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Archive for June, 2009

The Problem with Donor-driven Approaches

June 22, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 June Trip, General No Comments →

June 21, 2009 – Trapeang Chhor, Cambodia

In every village I visit, the story is the same – “teacher absent often.” This is the problem we are focused on to fix. It is the basic sustainability issue that no one in education is talking about.

At Kang T’bein school, 4 kilometers in the opposite direction, 26 year old Hong Bun Han is teaching 3rd grade. He completed 10th grade himself, so he received no teacher training. He is a “community teacher” but since he grew up here in Trapeang Chhor commune he is often present. I ask the 40 kids in his class who of them attends school often. Only 5 raise their hands. They’ve been gathered here today because they knew I was coming. I go to the next classroom where 42 fourth graders are hanging out. “Where’s the teacher?” I ask. They point to the door where Hong Bun Han is standing. He is the teacher for both classes! Better than the next two classrooms that have no teacher at all. In the 6th grade class, of the 32 enrolled students, only 8 are present. Their government teacher is a young woman from far away Pursat district, and she is absent often. Can you blame her? She has no place to live!

I asked the kids what is their dream. All four 16-year-old girls said they want to be Khmer teachers in this village. Three of the 15-year-old boys said the same thing. One boy wants to be a doctor. Tears sting my eyes. Please don’t give up, continue to study and help each other. I will try to get you a teacher.

The principle Pen Mon is a minority Suoy man. He told me 264 students were enrolled at the beginning of the year. Less than 100 attend now. This school was built the same year ours was by the same organization. It now has an abandoned solar panel on the roof and one broken computer. Back then they had a vibrant English/computer class with a $60 a month salaried teacher supplied by another NGO. Once the donations stopped so did he.  This is the problem with donor-driven approaches – they only last as long as the donor does. They once had a large “victory garden” which is now a dried up field. The gardener left when the donor did and with teachers absent often there was no one to instruct the children on how to take care of it. The large sign on the end of the building says “donated by George Mrus.” I wonder if Mr. Mrus knows about this. The NGO who built the school with his money told me he got “donor fatigue.”

I know how he feels. That is why our approach is community-driven, so the people are empowered to carry on without us.

At Ta Ngoem, the next village, the story is even worse. When we arrive the school is closed because no teachers showed up at all today. They actually have two buildings – the first one built by the same NGO and a second one, bright yellow and newly built by Lutheran World Services, making for a total of 10 empty classrooms. Why anyone would build a second building when they couldn’t run the first is beyond me. From the sign on the building I gather that the “Lutheran Education Fund of the Adelaide Hills, Australia” needed a capital project. Mission accomplished. School built. Pity there are no students in it.

I don’t even want to discuss the one secondary school at Bonteay Proh Neak. The story is the same. There are 7 primary schools that should feed into this secondary school and only 120 kids enrolled in it. It is closed this day, of course, “teacher absent often.” In order to discuss with the Director to allow our 7th grader Sa Ran to retake her test, I had to go wake him up in the hammock under his house.

I call Sam Sundoeun’s boarding house in the city. We have to lower the grade level that kids can come to his place for schooling. The secondary school is useless. We have 7 secondary school students, 4 girls among them who need to come now. He agrees and assures me that his older students can help them “reset the foundation” during the summer break.

Each of these communities has already formed a school supporting committee. We have an education officer Donate Now to Sustainable Schools International via Network for Goodliving in the village ready to help them get started. All we need is the money to make a 5-year commitment to sustainability.

My Wyoming roots are speaking to me….”Let’s git-r-done” (Don’t let me get donor fatigue).

