GET REAL: Knar School's Epic Turnaround

“Get Real” will be a regular post from Ponheary, Lori or Travis about real challenges we face daily in the operation of Ponheary Ly Foundation.

By Travis Thompson, PLF Executive Director

In the past year, the school Ponheary Ly Foundation has been at the longest, but where the organization has faced the ugliest challenges, has turned a corner and is showing signs of huge success.

Get RealFiguring out how to move forward at Knar School has been a jigsaw puzzle for us.  When I started with PLF in 2012, it was disheartening to visit the school because it lagged behind the progress of our other schools–schools PLF had been at shorter amounts of time.  For example, at Tchey School, I’d seen in a very short time massive growth in the technology and media lab.  In fact, in my first week, we were at a stage where we could install internet at that school–one of the first schools in the countryside of Cambodia to have this. That learning tool has helped Tchey students grow immensely, and we’ve had complete cooperation from school staff and students.

At another location, Koh Ker School, we’d show up and find the food program running smoothly, student health improving from what started as a very dire and deadly situation, student attendance at near 100% and full community support in a violence-ridden village where school is still a very new concept.  The overriding feeling at Koh Ker and Tchey Schools was, “It’s working!”.

But, that was not so at Knar School.  At Knar, we’d show up and see trash lying around the school yard.  We’d see things disappearing from classrooms and the library, non-stop.  Crayons, building tools, games, puzzles, and other learning tools couldn’t be stored for more than a day or two without going MIA.  Dropout rates were the highest of any of our schools.  Food programs weren’t possible because we couldn’t trust that the food would get to the kids unless PLF staff was standing at the school every morning.  And, for a small organization like us, we simply didn’t have the manpower to be big brother like that. Over the years, PLF also had spent loads of money transporting Knar students to Siem Reap hospitals for small scrapes and minor illnesses that had gotten out of control.

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Teacher Mam cooks and serves students every morning as part of PLF’s beefed up food program.

Overall, we were at our wit’s end.   Something had to change.

Ponheary led the way with the first and most important change.  She hit the ground, making rounds with school, district and provincial education ministry officials, to use their authority in making things work at Knar.  The Foundation had to go through the official (and  long and painful) process of getting registered as an NGO in Cambodia.  After Ponheary secured that, she was able to involve government officials in our operation at Knar School, implementing with them new checks and balances at Knar to ensure things that were supposed to be happening were actually happening.

In addition to Ponheary’s muscle in leveraging help from Cambodia’s education ministry, we saw a huge push from PLF Advocates bringing in new support for Knar School.  This support came from several countries, but especially powerful were new efforts by Ponheary Ly Foundation Australia Coordinator Jane Dinnison and all our supporters Down Under.

The school underwent a major expansion of library and technology programs.  A new library now houses two rooms–a junior room and a senior room.  The librarian is now teaching new creative-thinking classes, and hosting computer play time, in addition to the students’ regular curriculum.  Plus, students are now appointed to be library assistants.

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Knar students use laptop computers daily now.

We’ve also started putting stocks of learning games and art supplies at the school, in addition to 21 One Laptop Per Child computers.  And, guess what?  Over a period of months, nothing has disappeared.  The library activities are exceeding our greatest hopes.  The kids have worked diligently over the year to learn how to care for their learning tools and technology.  In addition, thanks to Eyes Open in Switzerland and PLF Advocate Andrew Tuck, the school has a new and beefed up daily breakfast program.   And, guess what?  The food is getting to the students, which is making the community even more supportive of the school.

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Knar School’s senior room in the new library.

We’ve learned the hard way that persistance and stamina are key.  You can’t give up, even when the going feels impossible.  But, more importantly, once we involved education government officials, support from people in the community and the school staff started to fall in line.  The teacher we hired to be a nurse and immediately treat minor cuts and illnesses at the school has slashed our costs of taking kids to hospitals to almost nothing.  The breakfast program is kept in check by the teacher we’ve hired to cook, another teacher we’ve hired to keep records of the food stock, and by giving business to local markets and farmers by sourcing things in the village near the school.  We’ve increased the salary and teaching times for the librarian, so now he’s more invested in making sure library programs run smoothly and that nothing disappears.  Bottom line, with your support we’ve been able to come a lot further in tying the school to the livelihood of the community.

Friends of Knar School have stayed with us over the years, through the ups and downs.  We hope you’ll be as proud and excited as we are about these very encouraging changes.

These days, we’re always looking for new games and activities for the Knar library.  Here’s a look at some of the items we’d like on our wishlist.

Because we’re seeing a big shift at Knar School and we feel so confident in the direction the school is moving, we’ve also invested in cosmetic improvements as well, painting classrooms and desks and building a new kitchen.

KNAR CLASSROOMS BEFORE:

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KNAR CLASSROOMS AFTER:

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KNAR KITCHEN BEFORE:

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KNAR KITCHEN AFTER:

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