We drove yesterday to Kampong Cham, an 85 mile trip that took three hours. The asphalt sections are fast, but much of the route is not yet paved. As we jounced over ruts and potholes through clouds of red dust, I was aware of my anger at the corruption that still plagues Cambodia. I was replaying the feelings I wrote about two years ago in   https://orionblair.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/corruption-on-february-24-2013/     With an overlay of sinus headache and red dust.

The ruling troika:  an old poster

The ruling troika: an old poster

The troika:  today's version

The troika: today’s version

Lina worked in Kampong Cham, a provincial capital on the Mekong River, from 1996 to 1998, with a brief hiatus due to a military coup that forced the evacuation of foreign staff. Her project, Cambodian Assistance to Primary Education (CAPE), trained Khmer teachers in the primary schools of six provinces.   She loved her work and the people she worked with and has stayed in touch. This was not our first trip back to see them.

CAPE has gone away and has been replaced by KAPE (Kampuchean Action for Primary Education). A core of staff stayed on and held on to the dream of empowering children to attain their potential through a fine education. We spent four hours with them on the campus of the teacher training college in Kampong Cham, where KAPE has its office.

Young teachers in training in Kampong Cham

Young teachers in training in Kampong Cham

One of KAPE’s many projects is the administration of a government school in one corner of the campus. This is perhaps the first charter school in Cambodia, neither private nor public in the traditional sense. Public schools in Cambodia are failing. They get very little support from the government (approximately $2 per child per year, I was told). This is not enough to maintain buildings and equipment.

Teachers’ salaries have recently been raised, but teaches are still not paid well so a system of “extra tutoring” has grown that funnels under-the-table payment to teachers in exchange for a student getting a good grade. None of this money helps maintain the schools. Instead it corrupts the system.   Teachers are not held accountable, so they may come to work late and dismiss their students early. A four hour school day can become a 2.5 hour school day.   Parents who can afford it send their children to private schools.

This was the situation of the school next to KAPE’s office. The government was planning to close it as enrollment had dropped drastically. KAPE proposed a partnership and today, the school has reached capacity. The old school has been renovated and a beautiful new building put up by KAPE with help from donors as well as withdrawals from a reserve fund accumulated over years. There has been a complete turnaround.

Renovated school - in every sense

Renovated school – in every sense

The "old" school seen from the new building

The “old” school seen from the new building

Crowds of students going home for lunch, to return for the afternoon session

Crowds of students going home for lunch, to return for the afternoon session

A garden space on top of the new building - not the traditional school design!

A garden space on top of the new building – not the traditional school design!

Under the new charter, teachers are paid well to teach 6 hours daily. No under-the-table payments are allowed.   Social equity is a key value. Poor families send their children free. Families that can afford to pay a voluntary fee. Parents who choose to pay tell the staff that the fee is very reasonable as it is less than what they were paying under the table, and far less than private school tuition.   Teachers who do not perform can be fired. There are incentives, such as further professional training, for the staff who stay.

Girls in the library / media room

Girls in the library / media room

A boy leaps during a game of volleyball - recess time

A boy leaps during a game of volleyball – recess time

A fish and frog pond are part of the demonstration garden

A fish and frog pond are part of the demonstration garden

The school staff decide how much of the fees to allocate to salary, maintenance and purchase of new materials. The finances are entirely transparent and decisions are made collaboratively. This in itself is revolutionary in today’s Cambodia. I hope it will infuse the school with the ethical values that are not guaranteed by a “good education” but are foundational to transforming a corrupt system.

Three "goods"

Three “goods”

English and Morals!

English and Morals!

The ruling party of Hun Sen is considered to have lost the 2013 election, though the results were rigged to return his party to power. The youth vote went overwhelmingly against Hun Sen, as young people are fed up with the corrupt educational system. One result was that he appointed a reform-minded Minister of Education who, it is hoped, will outlast the entrenched bureaucracy that has no interest in change.

Hun Sen - a contrast (in image at least) to two years ago

Hun Sen – a contrast (in image at least) to two years ago

The Minister has taken a great interest in this school and would like to see the model replicated elsewhere. The government is contributing $40,000 toward the cost of a new school building to house the students who would like to attend. Outside donors have pledged money and KAPE must raise the balance.   I have the feeling they will succeed. This is not the first impossible dream that KAPE has attained!

My jaundiced mood had lightened by the time we prepared to leave, even though I had three hours of bumpy roads and red dust to look forward to. A short distance out of town, we stopped to visit a garden oasis, the center for a Korean missionary who is doing courageous and selfless work in Cambodia, Mali and central Asia.

These two visits remind me that hope and faith go together. Faith in what? Faith in the capacity of human beings to choose with compassion and love, “to make the best life choices possible” in the words of KAPE’s vision statement. For some, faith in God or a Supreme Being. Faith that, in the words of Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If you would like to know more about KAPE, go to http://www.kapekh.org/

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