Junior high in Chanleas Dai
Chanleas Dai has no real middle school. There are six primary schools that cover the commune, but nothing past 7th grade for students who want to continue their studies. The closest junior high school is in Kralanh, an 8 km journey from the center of the commune on a red dirt potholed road. For some students who live on the outskirts of the commune, this means nearly a 20k one way journey to middle school each day. Needless to say, the drop out rate has been staggering. Most students migrate to Thailand and work as pineapple farmers once they finish primary school.
Last year ADB in coordination with the Ministry started to build a secondary school to house 7th-9th grade. They planned for it to open this October, in time for the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year. In the meantime, they allowed the incoming 7th graders last year to begin middle school at Chanleas Dai primary school, in essence lending the “not yet quite official middle school” two classrooms to use while the school was being built. Though some of the classes of the primary school are crowded as a result, the effort kept students from dropping out — with over 90% of the 6th graders at Chanleas Dai continuing. With an enrollment of over 70 students, the unofficial middle school is changing the potential for education in the area. Though teacher attendance is still low, students see a real possibility of continuing their studies and have been excited to begin the new school year in a bright new building.
Roadblocks always seem to stand in the way. Since May of this year, the half-constructed new junior high has been at a standstill. With the rising price of gas and materials, the contractors working on the school haven’t been able to purchase materials for the price they bid on the construction project. Unable to continue without going into debt, they stopped construction and left entirely. The same thing is happening all over the country, for at least 20 secondary schools as I was recently told by Ministry officials. For most of those schools, they expect the re-bidding and negotiation process to take over a year. In the meantime, the half- finished school will sit empty among the rice paddies.
For bureaucrats and those in the Ministry or District offices, this is a disappointment no doubt. For PEPY, those 70 students have faces, families, dreams, and challenges. Even if the school is finished next year, we lose an entire year of students — the first class of students we supported. Chunly, a top student who recently got over Japanese Encephalitis, is still too weak to bike that far. Ponleuh isn’t sure if her parents will let her travel so far each day by herself. If left to the powers that be, the 70+ incoming 8th graders and perhaps some of the expected 90 7th graders will have to continue school in Kralanh, as there is no place for them in Chanleas Dai.
School starts in less than two weeks. Though we have continually asked the District Office and the Junior High School principal what they or we could do to prevent this, for some reason no one has a good response. The 8th graders in the meantime are left in limbo, not knowing whether they will be able to study, or where they should be registering. With Pcheum Ben (a national holiday) approaching, officials are busy with student testing at high schools, and Chanleas Dai’s situation is low on the priority list.
After trying to meet with District Officials and pressure the Junior High Principal to take action, we finally had some success last week. After phone tag, and more than a little pushing from Aline, PEPY now is working with the District Office to build a temporary structure out of palm leaves on the grounds of the primary school. The principal agreed to ask all students to contribute materials for the project, and to find a committee of parents to either donate the labor or donate the cost of local labor. The students, who register tomorrow, will all be told they can continue 7th and 8th grade here.
Its been a nightmare of bureaucracy, hierarchy, chaos, and persuasion, but I can’t say how happy I am that students will be able to continue their studies here. Though they will spend the next four months studying outside in a thatch hut of sorts, its still something. While they are doing so, I’m excited to finally be able to say that PEPY will starting in November on the construction of a five classroom building next door to the in-progress junior high. Though it will eventually be a supplementary building to the junior high with a PEPY office, Teacher Room, Computer Lab, Resource Center, and English classroom, it will be used by the Junior High until the ADB finds its feet, funding, and contractors. If we’re lucky, it will be done in January and the students will only have to spend a few months sitting under straw. Regardless, they will keep going, which is most important.