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The long road to school in Cambodia

Bouvanna crosses a river during her 8-mile hike to school. Arriving late and out of breath, it’s hard to concentrate in class. Making the long trek each day wears her out. For Bouvanna, the daughter of a poor farming family in Cambodia’s remote Ratanak Kiri province, school seems to be slipping further out of reach. She eventually drops out because of the distance and cost of secondary education. Three years later, when the dismissal bell rings at Andong Meas Lower Secondary School, the 17-year-old ninth grader walks next door to the school’s boarding house. Bouvanna considers herself fortunate to have received a scholarship and have a bed nearby. Many of her friends who stayed home in Talav village are already married with children. Other children work in the fields as day laborers.

Bouvanna is indeed fortunate. And, she’s one of a growing number of indigenous children and adolescents who are now getting the opportunity to stay in or return to school. Just a few years ago, the situation seemed insurmountable.

Communities in Ratanak Kiri province face deep poverty, chronic food shortages and geographic isolation. Cultural differences also play a role in the region’s isolation: about 115,000 indigenous people from 10 different ethnic groups live scattered across five provinces. Many have no command of Khmer, Cambodia’s national language, and are therefore excluded from the mainstream economy, are subject to exploitation and violation of human rights, and lack access to many government services, including schools.

In addition to the fact that the majority of government schools are not accessible to minority groups, the instruction language in the schools is Khmer. The majority of teachers cannot speak the local languages. Consequently, school enrollment and retention rates of the indigenous population – from villages like Talav where Bouvanna is from – are among the lowest in Cambodia and their illiteracy rates are the highest. In fact, a 2002 study found that only 5 percent of men and less than 1 percent of women in Ratanak Kiri were literate.

“Only about half of the indigenous children in Ratanak Kiri attend school,” says Jan Noorlander, CARE program coordinator in Cambodia. “This area is so remote, it was all but abandoned by the State education authorities, and even where schools did exist, parents, community members and even children themselves were indifferent, at best, to the importance of education. They lost faith in the system and simply stopped sending their children to school.”

CARE’s Highland Community Education Program (HCEP) is working to change that by helping to meet the educational needs of indigenous populations in northeastern Cambodia. Since 2002, the program has become a unique example of cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and helped to bring multi-lingual and multicultural primary education to community-governed schools in villages that have never had access to formal or non-formal education before.

Adapting the curriculum to the students

Throughout Ratanak Kiri, some 800 students are enrolled in CARE-supported schools, where children are instructed in both their local languages and Khmer. HCEP has its own resource production unit that has written and produced more than 80 bilingual textbooks – approved by the MoEYS – that not only prepare primary school students for secondary education and better livelihood options, but also serve to protect and promote local culture. Moreover, as escalating food prices are making food security and nutrition real concerns, many schools have established vegetable gardens that help feed the students and serve as a source of income.

“Through the school gardens, we teach children about nutrition and agriculture,” says Noorlander. “These are lessons that they can take back to their home villages and have a real impact on their own communities.” In addition to gardens, schools have also constructed latrines and educated children about hygiene and water safety.

By building the ability of communities to establish and manage their own schools, as well as select teachers from their own villages, HCEP is enabling communities to take ownership of their children’s education, using their own languages, for the first time. So far, community commitment and ownership have resulted in high enrollment and low drop-out rates. Based on that success, the MoEYS accorded HCEP community schools full registration.

Work with communities is supported by extensive teacher training and curriculum and material development in different ethnic minority languages. The goal is that this community-based bilingual education program will enable ethnic minority children to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap between their communities and mainstream education.

While supporting children to graduate from primary school has been a tremendous achievement, opportunities to advance to secondary education were still greatly limited. To continue their studies through the ninth grade, students must move on to government-run district schools, which can be up to 50 miles from their homes. CARE expanded HCEP’s mandate in 2008 to provide continued support for these students.

In addition to working with secondary schools and teachers to improve the quality of teaching and learning and infrastructure, CARE provides scholarships that allow highly motivated students from the poorest families to attend secondary school. These scholarships provide for students’ basic needs to live at a boarding house, including food, uniforms, learning materials and transportation home once a month. For students living less than five miles from the school, CARE provides a bicycle, uniforms and learning materials so they can remain at home while attending school. CARE currently supports approximately 350 ethnic minority students who study at secondary schools. Some students have even advanced to high school and will soon graduate from the provincial teacher training college.

Bouvanna, currently a secondary schooler with hopes of attending college one day, participates in the school’s girls’ leadership program and volunteers as a peer counselor. Self-confident, she is no longer the quiet girl who once had to cross streams to get to school.

“I enjoy peer counseling because it helps me become an effective listener when my friends tell me problems,” says Bouvanna. “Many of the students deal with difficult issues, including family pressure to marry or to contribute to the family income. In class they may feel ashamed to ask questions. I listen to them and we solve the problems together. If not, I know how to send these problems to the appropriate people like the school director or the police.”

Changing the system

HCEP’s real success lies not just in the students we’re educating now but in the program’s adoption by national education authorities. The MoEYS has already replicated the HCEP model in other communities in Ratanakiri and is working closely with CARE to scale up this model in four other provinces using guidelines that are a near 100 percent match to the HCEP model. Moreover, in terms of influencing policy change, Cambodia’s new Education Law (Article 24) allows for the use of indigenous languages in formal schooling on the condition that the national language is not ignored. And, in early 2013, the MoEYS officially announced it will institutionalize education for indigenous students at government-managed schools. The government program now includes 38 schools, serving culturally appropriate education to almost 4,000 indigenous students in northeastern Cambodia.

CARE continues to support the government through teacher training, provision of bilingual education materials and improvements to school infrastructure, and we have twice been invited to present on bilingual education at the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization conferences. In Cambodia, the education system has changed to better meet the needs of indigenous populations, thanks to the collective efforts of CARE, the government and communities. We now look to take our learnings across borders to effect greater change.

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