Buildings Don’t Teach Children, Teachers Do

June 19, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 June Trip, General No Comments →

June 18, 2009 – Sre Chrap, Cambodia

Tooling around on a bicycle on the dusty backroads of remote regions one can find out many things. Sre Chrap is the next village, deep in the forest, about 3 kilometers away from our school. It’s a place of natural beauty and human misery. The people living here are mostly newcomers displaced to the forest for survival because their rice fields in other parts of the country have been grabbed by the government and sold off to private companies. The only means of survival is fishing in nearby Piem Levia lake and chopping down trees. The woodcutting activity is stimulated by the market for fuel wood in the city. One of the many unfortunate outcomes, aside from the stunningly ignored contribution to global warming created by the destruction of such large, old growth trees, is that the Souy hilltribe who has lived here for centuries is losing their culture. They are animist forest dwellers—without trees they have no ancestors, no medicines and no livelihoods. No one in this government seems to care.

The poverty here is quite indescribable. Along the dusty lane, lined with hut after hut, I meet school age children driving cattle, operating chainsaws, carrying babies. Girls drop out of school to be married off at 15, start having babies and begin the cycle of poverty all over again. I encounter one family squatting on the road in the shade. The mother is holding a baby, and 4 young toddlers hang around her. The oldest, a 10 year old boy, is carrying a rope for driving cattle. I ask why he is not in school. His mother said he dropped out two years ago because “the teacher absent often”. He walked a long way to go to school, and the mother needs his labor to help feed the family. For such families, sending children to school is a huge sacrifice. Keeping their children out of school oftentimes is a matter of survival, and they will give up on education quickly if they see no hope in it. Can you blame them? What treasures of talent lay behind this child’s bright eyes buried forever because no one could be bothered to pay a teacher to mine it?

The story is the same in hut after hut. One family has 9 children, 2 go to school. Girls 13 years old drop out of school for lack of a bicycle and get married. In one village only 3 children are in school.

It’s not for lack of a building. Sre Chrap has a nice, bright yellow 3 classroom school building carved out of the forest and built in 2001 by Lutheran World Services. But buildings don’t teach children, teachers do. I learned that there are more than 100 school age children in the 3 surrounding villages who are not in school.

This is just plain sad. And yet, there is community resilience. In the school yard I meet the principle, Chim Cham, a former teacher from our school at Chrauk Tiek. Four members of his school supporting committee are also present. They heard about the program from our school committee and have already created a committee with 12 members, 4 women among them. They have already been working together to do projects at the school they deem important. They’ve built a fence together with donated materials from the community, and now they are collecting materials to build the principle an office and store room. He asks if we can help support them with 10 bags of cement for the floor and tin for the roof. I am impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish with nothing. This community deserves our support.

For the 120 students present, there are 2 teachers. They are both community teachers, which means that they live here and therefore always show up, but they have low qualifications. A young woman teaching 50 students in 1st grade has a 3rd grade education herself. An adult literacy class serves as her teaching qualification. The male teacher in charge of second grade has an 8th grade education. Third and 4th grade join together because there are so few students. They are taught by the principle, Chim Cham, the only government teacher with high school and teacher training. There is no 5th or 6th grade. Believe it or not, this underqualified teaching staff is better than government teachers because they live in the community and take the job seriously. The school committee is quite concerned about the government plans to send them qualified formal teachers from the teacher training college in the provincial capital. The result is always the same. Since the formal teachers come from far away and cannot afford to live on the new teacher salary of $30 per month, they simply don’t show up. Would you? They have no place to live, no food to eat, no social life.

Building fences and buildings is something that illiterate people can do very well. What they can’t do is build a community support system for qualified teachers. That’s why they need us. I ask the committee members what they can do to support the qualified teachers to stay here. The answer is simple—provide them housing and generate income to pay them a living wage. If they are willing to make a 5-year commitment to volunteer their time, we can help them achieve that goal.

Donate Now to Sustainable Schools International via Network for Good
Please help us, help them. We need a team of people to champion the community of Sre Chrap.

