Is “Sustainability” Sustainable?

Tuesday, March 2011
by PEPY

chalkboard

Photo credit: Jacqueline Kronk

Layheng Ting examines the idea of sustainability with a focus on PEPY’s SAS program

Sustainability has been a buzz word in development work for a long time, but how to actually make a project sustainable still remains a big challenge. At PEPY, the challenge is no different from elsewhere. This is the second year in a row that PEPY has focused on helping schools become sustainable using a borrowed model called SAS (Sahakum Aphiwat Sala), or “Communities Developing Schools” in English. This model was originally developed at the Schools for Children of Cambodia, in which one of our consultants, Andrea Messmer, was involved with its development and implementation. I personally believe in the model, as it has so much potential to help schools be self-sustainable if implemented correctly. Like any other sustainability model, it comes with its own challenges.

From my interactions with the SAS team during my first month at PEPY, I can say that the model is now gaining momentum. Our team has worked to form active School Support Committees (SSCs) in each of the three schools we are implementing the model with. Each SSC has identified the problems that need to be fixed and has developed an annual development plan. Last year’s main projects included community initiatives like building shade structures for students to study in, life skills training from community members, and effective teaching and learning (ETL) workshops for teachers. This year, one project that has been recently accomplished is school land-filling. This project involves filling low areas at school with soil to raise land levels in order to avoid flooding during the rainy season. A second project, building a school garden, is on its way to success as well.

Two main income generating projects, fish raising and mushroom growing, have been identified by the SSC in their development plans, and our SAS team has been working very hard to help them figure out if these programs could provide the schools with a decent income. If these two projects are successful, next year schools can continue these projects by themselves without any intervention from our team. For the mushroom growing project, one difficulty the SSC faces is the lack of expertise in mushroom spore making. For fish raising, it is a completely new experience for the SSC, but according to the business plan, it would be a worthwhile project for the school to try out this year.

To improve the capacity of SSCs, the SAS team has so far provided SSC proposal-writing classes, which were attended by many committee members. Through proposal-writing trainings, the SSCs can gain the ability to find various sources of income by themselves after PEPY moves to a new target area, as SAS is aimed to provide transitional community support for 3-5 years.

The SSCs were so enthusiastic about the trainings. While the momentum is high, the SSCs’ ability to grasp the contents of the training varies, and thus the SAS team is now trying to figure out the best strategy to make the proposal training most effective. The most recent school visit to two model schools was a great learning experience for the SSC, and the team was able to bring back new ideas to develop their schools.

Despite signs of success, some challenges remain. From our past experiences, we realized that in order for the schools to be more sustainable, we need more in-house technical staff. This would allow more capacity building of teachers and leadership training for school directors and the school support committee, which is key to improving the quality of education offered at our partner schools. In the past we hired technical experts external to PEPY to offer training to the teachers, and that is not enough. We have so far interviewed a number of candidates for these technical expert positions. When we have technical experts on our team, we will start a rigorous training for teachers and management.

In the first month I have spent with PEPY, here are some lessons I have learned from being involved closely with SAS program:

1.Lack of teacher motivation might hamper the entire SAS process. We can only do so much if teachers do not have the motivation to teach well. To help fix this, it is important for the SAS team to learn how to ask the right questions to the SSC, so that everyone understands that a teacher’s motivation is important, and that low salaries might hamper motivation. Thus, in their next school development plan, they should focus on raising community support for teachers’ salaries if they see it as a problem.

2.The community can only do so much to help schools with their stretched pockets and their doubts regarding the usefulness of education. To respond to this, PEPY’s next step would be to focus even more on community mobilization through brain gain and encouraging educated community members to continue to be involved at the local level. With this in mind, PEPY should work more closely with the Junior High School to ensure a quality education, so that students who graduate from Junior High can do well in High School, pass the high school exit exam, and can continue on to higher education. I believe when students from the community continue to succeed in their schooling, get a job, and give back to the community, they will set a good example for the next generation to follow and the community will have more belief in education.

3.PEPY should continue to find ways to involve the community in all the programs that it has been implementing. One of the biggest outcomes I have seen from PEPY’s programs is the VCD initiative.  Students from Chanleas Dai have created their own organization called “Volunteers for Community Development” and they are taking action to improve their own communities, which is exactly the type of initiative we want to foster.

I can’t see any better model than SAS in helping such a marginalized population to be able to achieve what they deserve: a quality education. Community involvement is the best solution to making schools successful in such a circumstance.  I look forward to continuing to work with the PEPY team to try to find the best ways to provide communities with the skills, models, and motivation to forge ahead in making improvements to their schools.