Savong’s School takes another step.

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Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?

Savong and the senior students. Removing risks and setting guidelines.

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2014 is shaping up as the year that Savong gets really systemised. I’ve worked with him since 2004 and since then we have progressed from a small ad-hoc classroom to gradually become an NGO that includes a student center, a school with 650 enrollments, two children’s homes and a provider of scholarships. By the end of last year Savong was run ragged, trying to keep everything running smoothly.

Two days ago I had a long Skype chat with Savong and he explained how he was, step by step, putting management systems and reporting structures in place throughout his organisation. As with any organisation that gets bigger, one loses some of the informality and one starts having to lay down rule and guidelines.

Yesterday Savong assembled the senior SOC students who are supported through funding from the Savong Foundation in the USA (Phil and the team do an amazing job) as well that those students I raise funds for: the Scholarship students of whom there are 16.  So that’s the photo above, this rather large family of sponsored senior students.

Savong has worked with them to establish some operating rules and as we discussed, these include some expectations (this is no place for laziness) but also a clear commitment to keep supporting the students even when there are challenges. I certainly feel that the money we provide in support is only half the story: the real thing we’re providing is the absence of fear.

I saw that when Savong and I first worked together.  When he realised that we were committed to assist him through thick and thin, then his dreams got bigger and more useful: his plans became longer term.  So it is with the students in the photo. They are a committed group of young people, but the difference between these students and many others is that we’ve moved them a few steps away from the risks and unforeseen disasters that plague life in Cambodia, given that there is no safety net.

For many young people the four-year trek towards a degree is almost certain to include bouts of sickness, or family tragedies, or perhaps an accident that wipes out one’s precious savings. One of the teachers once told me of a friend of his who was electrocuted, due to faulty wiring in the young man’s corrugated-iron shack: he touched the wall one morning and was killed tragically.

How can one dream big when you are worried by the risks of life?

I felt a pang of regret when Savong told me of the rules and guidelines he’s setting for the students. I guess I miss the laissez-faire days and, for sure, I would make a lousy manager of this burgeoning NGO. But one thing about guidelines: these also establish more certainty for the students as they embark on their journey through the sometimes rough seas of higher education.  A ship is safer when it has handrails and life-jackets.

Christmas Day – 2013, Savong’s children’s home Cambodia

Christmas Party 2013 SOC

We hope you had a great get together with friends and family over Christmas. At the SOC the children hosted a visit from Happy Sunshine home for children (based in Siem Reap) as well as the older students supported by Savong – and together they enjoyed a feast and a big Christmas Party. Photo by Buntheourn.

This guy needs love and attenton

This guy needs love and attenton

Within any group of children there will be one or two who want extra love and attention. This young man is one of the kids at SOC who most wants one-on-one time.  Sometimes he feels overshadowed by the older boys – one path to his development will be to find a skill or talent that he is especially good at: something that helps build is self-esteem.

Meet student Heak. I love this guy

I love this guy

Heak is a wonderful student at the SOC children’s home in Bakong, Cambodia near Siem Reap. Gracious, kind to other students, intelligent, helping the little ones – this photo was taken in 2011 and today he has grown taller and so have his responsibilities for it is he who drives the big tuk-tuk to the school each day, saving the students a hot dusty walk. I am convinced that he will go to University within a few years, and I wait in anticipation of what he will choose to do with his intelligence.

If you would like to know how to assist a Cambodian student through University, click here.

A case of village justice in Cambodia

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Is a cop’s job to discourage bad behavior or to punish bad behavior? The local policeman in Bakong showed a very wise sense of judgement.

A couple of years back a girl attending Savong’s School  was harassed one evening by a group of local boys. Another student saw what was going on and the police were called from their station, a small building, not 200 meters away.

In a village like Bakong, 14 kms East of Siem Reap,  everybody knows everyone. It didn’t take long for the policeman, a genial fellow, to work out who the boys were. He went to each of their families and ordered the young men (all unemployed,) to meet him on Thursday morning at his police station. He also asked the girl to attend, as well as her witnesses; students from Savong’s School.

At the meeting the policeman, a well-built middle aged man in his olive green uniform, wore a judicial frown. After asking the witnesses to positively identify the young men he gave them a stern lecture. It was a grave experience for each guilty party because their parents were on hand as well. The feeling of shame was palpable. The policeman pointed out that they were on a bad path; a path that could lead directly to jail, and everyone knows in Siem Reap that this is not a good place. He told the boys that he had it within his power to send the boys to prison right away. In fact he could see no reason why not to, he told them. The boys were on the precipice. There were gasps in the crowded room.

Then the policeman who single-handedly played the good-cop, bad-cop routine said something unexpected. “If the young student asks me to send you boys to jail, I will do so immediately. It is up to the girl and her friends.”

The students formed a huddle and clearly they too were shaken by the enormity of the consequences here. Jail? After a few moments they asked if they could take the problem away with them to school where they would discuss their response with their classmates. The policeman gave them to the next day, and ordered the young men to turn up, with their parents the next morning.

At Savong’s School the senior students discussed at length what would be suitable justice. Soon they came up with a fair response. And so they turned up at the Friday morning meeting at the small police station in Bakong.

“What is your decision?” asked the policeman.

The students outlined their thinking. That the boys were clearly guilty of serious behaviour – cornering the girl and being sexually suggestive – but that jail was too harsh. Their recommendation was to let the boys off “this time” but that next time they would not hesitate to recommend jail.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The young men were suitably chastened and, no doubt, faced their forms of domestic justice from their parents who had been disgraced by their sons. The policeman let the boys know that they had been very lucky that the students had been so forgiving this time.

And so justice was dispensed and, to my knowledge, the boys have walked a straight and narrow path ever since.

I’m critical, deeply critical, of Cambodia’s weak justice system whereby the rich and powerful can apparently get away, scot free, after a hit and run accident,  while a poor farmer can be jailed for years for protesting the illegal acquisition of his land and livelihood.

But on another level I totally admire the fair work of the local policeman in Bakong. His wisdom and local knowledge mean, I’m sure, that he has never needed to unlock the rifle cupboard that he keeps on show with its old Chinese army rifles. Neither did he press formal charges. Instead, knowledge, shame and a reminder of what “could happen” is armament enough for the policeman to keep the peace in this rural community.

For another story from Savong School – The boy who was nearly sold.

Or a story about An actual folk tale from Cambodia

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