Thank You for Building the Fence, Now Lets Talk Scholarships

June 17, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 June Trip, General No Comments →

June 16, 2009 – Chrauk Tiek, Cambodia

The ceremony was a success, we got our point across with a loudspeaker and a bunch of donated clothes. With many parents in attendance, it was an opportunity to encourage their participation in our program. Building a fence was the first act of community solidarity and participation led by the School Supporting Committee, so I made a big show of appreciation to all the volunteers who helped. The Chairman was quite proud, reading down the list of accomplishments the committee has contributed to the school. I presented him a watch, and each volunteer was called out, applauded and they were given first pick from the clothes. They were thrilled and I was amazed at the goodwill accomplished with the piles of sweatshirts and pants I collected from the lost and found at my son’s school. Clothing that is never even missed by our kids, is providing the only piece their children will wear day and night until they out grow it or it turns into unrecognizable soiled rags. The later is more likely.

The whole thing dragged on way too long with 300 kids sitting in the hot sun, but now that we had their parents attention, it was time explain the scholarship program.

Sam Sundoeun, our boarding house service partner from Phnom Penh said it best:

Do you want your children to work with their labor like you or to work with their brain? Education is the only way to change your life. But we cannot do it without you. To get to the top, we can only provide you the ladder, but the children need to climb by themselves, and the parents need to hold the ladder and push. We ask the community to make a commitment to volunteer their time to help support and sustain the primary school, so we can concentrate on providing scholarships for higher education.

Secondary Scholarships are focused to girls, the minority Souy children, and the talented students who drop out to work. High School and eventually University scholarships are available to boys or girls who make a commitment to come back and work in the village. The volunteer hours that each family contributes to the sustainability of the primary school will be scored on each scholarship application. So the more they contribute the better their child’s chance of earning a scholarship.

At the end of the meeting, 3 high school candidates came forward. One was a girl for the desperately poor neighboring village of Sre Charp. She is now studying 10th grade in a largely empty high school 30 kilometers away. She is good at math and science. She wants to be a doctor in her village.

An official from the provincial Ministry of Education was very impressed with our program. He said he could contact the World Food Program to bring a school breakfast to our school. Great. He said he never heard about this school but he can see that our approach works very well. He told everyone on stage that the most important thing is community participation and the honestly and transparency of the school director. I gave a sideways glance to the school director, whom I know is neither honest nor transparent. But it seems we have an opportunity to put pressure on him from above to straighten up.

Then, I turned to speak with the other visitors on the stage, representatives of the three nearby villages where we want to expand. They took this all in and are waiting for my visit. The biggest problem they each have is that the “teacher skips the class often”. Teacher absenteeism leads to student absenteeism. Later as I walked around these villages I meet family after family with kids who stopped studying after 3rd grade, 4th grade, 7th grade for this reason – the teacher absent to often.

Even a school breakfast is a higher level function compared to the very basic need to have teachers present in the classroom everyday. Why doesn’t the Cambodian Ministry of Education or world aid organizations get this? How would we feel if our children’s teachers were often absent?

This One MUST Go to School

June 16, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 June Trip, General 1 Comment →

June 15, 2009 – Chrauk Tiek, Cambodia

We arrive at school late on a Sunday afternoon, and the school committee is busy making a stage out of palm fronds for tomorrow’s “thank you for building the fence” ceremony. The chairman of the school committee invites us to his home for dinner.  His wife has prepared 4 wonderful dishes of stir-fired vegetables, pork and noodles, all donated by members of the committee. We’re the honored guests.

Several members of the committee share the meal, but one stood back. Ek Chun, a tiny Souy man with a gentle demeanor who is always gracious and excited to see me. He sat at the edge of the darkness where the warm glow from the single light bulb powered by the generator did not reach. His wife and sister and their 8 children were with him, but claimed to be full from having already eaten their dinner. Later I realized that they didn’t have anything to contribute to the meal so Chun and his family would not partake.

After we’d finished the meal and pushed back from the table, the women and children were all standing quietly together watching us, a baby on one breast. From the edge of the darkness their smiles glowed. Chun whispered something to Paul, who whispered to me. He wanted to apologize to me for not sending his children to the school for a few weeks. He needed their labor to go to the forest and dig for wild potatoes. They have not had any rice for 2 months. He did not want anyone to know.

