Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for March, 2010

A New Dilemma

March 06, 2010 By: karig2 Category: 2010 February Trip, General No Comments →

“How will they get from 6th grade to 10th?  There is a big hole in that desperately poor secondary school 4 kilometers down the road.   It only has 120 students enrolled, 12 teachers assigned but only 5 show up, and they have to live in a monastery to survive.”

As I step back and look at the progress we’ve made, the important change I see is in the kids themselves.   They are confident. Both the scholarship students in the city and the primary students in Chrauk Tiek display a level of joy and confidence I have never seen before. They used to be nervous, avoid eye-contact and physically shy away from me.  Now they look me in the eye, talk to me, touch me, they want to know. It’s almost like the vibration of their life force is higher. There is a lightness of being about them. It is belief in the future of their lives.

The children will not allow their parents to keep them away from school. One girl cried for half a day when her parents took her to a wedding celebration and broke their promise to have her back to school in time for class. I visited a first grade girl who broke her leg after being hit by a moto during our sanitation day.  She cried from the cot where she lay recuperating with her leg in a make-shift splint,  not because she was in pain but because she had missed a week of school.

This in a country where 50% drop out by fourth grade!

Our fifth and sixth graders show up on a day off from school to make crosses.   One of our donors commissioned them to make 150 little wooden crosses for an Easter fundraiser.  They will be paid $2 for each. With no tools and working in teams of 4, they each whittle away at a wood stick they brought from home. Once it resembles a cross they work to make it smooth by rubbing vigorously against the cement floor. The work is overseen by the three students who won the design competition we held for a $5 reward.   When the work is complete, and I pay them $300 for the 150 crosses bought by our donor, they decide not to pay themselves $2 individually for each cross made, they’d rather keep the money pooled together and buy something for their school. They want to purchase a pushcart so they won’t have to carry water anymore.   The cart will feature painted letters “donated by the 5th and 6th grade class 2010.”  I am certain this is the first time this has ever happened in the entire country of Cambodia.

Most kids don’t make it to 5th grade.  Ours never miss.

I have a new dilemma. I am concerned about our 49 wonderful, dedicated, smart sixth graders – where will they go next year?  We don’t have enough room for all of them in the scholarship program in the city, it’s really for high school anyway. How will they get from 6th grade to 10th? There is a big hole in that desperately poor secondary school 4 kilometers down the road. It only has 120 students enrolled, 12 teachers assigned but only 5 show up, and they have to live in a monastery to survive.

Then something completely amazing happens. The Chrauk Tiek Primary School Supporting Committee decides to share it’s meager resources with the Banteay Branak Secondary School Supporting Committee.    We don’t have the budget to expand full throttle to the secondary school so they will share the primary school budget until we do.  One thousand dollars per month is budgeted to the primary school program, five hundred of that for teacher support. The remaining five hundred is allotted for supplies and sustainability projects.  They’ve decided to use this five hundred to help the secondary school committee get started until we can provide their own program budget.

The first thing they will need is barbed wire. The Bonteay Branak committee will prove their commitment to partnering with SSI by building a fence around the school yard on their own.   The community will contribute the wood poles and labor.  It may not sound important to education to us but it is important to them.   It is something they know how to do, an  achievable goal proved necessary by the cow that enters the school room during our meeting.

This new school committee is energized by our discussion. We draw out their vision on a big piece of flip chart paper.  I am surprised to learn that they dream of having a high school here.  It’s clear that the biggest problem is attendance of the teachers. So we discuss priorities and once again it shifts from cement fences, playgrounds and buildings to happy, well-supported teachers.  They understand what it takes to support a teacher: housing, a bathroom, food and salary.  We decipher the difference between one-time expenses and ongoing expenses – food and salary, that’s the hard part. This is the focus of our sustainability program, and they get it.   It will take 5 years to achieve this goal. Once again, I am certain this committee of illiterate women is smarter than the government. Like moms everywhere, they want their kids to go to a good school.  What most aid groups don’t seem to realize is that when you have a strong school, the kids will come.  There are several programs out there actually paying families to send girls to secondary school. This idea is not only unnecessary, it actually undermines community solidarity.   When you have a strong school built by a community that participates, families see value in education and the kids come!

The challenge now will be to raise the $45,000 we need to expand our program to the secondary school before the school committee loses it’s momentum. Eleven members of this committee have already attended a two day Attitude Forum  to jump start the personal transformation needed to begin their leadership training.

Can we raise the money to keep pace with their belief in us?