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Cambodia Project looks to close rural education gap

Cambodia Project looks to close rural education gap


The project, based in New York, plans to use microfinance loans and for-profit businesses to expand access to education.

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A Cambodian schoolboy pedals a bike with his friends along a street at Samlot district in Battambang province, some 291 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh on Thursday.

ON A TRIP to Southeast Asia in the summer of 2005, Jean-Michel Tijerina was invited by a friend to visit Cambodia and tour a girls' orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

But Tijerina, who had never before been to the Kingdom, was struck less by what was going on inside the orphanage than by what he saw out on the streets of the capital: scores of school-age children hawking souvenirs, many of whom said they were working to pay their tuition fees.  

Tijerina, then a student at Columbia University in New York City, said he recognised on that trip a need for expanded access to affordable education in Cambodia, particularly beyond the primary level.  

"I immediately saw a gap for secondary education specifically," he said in an interview last week in Phnom Penh.

With that observation, Tijerina picked up on one of the fundamental issues facing the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport as it works towards achieving targets under the Education Strategic Plan (2006-10) and the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) pertaining to education.

While Cambodia is within striking distance of meeting its primary enrolment targets, it is not on track to meet the lower secondary MDG enrolment target of 75 percent in 2010.

When he returned to the US, Tijerina set about starting a nonprofit, The Cambodia Project, that aims to open three secondary schools in rural areas over the next five years. In addition to providing health care for students and staff, and employing green construction methods, Tijerina said he hopes to create schools that are locally managed and financially sustainable.

Funding and operations

The Cambodia Project has been fully operational for about one year. Tijerina and other staffers visited Cambodia last week to meet with potential donors and scout out school sites, and they plan to open an office in Phnom Penh this summer.

The first school, to begin construction in Kampot province beginning in December, will seat 980 lower secondary students, said Teal Nipp, public relations manager for the project.

The project has received in-kind donations from American Express Philanthropy and Google, among other US-based outfits, as well as Raffles Hotels and Resorts. Grants have come from foundations including the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and A Foundation for Kids.

I think ... the basis is education. after that come jobs, which in turn develop an economy.

Nipp declined to estimate how much each school would cost, saying only that "we will work accordingly with any money raised to ensure that the first school is ... handed back to the community by 2015". To accomplish this, she said, project leaders plan to set up for-profit businesses to support each school that would likely involve the sale of organic local products such as Kampot pepper. Tijerina said students "could contribute to the business in some way potentially", but he emphasised that business plans had yet to be fully developed.
Project leaders plan to employ local teachers, who would receive the same benefits - including access to health care and transportation - that are to be extended to students. Their salaries would be higher than those of teachers in public schools, Tijerina said, in part to discourage the collection of informal fees.

Nipp said the schools would be "private schools offering competitive rates", adding that they would be "very affordable for wealthy families". 

For students from lower-income families, project leaders intend to use microfinance loans to help cover tuition costs.

The secondary situation

A report released last week by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport points to slow progress in expanding secondary education. Lower secondary school enrolment increased by less than 2 percent in the 2007-08 academic year, totaling 637,529 students, or 63.8 percent of the 2008 target of 1 million students. The net enrolment rate was 34.8 percent, less than half of the 2010 MDG target.  

At the upper secondary level, the enrolment rate was 14.8 percent, short of the 2008 target of 18 percent. There are no MDG targets for upper secondary education, but Nipp said increasing enrolment at that level is crucial to developing the rural economy.

"I think in developing communities the basis is education," she said. "After that come jobs, which in turn develop an economy, an infrastructure, and hopefully there's a snowball effect." 


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