It was in May 2014 that PLF made it’s first visit to Romchek Village, nestled just inside a protected forest in northern Preah Vihear Province. This village is about 20km north of Koh Ker Village, where PLF has run a successful school for almost a decade. The students from Koh Ker have been given access to secondary school by coming to live at the PLF Dormitory at Srayang. The students from Romchek hoped to have a chance to join those ranks and continue their education. But it’s not so simple.
To create a situation that would allow the best possible outcome for the students from Romchek, first we had to find out if the two schools were anywhere close to the same level. Were the students who were graduating from Romchek village as well prepared for secondary school as the students from Koh Ker? Was their (very rudimentary) knowledge of English going to be enough for them to join in normal English classes? Would remedial classes have to be set up for Science and Math? How could we get them stabilized at the dorm quickly so that they could do well at school and not feel “behind” or “less than” their Koh Ker counterparts?
In oder to bring the Romchek students into the fold at Srayang, it was obvious we would need to go all the way downstream and add our support to the efforts of the teachers and community to raise the bar at their primary school. This is not an easy proposition for anyone involved; it requires a great deal of effort and commitment both in the community, at the school and PLF. And it won’t happen overnight–we need to allow time for changes to coalesce in the community and let the change happen on their own time, not ours.
When we made the first visit in May 2014, the community prioritized the challenges at the school in this order:
• A lack of clean water
• A lack of student and teacher classroom supplies like books, paper or pencils, chalk, etc
• Toilets not operational
• No office space or secure storage (one classroom was being used for this, creating a shortage of classroom space)
• No cook at the school to make breakfast and not enough food; kitchen in disrepair.
• Not enough funds to do repairs or upkeep of school facility
In addition to the needs addressed by the community, PLF also saw much work to be done with the teaching staff and the school environment. Also, we think all schools everywhere need a library. We would work on that too. No one mentioned any problems with the health of the students but with no clean water available we suspected children would be having health issues. There was also no mention of hygiene issues though we know they exist in most village environments.
We were impressed that no where on the community’s list was a demand for cash for anyone, including the teachers. We also appreciated the fact that clean water for their children was the number one item on their list.
We spent lots of time visiting families in the village, and we did a few random supply drops over the next 9 months until everyone was comfortable with each other and since November 2015 when the new school year began, we’ve been working on the first layers of the pyramid of needs.
• The well was re-fitted with a proper handle and pump, to push water up to a water tower where filtering occurs and provides clean drinking water for the 180 students and their teachers.
• A phase one hygiene program has been established so that children can wash up with soap and water at school. Toothbrushing might be next but we noticed that most children are brushing at home (a very good sign indeed) So again, we wait and see how best to support hygiene.
• Students and their teachers have been outfitted with supplies for teaching and learning. Uniforms were also distributed so everyone can feel ship-shape.
• The toilets are now operational. We are impressed by how clean the school keeps them.
• An outbuilding was constructed that provides space for secure storage and an administrative office, freeing up one of the classrooms. Other small repair jobs have been done around the school.
• Our next project is to rebuild the kitchen; we’ve already hired a cook to make the breakfast that is provided by the World Food Program, consisting of rice and (canned) fish soup. We are not yet convinced that the children at Romchek are in need of the additional nutrition that more vegetables and meat would bring. Our first assessment inside the community does not lead us to believe the villagers are as malnourished as at other places. So we are taking a “wait and see” position on the food thing. For now, our partners at Eyes-Open are providing a big lunch at the school once a month. Certainly the students fill up on lunch day, eating 4 or 5 bowls of food easily, but they do not exhibit the same symptoms of food insecurity that we have seen at other locations and are not having the same malnourishment-induced medical issues either.
• Teacher training has begun. Work on English has begun. Now that all the basics are met we will do the work of developing the teachers at the school and making school more meaningful for the students.
Our intention is to get the students at Romchek to the same level as 6th grade grads at Koh Ker, so that when they meet at the Srayang Dorm, they can take the same Math, Science and English classes and be at something of the same level, with both groups feeling confident in their ability to do well in Secondary School. This year we allowed six students from Romchek to go ahead and come to the Dorm without this foundation in place. They are all passing, but barely and are the six lowest performers academically in their class. They have to work quite hard not to fail and that is something we need to make go away. We hope that by the time the next group from Romchek arrives at the Dormitory they will be 100% prepared for success.
Thanks to everybody who has gotten us this far and especially to Patti and Greg over at PLF Canada who are finding ways to increase their budget at Srayang Dorm so we can include this new stream of students from Romchek village.
Thanks also to our food partners at Eyes-Open for funding the lunch once month and especially to Andrew Tuck, who is funding operations of the entire school on his own.