their hopes and ambitions.