I looked at the children’s faces, the empty plates we just finished, the half dish of rice I had left from being too full. I wanted to throw up.

In hushed tones in the dark, Paul, Yoen and I hatched a plan. We drove our van to the market town and woke up the rice seller, and purchased two 50-kilo bags of rice. To avoid arousing attention we coasted in front of Chun’s home with the lights turned off. Under cover of darkness, we carried the two huge bags of rice down the long path to his thatch hut. Chun’s wife clasped her prayerful hands around mine in the darkness with a fierceness of a mother desperate to feed her children. She and Chun bowed profusely to thank me for the rice.

Chun showed me his empty rice barn and explained the bad harvest, he didn’t want to bother me. He wanted me to know they would continue to dig for roots and only use two small cans of rice per day to make it last.

In the glow of candlelight we discussed their oldest daughters education. Sa Ran is 17 and in 7th grade. She missed the last two weeks of school to dig for potatoes. She missed the test to complete the level, she would either have to repeat the grade or drop out. I knew the later was likely.

I told Chun and his wife to make this child’s education a priority no matter what, even if they must sacrifice the others to work, this one MUST go to school. They agree that education is the most important and they do not want their daughter to get married until she completes the highest level. I asked  Sa Ran what is her ambition. She wants to complete 12th grade or higher.  She wants to become a Khmer teacher and come back to this village to teach. Her parents will let her go to the boarding house in Phnom Penh next year. But first she has to get past the 7th grade.

She is studying today. Tomorrow I will go to the secondary school at Bonteay Proh Neak and bribe the teacher to let her retake the test. That shouldn’t be too hard.

Recognizing the Need

June 15, 2009 By: Kari Category: 2009 June Trip, General No Comments →

June 14, 2009 – Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Next stop, World Education, the Boston-based NGO funded by USAID. Very insightful meeting. The director, Kurt Brendenberg, has lived in Cambodia since 1996 and has built his approaches to supporting education from the ground up. I like him. He makes more sense then anyone else with whom I’ve discussed the dysfunctional Cambodian schools. He agreed that our grassroots approach is effective and has depth and impact in a way that larger programs don’t. He also agrees that our 5-year commitment is prudent. He showed me statistics that the Aural District of Kampong Speu province where we work has one of the lowest student retention rates in the country – a problem we are trying to solve. So I feel very encouraged that we are on the right track.

I talked with Kurt about SSI working as a sub-grantee of World Education. There is potential for some of our needs to be met in this way, but only a small portion, mostly because of USAID’s geographic restrictions and the focus on lower secondary education. Yet, our objective is the same – to get more kids into secondary school. In the region where we work, where less than 20% of students go onto 7th grade, that just isn’t possible without strengthening the support and student retention at the primary schools first. He hands me a CD containing a “toolkit” of solutions to many of the problems that rural schools face. “Fish Raising” looks promising. Great. Love it. But wait…this all costs money…where is the plan for empowering the community to economically support these programs long after the donor is gone? There isn’t one. Why are we the only ones who recognize the need for SUSTAINABILITY and RELIABILITY in education?

I am not always thrilled with being forced to innovate. I find it frustrating that when people discuss the problems of education, no one seems to want to acknowledge that it is about money. Fact: the biggest contributor to student absenteeism is teacher absenteeism. The reason teachers are absent is that they need more than $45 a month to live on! USAID actually has rules against supplementing a government employees salary. What? So we can work to strengthen a school in every way EXCEPT the most obvious and effective one, which is to PAY THE TEACHERS MORE? Supposedly, we’re waiting for the government to do that. Ummm…yeah, we’ve been waiting 10 years for that…how many children have failed to learn to read in that time? How many of them have ended up scavenging dumps or trafficked into brothels? Since the government won’t do it, the community must, that’s out motto…it’s their children and their future at stake.

I am even more convinced that Sustainable Schools International is the only organization on the planet that is willing to take up the challenge of Sustainability in Education. I did not ask to be a pioneer, but one is sometimes forced to do what needs to be done.

Who’s with me?