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main blog0003 : attarpur makes its decision

krishna shah june 23, 2015; tuesday 22:30 nst (nepal standard time)

lots to report on today. started the day by attending the education cluster meeting at the department of education in saano thimi (which, by the way, started 30 minutes late). it was a good networking platform; met with some other like minded individuals/organizations (while we waited for the meeting to start). imho, the actual update given by the doe (department of education) would have been more effective simply reading a handout as opposed to listening to statistics via a microphone emitting constant feedback (sorry for being blunt). still, overall it was an informative meeting to find out what was going on in the big picture on the education front post-earthquake. the focus of the education cluster is still to build as many tlc's (temporary learning centers) as possible, with wash (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities included.

if you are interested, here is the latest education cluster strategy document:

from my last blog entry ( blog0002: first visit to the attarpur and thulo dhading schools ) you know what we have been waiting for a decision from the locals at attarpur and thulo dhading on how to go forward, and i had mentioned that we should have some progress by "early next" week, viz-a-viz, now. and now i do have an update for you. but first, background information to put everything in context.

i have been on the phone with locals and school officials from both attarpur as well as thulo dhading since sunday. in the beginning, they sounded confused themselves, not knowing what to ask for, what direction to go into. at one point in time, i received a request to simply "fix the broken building" and that's it. but that was due to their internal squabbling, i later found out. a government school is run by a combination of government-appointed officials and elected locals. the government-appointed officials comprise of the head master (principal) and other government appointed teachers, who are normally at the school for only a number of years at a time (unless they get transferred even before their tenure is over because of political reasons). the elected locals usually have their own children or grandchildren at the school in question. so, you can already imagine what kind of combination this is.

the slc (school leaving certificate) results just came out. when i asked the attarpur officials how their children did, i got the answer that the school got a "nil." i did not understand this in the beginning, as i had never heard such a thing before, and even after the official explained it to me, i still found it hard to believe -- all 30+ children of shree rama public school who sat for the slc, failed the slc. wow. that's bad. i went further to ask how such a thing could happen. what i heard next flabbergasted me even more. the class 10 teachers who were supposed to teach last year were transferred at the beginning of the school year. so, the 80% of the academic year, the students did not have any teachers! no wonder every single one of them failed. :(

i called the school at thulo dhading to find out what happened there. the same thing. a "nil."

so there you have it -- it's that bad at government run schools. all of a sudden history started making sense. when we started our schools in sarlahi 15 years ago, we tried working with government schools but gave up. we opened up a non-profit community school instead with by-laws that said the school will never charge any tuition to any student. although the school is supported by hoste hainse via its donors, the locals have a say on how to run the school, since it is a community school. and best of all, the school is also eligible to get government support since it is a community school and not a private school. last year, for the first time, our schools in sarlahi received some support from the government, after years of lobbying. so, it is possible.

on the flip side, when you work "with" a government school, you need to follow its mandates. you are welcome to make a donation, but the government will decide the rest, inclusive of teacher salaries and when/where the teacher will get transferred (again, mostly politically motivated). teachers using school children as political pawns during election time is another story altogether which i will not even get into right now.

so, the question i asked myself over the last couple of days -- at attarpur and at thulo dhading, do i really want to renovate/repair a building and donate funds as per a government mandate only to later find out that teachers are absent 80% of the time to produce an overall "nil" at the end? thankfully, i did not have to answer that question. the locals did themselves. the chairperson of the school management committee of shree rama secondary school in attarpur, norbu wangel lama, personally travelled to kathmandu today to meet with us at hoste hainse. we had a marathon meeting and discussed a lot of related issues, but at the end, he, on behalf of the school, requested us to build a school in attarpur just like we did in sarlahi - a non-profit community school.

but what about the children at the current government school - shree rama?

even if we construct the new school on double time, we will not be able to get it to open its doors until april 2016, the start of the next academic year. at that time, we will be able to commence only with primary facilities - maximum up to grade 3. then, with every passing year, we add an additional grade. that's what we did in sarlahi. our first year of operation, all primary children from shree rama will flock to our new school. with every passing year, the government school will have fewer and fewer students as the children move up in grade and finally sit for the slc, the "iron gate" which qualifies them for life. that's what happened in sarlahi as well. and what happens right now in sarlahi as well is that students who were forced to enroll in government schools because our schools were at capacity, attend our schools anyway. we accommodate them as much as possible, but those who we cannot end up peeking through windows of our classrooms to learn (we do not have the heart to send them away). therefore, we are indirectly helping the children of the nearby government run school too, although it remains empty while the state teachers still receive their salaries (with our tax money), if they are present in the first place.

still, the question remains -- what can we do about the children currently enrolled at shree rama?

i floated the question, "how can we make sure we do not get a nil result next year?" after learning that the year before was another "nil" year for the school. the chairperson replied that if we could hire just two good teachers for class 10 ourselves, those teachers can probably manage to pass a couple of students every year. since government teachers have a high absent rate, this would theoretically do the trick. i asked, "how much?" the answer was rs. 20,000 per month which comes out to be rs. 2,60,000 per year per teacher since a nepali employee is paid for 13 months (the extra month is an automatic bonus for dashain). for two teachers, rs. 2,60,000 x 2 = rs. 5,20,000. at the current exchange rate, that's about $5,000 usd. i pledged $5,000 and said, "if you can show me a non-nil result next year, i promise to support you with at least $5,000 every year until all the current students graduate from shree rama."

this way, i believe, we have our cake, and eat it too. we build a new non-profit community school, which is our expertise anyway, and at the same time, do not abandon the current children at the government school. it's a win-win. some might argue that fixing the government school should be our focus, but when the system is so broken to begin with, where do we start? and more importantly at what cost? at the cost of producing more "nil" students for more years while we "try" to fix the system that has been broken for decades? i beg to differ. hoste hainse has a track record of producing slc graduates with a 90%+ pass rate. this year also, of the 43 sarlahi students that sat for the slc, 40 passed, a 93% pass rate. this is what hoste hainse is capable of producing, and i believe we should focus on what we are good at.

i also sat down with our sarlahi coordinator, binay chaudhary, who we have been working with for over 15 years. he gave me an astounding insight of sarlahi. we produced a 93% pass rate this year. at the same time, 7,000 students sat for the slc from the entire sarlahi district through state run schools. less than 700 passed. less than 10%. the budget to run the government schools in sarlahi alone was rs. 90,00,00,000.00, which is about 9,000,000 usd. that's 9 million us dollars to produce 700 qualified students out of 7,000. and that's just one district. and we have 75 districts in nepal. although there are some public schools that run really well, they are exceptions. in general, the public education system of nepal is broken. period. just like the political system, but again, that's another discussion altogether.

bottom line, we have a direction/strategy to go forward with at attarpur. i am still waiting to hear back from thulo dhading. the next step is to come up with numbers. i have put the onus on the attarpur locals for this with the "trust but verify" approach. we have experience in building schools in the terai (the plains in the south), but not in the mountains (not yet at least). while it is going to be more expensive than building in the terai, it should not be a showstopper. i have asked for numbers on two fronts: i.) initial construction, ii.) recurring costs. once we receive these, we will tally them with our knowledge base. all this information will get churned and make it into a proposal.

meanwhile back on ingo and government land, a huge donor conference is coming up on thursday. i can only imagine how excited the politicians already are. for your perusal, here are the pdna (post disaster needs assessment) reports created by the government, i.e., the national planning commission:

a whopping $7 billion. that's more than our country's budget. food for thought.

more in my next post in which i hope to update you about the decision at thulo dhading. good night.

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