Redmond, WA — Cambodia is a county in Southeast Asia that borders Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. It was a very powerful nation when the Khmer empire reached its peak during the 12th century and temples, such as Angkor Wat, were constructed. However, in 1884, France colonized Cambodia. A series of tragedies marked the subsequent century, notably the Vietnam War, the Japanese occupation and the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, which lasted from 1975 until 1979. The Cambodian genocide significantly impacted education in Cambodia and the country is trying to recover from that loss today.
Impact of the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge was a communist guerilla group that sought to create a rural agrarian economy. It banned schools and religion, abolished private property and forced many to leave their homes and migrate to rural areas. Anyone opposed to the Khmer Rouge could be taken, tortured and killed. The rise of the Khmer Rouge was largely a response to anti-colonial sentiments and anger over U.S. involvement in the area. During this time, more than 1.5 million people died, including an estimated 75% of teachers and 96% of tertiary students. It was not until 1993 that Cambodia had its first free, autonomous elections.
At the end of the genocide in 1979, the Cambodian education system was in ruins. Reconstructing the education system in Cambodia became a priority in order to rebuild the country, but it was not until 1996 that education saw major reform.
Current State of Education in Cambodia
Over the past couple of decades, education access in Cambodia has significantly improved. Since 2007, preschool enrollment has more than doubled, and primary school enrollment has reached more than 97% in 2017-18. However, Cambodian children continue to fall behind many of their international peers in literacy and numeracy. Only 75% of children in third grade are able to write even a single word, and there is a 55% dropout rate by the time students turn 17.
There are many reasons for low educational attainment, even with high enrollment. Some of these factors include children inadequately prepared for school, poor quality teaching and irregular attendance. Additionally, many children suffer from a lack of nutrition, which causes them to lag behind their peers developmentally. Furthermore, many parents in Cambodia did not have access to education when they were young. This is partly because many of them lived through the Khmer Rouge period or the unstable aftermath. As a result, parents do not have the experience or resources to ensure their children are educated.
Despite these difficulties, improving education must be a priority, as it is one of the best ways to alleviate poverty. One way to ensure access to education is to partner with international organizations, such as World Assistance for Cambodia. World Assistance for Cambodia operates several programs, including the Rural School Program. The organization currently has 574 schools, both completed and under construction, funded by international schools, foundations and NGOs.
The Overlake Schools
In 2002, in partnership with World Assistance for Cambodia, The Overlake School, located in Redmond, Washington, built a sister school. This new school is also named The Overlake School and is located in Tuol Lo Vear, Pailin, Cambodia. Since 2003, the Redmond school has sent groups of 15 to 20 students to Pailin for two weeks every other year to teach students in Pailin. Additionally, these student teachers spend the year learning about Cambodia and fundraising to help improve the conditions at the school through projects which are chosen by the students and teachers in Pailin. Pailin is located in western Cambodia, near the border of Thailand. The entire province has a population of just over 75,000. As of 2018-19, there were two district schools, six commune schools, 11 village schools and 11 community preschools.
The Borgen Project recently spoke with Kent Renno, Experiential Education Department Chair of The Overlake School, Redmond. Renno has been to Cambodia four times as a teacher and leader and is currently the head of the program. Renno emphasized the importance of fostering a relationship between the two schools through the biannual trip, monthly updates from Pailin and listening to their needs, rather than assuming what they need. These kinds of projects often fail because those coming from outside incorrectly assume that they know how to improve the lives of others.
Learning from Setbacks and Barriers
Renno conceded that The Overlake School has had failures. The current playground at the school is the second one built. The first playground consisted of materials shipped from the U.S., which could not hold up in the heat of Cambodian summers. Learning from this experience, materials from within the country contributed to the new playground. Since then, there has been a deliberate emphasis on using local materials and local techniques. These kinds of mistakes are not the result of a lack of compassion or care, but rather a lack of understanding.
Organizations can build enough schools for every child. However, nothing will really change unless we address the systemic barriers to education. No one knows these barriers better than those on the ground, which is why open communication is so vital. One of these barriers, especially right now, is health. Numerous studies show the correlation between improvements in education and health and decreasing poverty.
Until recently, students at The Overlake School in Pailin collected water from a nearby creek before school. They then washed their hands in buckets outside of each classroom. However, given the COVID-19 crisis, teachers in Pailin identified that this method was no longer safe. In response, they worked with the Redmond school to build a new handwashing system. Now, the students are able to pump water into filtration tanks in the air. The tanks then rely on gravity to filter the water down and allow them to turn it on and off. This is an important step to ensure the health of students and their families. The teachers and students of Pailin, thanks to funding from those in Redmond, have created other projects in addition to the handwashing station. These schools have worked together to build teacher housing, a playground and an expansion to the school.
Gangulu artist, activist and academic, Lilla Watson, stated, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote is at the core of what The Overlake School seeks to accomplish. Organizations that wish to work with, not for, others are the ones that will succeed.
This idea was not one that came about immediately. While this organization has had many successes, there has also been a learning curve for everyone involved. Renno spoke about how initially, they went to work with the mindset of “we want to help, we’ve found a way to help, that’s enough.” Initially, the language used to describe the project was “global service in Cambodia,” but more recently this description shifted. Renno described the group’s new mission as, “educating ourselves about education in developing countries.” Renno explained that nobody can go in thinking they are going to save someone. If that is still the mindset of a humanitarian, they have not done the research needed to foster positive change.
While this one school does not have the power to change the systemic issues within Cambodia, it can improve the futures of its students. This will hopefully inspire them to understand the importance of education. The Overlake School project has succeeded in bringing education to students and has inspired students to see different perspectives.
Additionally, the organization addresses many of the issues endemic to these sorts of foreign assistance projects. Perhaps the most important takeaway from The Overlake School project is the importance of learning service and continued commitment. Buildings cannot teach students, and building schools without committing to ensure they can continuously foster education can do more harm than good, even with good intentions. More than seeking to save or help anyone, Kent Renno and others at The Overlake School want to help foster education in Cambodia and the U.S. and encourage cooperation between the two schools.
As Renno said, “we are bound to this school and these kids and teachers in Pailin and the importance of continued support of the education of all students. The importance of education for everyone does bind us all together.”
– Harriet Sinclair