We can’t help everyone. This is the harsh reality of our work which we grapple with every day. We constantly feel its weight: 2,800 students in our programs, out of how many more who need a hand up? Over 200 university scholarships awarded so far by PLF, but how many other students left with only a high school diploma? For us, these are not just numbers: these are human beings; these are faces; these are students we know and love. And our hearts break for them.
We opened our Srayang Dormitory in 2010 so that the first students out of Koh Ker could push on past the Grade 6 education that was until then only available. And for a decade we faced extremely tough decisions about which eligible students could have a bed in the dorm. In 2020, with two more primary school students to serve (at Romchek and Prey Kuol), and so inspired by all the students who fought so hard for their education and the communities from where they hailed transforming themselves as they awoke to the value of education, we widened the path by transitioning the dorm into Srayang Learning Center (SLC). We purchased trucks to commute the students to and from their villages every day, and hired new staff and teachers as the number of students enrolled at SLC tripled.
Even with this widened path, our head and our heart continue to battle it out over what it means to be “eligible” to be a SLC student. That very first year, we told the community that everyone who graduated from Grade 6 had a seat on our truck; and then Covid struck and closed the schools, and kids were automatically passed to the next grade without sitting valid exams. Students who had never actually studied Grade 6 began arriving at SLC for Grade 7 desperately under-prepared for Junior High. And we are still seeing the impact of this: out of the 46 G7 students who arrived at SLC at the end of 2020, only 31 will start the new school year in January 2023, and of those, only 5 finished the last school year with what we consider passable scores. Simply put, these students need a stronger standard than what the government primary schools are providing.
PLF’s mission is not to set kids up to fail. It’s not in the best interest of the students themselves, and, frankly, it’s not in the best interest of PLF, because, let’s get real: intelligent people like you don’t donate to projects with a high failure rate. So we’ve had to painstakingly decide what it means to be an eligible SLC student:
At the end of Grade 6, students sit a PLF exam in both Khmer and math that covers the foundational content needed for Grade 7. Passing each subject with 70% earns them a seat on the SLC truck. In December 2022, that meant 14 new students became SLC students – only 31% of those who sat our exam. We know that our standard is hitting the mark because of how significantly our SLC Grade 7 students out-performed those who found their way to middle school on their own:
In most schools across Cambodia, students are being pushed forward grade-to-grade without any regard for their real ability. Schools oftentimes have quotas for how many students *must* pass and those quotas often stem from reporting needs for international funding. We see this in almost every school we partner with – from Grade 4 students who don’t know the Khmer alphabet, to Grade 9 students who can’t do long division. There is no single pinpoint of blame here, but rather a system of people trying to do the best with the cards they are dealt – and those cards mostly consisting of under-trained teachers and under-funded schools. It’s one reason Cambodia’s drop out rate spikes in Junior High. Kids are reaching higher grades without basic skills and unable to keep up with a more rigorous curriculum. It’s utterly demoralizing for the student to fall further and further behind. This is a systemic problem that we challenge ourselves to address. It is why we do our own testing and why we put supports up under those students who should be failing but are instead being passed. What is difficult is trying to explain this to parents and students: “You passed – but you are not ready” is an extremely hard sell.
Honestly, it was horrible standing by and seeing those non-SLC Grade 7 students dropping out and failing while knowing that to not intervene was the best action. And it’s horrible taking only 31% of kids who all sat our exam with such hope. But we know two things: 1) SLC needs success to secure the funding needed for more trucks and classrooms and teachers to be ready for the future when it’s 50% then 70% then 90% passing our exam; and, more importantly, 2) the community needs to be pushing back on the primary schools, demanding why only 31% could achieve a C- on our exam. In turn, those schools need to be demanding straight up through the Ministry to get more fully-trained teachers and additional teaching support.
Our biggest message to the students and their families has been, “Repeat, repeat, repeat Grade 6!” The Khmer language and math skills gained in primary school are not only essential to progress through secondary school, but they give you the basic life skills to succeed even when your path is not an academic one. In 2022 we funded an entire class for kids repeating Grade 6, and those repeaters out-performed regular Grade 6 by almost 20% on our exam. Out of the 14 students who passed our December exam, 6 of them were repeaters.
Note that 2022 had revised exam content
We WANT these students to be succeeding. We WANT to be embracing the challenge of funding an expansion of SLC. And so we’ll be supporting a remedial class for Grade 6 (repeaters too!) in the afternoons to help them build the foundation that is missing.
This is not the first time we’ve had to wrestle with the head-heart dilemma. It’s not the first time we’ve had to face our students and communities and share their disappointment. It’s also not the first time we’ve had to take a stand and say to students “you’re not ready yet, but try again and we’ll help you”. That’s where we are with the project at Srayang. The original goal to get “all the kids on the truck” is still very much the goal, and we will get there. But we’re going to do it as right as we can, without offending our hearts or our good common sense along the way.
This image has been hanging over Lori’s desk for 15 years.
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