PLF students at Knar Village have always struggled to complete school even more than our students who live in much more remote areas. It’s been disheartening and frustrating for years. The search for the reason why has become a focus in the last couple of years. Figuring out what to do about it are the weeds we are in at the moment. 

We recently walked you through our school completion statistics compared to the rest of the country and discussed how getting our students through middle school was our biggest challenge. Once PLF students complete middle school they stay in school until completion at a much higher rate than the rest of the country. 

The challenge is in holding onto them through middle school.  This is especially true in the Knar area. I would posit that the problem at Knar comes back to the area’s low literacy level.

It helps to look at a bit of data to see what’s going on. The results of our remedial Khmer placement exam after the first 6 months of Covid school closures were stark.

Remedial Khmer Exam

More students than ever were placed into remedial Khmer in grades 4,5 and 6, with less than a 20% pass rate in grades 4 and 5 being especially dismal. Grade 6 results are showing us a first glimmer of the impact of our remedial Khmer classes and Children’s Library activities, as they were the first group to fully get access to those two things.

To give you an idea of what these levels mean, the curriculum and workbooks we built for the Alphabet Class (in red in the graph) were taken mostly from kindergarten resources and we’re using Grade 1 worksheets as their homework while schools are still closed. A full third of the 4th-grade class struggled with Grade 1 work.

We’ve started addressing this literacy problem through multiple avenues and while it may take a few years for us to measure the impact, we think we are on our way.

  • In 2018 we began our first remedial Khmer class. Since then, we’ve split it into two levels: one for students still struggling with the alphabet and basic words and one for students with basic understanding but still below grade level.
  • In 2019 we opened the Children’s Library and started Reading Days when afternoon classes were cancelled in favor of the whole Learning Center reading together. We sent Chenda, our long-time teacher and first-time librarian, on multiple librarian exchanges 
  • In 2020 Ravuth and Sil scoured existing Khmer resources and created Khmer workbooks for their students (a tough feat considering ability-appropriate material was not age-appropriate)
  • In 2020 we developed a Khmer placement exam and found several students that had slipped our eyes and needed support in the remedial classes (particularly after a year of Covid school closures)
  • In 2021 we also introduced tablets with an eLibrary in response to international research that boys respond better to technology. We are desperate to find a sliver of a door opening into solving the growing “Boy Problem” 

We are seeing hope that we’re moving in the right direction. The Children’s Library proved to be a vast success with 1071 books being borrowed in just the first four months it was open! The foundation is being built at the primary levels and we know that we’ll see that pay off as those students move into secondary school. But we also must engage our current secondary school students before their lack of Khmer pushes them right out of school. While the majority of our library inventory has been targeting primary school students, bit by bit we have been building our inventory for older students and encouraging them to read as much as their younger siblings. We’re already seeing an extraordinary increase in their reading, but we think we can do better.

Books Borrowed

We’re now preparing to give those students their own library, to be able to have a space geared toward them with *their* books given prominence over early grade readers and with chairs not designed for a 10-year-old. We know from our university students’ feedback that developing strong reading skills is vital to success. We know that grade-level literacy will help improve our students’ completion rate in middle school. We’ll stock the shelves with young adult fiction, study resources, and vocational and soft skills books. We anticipate seeing a surge in their readership and will be keeping a close eye on the data coming in from librarians.

We’re determined to keep aggressively chipping away at it. 

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