Srayang Dormitory Becomes the Srayang Learning Center

At our core, PLF is about equity. Our work in the broad sense is about knocking down barriers and forcing open doors for Cambodia’s rural population to access education. When we started, less than 7% of Cambodia’s rural girls would ever enroll in Grade 9. Of those, less than 7% graduated from Grade 12(1). The roadblocks to education in Cambodia have been effectively weeding out poor, rural students before they could ever reach even high school. Considering that 80% of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas(2), these numbers told a story that we do not accept.

We started working at Koh Ker Primary School against great odds in 2006 and it was there, in the myriad of challenges disenfranchised communities face, that PLF’s holistic approach to educational access was crafted. 

It wasn’t until 2008 that we were able to add Grades 4-6, allowing the first of the village to achieve further than a Grade 3 education and complete primary school. Sareng, now our Koh Ker librarian, was one of four students to be the first-ever in their community to finish Grade 6. 

Once that milestone was reached, the community pushed us to help them find a way for their children, for the first time ever, to Secondary School. 

The nearest school was located in the District seat at Srayang Village, 15 miles away, necessitating a very early morning (and dangerous) commute in the dark through the forest.  Commuting by bicycle was not an option for the parents. The only solution we could see was to literally move the students to Srayang at grade 7.  We bought a house across the road from the school and christened it the Srayang Dormitory.

PLF Canada was founded that year in direct response to the challenges ahead and they delivered the funding to open the Srayang Dormitory in 2010. They have been a driving force behind the dorm all along the way.

In the first year, we welcomed the first Koh Ker graduates (all girls!). Three years later we had our first Grade 9 graduates. By 2014 the very first student broke even that record by continuing on to Grade 10 in Siem Reap, which up until now was where students had to live in order to complete High School. 

Students from Romchek Village joined Koh Ker at the dorm in 2015, a feat accomplished by a whole community coming together and pushing all the students and teachers forward to make the dream of Grade 9 education a reality. 

We all reached a new landmark in 2017 when our first student from Srayang continued on to university. Suddenly, a path appeared.

The first path was hard to traverse and full of brambles. And it excluded a full 50% of primary school students from furthering their education.

We’ve accomplished much over the past decade with the Dormitory at Srayang and have learned even more. We’ve borne witness to the extraordinary push of students to get themselves through school against all odds. We’ve seen the transformative effect of their efforts on their community as they have “re-taught” a community that never got to go to school about the value of education. School opens doors to economic opportunity. The community awoke when they learned this. 

When parents, who never went to school, begin prioritizing the education of their children, big shifts in the community begin to happen. 

Step-by-step and one-by-one has always been our mantra. In the 2020-21 school year, a decade into the project at Srayang, we’re taking the natural next step and transforming the Dorm into a Learning Center. 

Instead of living on-site, students will be transported back-and-forth from their villages to the Srayang school each day. (In Huge Trucks!) They will have their government curriculum at the public school (just across the road) have lunch at the Center and finish up the day there, with English Classes, Remedial Khmer and Math classes, Computer class, access to a library, informal study groups, Life Skill Workshops, Chess Clubs and whatever else we dream up along the way. 

This scale up is massive. Instead of only the top 25-30% of graduating 6th graders who previously could get into Srayang Dormitory, now 100% of all graduates can continue on to secondary school.

In typical PLF style, we won’t be rolling everything out at once. In November, when school starts we’ll focus on the logistics involved in getting 150 students from the bush to the school by 7 am. We’ll master how to quickly serve those same 150 students lunch. Given the COVID19 trainwreck that was the second half of this school year, instead of jumping right in with “additional curricula” we will hire some high school Khmer teachers to provide the necessary remedial classes in core subjects to get students who will have missed half a school year caught up. We’ll also focus on getting the library put together. 

Next week, we’ll begin a remodeling project on the facility, turning dorm rooms into classrooms, expanding the kitchen, building a library, getting on the grid, and myriad other details. Lots to do before school starts again (whenever that is!) 

We learned loads in the building of the Learning Center at Knar . The most salient point; let things roll out on their own timeline, not ours. 

Only recently was the Middle School at Srayang scaled up by the government and now goes all the way to grade 12. This means students now have more choices about where and they might finish up secondary school since they no longer have to come to our Siem Reap dorms to get that job done. Keeping most students at Srayang all the way through grade 12  gives us the opportunity to further define the two Dormitories in Siem Reap as College Prep facilities for students we know are College material. 

Two major organic evolutions over the past decade have allowed us to re-envision our approach and reach even more students. First, our holistic set of initiatives at the primary schools, particularly our kindergartens and libraries, has resulted in students graduating Grade 6 at the grade-appropriate age.

When the Srayang dorm first started, the average age of our students at intake for Grade 7 was 15-16 years. It is now 12-13 years old. We love it when the success of one program pushes the evolution of another, and now here we are with 12 year olds moving away from home in pursuit of an education.  It’s unfair and not optimal for children that young to be away from their families, especially over such a long period. 

 

Turning the page on residential housing for children of this age is long overdue. We’re ready to begin a new chapter where children get to stay home and go all the way through school.   The path is wide open, finally. For everyone.  

The Srayang Dorm has always been a multifaceted investment. For those who stopped at Grade 9, many have gone back to work in their communities, such as PLF Librarians Sareng and Tha. For the students who continue on through high school and into Vocational Training or University, they secure the potential to parlay their education into even greater economic opportunities. For all the students who have had the grit to join the Srayang Dorm, they leave with their value of education immeasurably higher than that of the generation before them, creating a ripple effect of change.

One of the PLF’s goals has always been to bring options to students everywhere. We believe that all children everywhere deserve a place at the table where all the options are being served.

Students from areas like Koh Ker and Romchek are born into a society that is miles upstream from those living in cities. They make up the forgotten population of those living in rural Cambodia, the 80% who get skipped over because there simply aren’t enough services and resources. 

Because of you who have tirelessly supported the Srayang Dorm over the past decade, there are now hundreds of students who have reached Secondary School, and step-by-step those students are changing the whole trajectory of their communities. Blazing the way forward, they are lighting the path for others to follow behind. With the opening of the Learning Center, that path grows ever wider and ever brighter as hundreds more will now have the chance to gain their diploma.

We have had so much solid support over the years from all corners of the globe for the project at Srayang. We need to again thank donors at PLF Canada, who will be funding the lion’s share of start up costs for this massive undertaking. We’re still working on the running costs: much depends on the way school re-opening is rolled out and when. Be assured we’ll be reaching out when we get it all figured out. 

It takes many hands to hold this many students and we are so lucky to have your hands so firmly in ours~!

Let’s do this!

(1) –  MoEYS, EMIS, 2007
(2) – Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Cambodia