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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New school raises the bar

New school raises the bar

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081211_07B.jpg

Siem Reap

American educator Mark Fox brings top flight education to Cambodia,

saying he hopes to groom 100 disadvantaged students a year to attend

elite universities in the United States

Photo by:
Erica Goldberg

Children attend class at the Jay Pritzker Academy.

SIEM Reap's Jay Pritzker Academy, modelled after private American college preparatory schools and using English-language high school teaching, is aiming high - ultimately it wants to send 100 Cambodian children to elite US universities each year.  

The school opened its campus in Siem Reap's Ta Chet in September and the director, Mark Fox, said he expects every student to go on to university.

"People have told me that we have to adapt to Cambodian education standards and that things are more difficult here. I've come to adapt Cambodia to me," he said.  

Fox, who has worked in elite private schools throughout the world, told the Post that his goal is to run the best school in Cambodia.

"I come from a background of private schools, where parents want their kids to go to Harvard. You cannot mess around," he said.

The school is funded by the family of the late Jay Pritzker, an American entrepreneur and founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain.  

"He was the son of Jewish immigrants and worked his way up from nothing," Fox said. "That's the true American dream, and it's a great model for our school."  

Fox and his wife, Lisa Arthur, handpick the most talented students from low-income families in Siem Reap, feed them three meals each day and provide an education that matches the American model.

Fox wants the students to enroll in top American universities and then bring their knowledge and expertise back to Cambodia.

"I don't know what's best for this country, but they do," he said of his students. "This project gives the training to Cambodians who can ultimately develop their country."

WE NEVER GET CRITICISED BY CAMBODIANS, ONLY WESTERNERS.

Enrollment in the Jay Pritzker Academy is based on selection mechanisms designed to find those who will best benefit from the education.

About 60 percent of pupils are girls.
Kindergarten students are selected by testing with simple puzzles, and older students are selected by guidance from nearby Cambodian schools and their performance in English tests.

"Some students at Cambodian schools were considered top students based on what we call ‘non-achievement factors', like who they were," Fox said. "These students fell to the bottom of our classes rather quickly."

Challenges ahead

It may take years before 100 students are attending US universities annually, but since the Ta Chet campus opened in September, students have made amazing progress, Fox said.  

They mostly converse in English, and their writing is displayed on bulletin boards. The second-graders, who are bilingual, are almost working at an American second-grade level in most subjects, Fox said. The older students learn all subjects in English and take Khmer language and literature as a separate subject.  

"We hope that the eighth-graders will be at a sixth-grade level in math by the end of the year," Fox said. "They may only be able to attend the English medium college in Phnom Penh, but the ones we've had since second grade will get to US colleges."

Fox uses a highly constrained curriculum, and employs 60 Cambodian staff and six Western teachers to educate almost 360 students.

Students must attend 1,100 instructional hours each year, which is 10 percent more than in America, because "time spent in school is correlated with achievement".

Culture clash?

"In many ways, the school is very un-Cambodian," said Fox. "We all eat lunch in the cafeteria, and everyone has to queue for their lunch, including me, the big barang of the school. There is no cutting in line."  

The teachers boast of encouraging the children's individuality and weaning them off of their addiction to strict obedience, emphasised in Cambodian schools.  

But Fox has received criticism for being elitist and culturally insensitive.  

"People tell us we're not preserving rural culture," he said. "But we never get criticised by Cambodians, only Westerners. The Cambodians just want to know how they can get their child into our school.

"People say the school should resemble the children's homes, but some of these students come from very unhappy homes," he added.

"I want this school to be as different from their home life as possible." 

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