Two years ago, 40-year-old preschool teacher Che Eang presented an ultimatum to her community: Either build a safer school for the 30 primary school children she teaches, or she quits.
“I told them that I will stop teaching, because it was so difficult,” said Che Eang, pointing to a nearby house that doubled as a makeshift school for her students. Citing a long list of hazards and shortcomings – from rain, dust, bare-bones construction, and even aggressive dogs (one of her pupils was bitten) – the beleaguered educator had had enough.
Today, Che Eang looks forward to each day of teaching at her community’s new school in Phnom Prasat village in Banteay Meanchey province. She is hopeful for a bright future for her young students.
Built by the community it serves, Phnom Prasat’s is one of 500 community preschools nationwide supported by the Early Child Education Project. It is funded by the multi-donor Global Partnership for Education and administered by the World Bank, in partnership with project implementers the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
Communities always wanted to have their own preschools. In the example of Phnom Prasat, parents were reluctant to send their children to the public preschool as it requires crossing a highway – a dangerous task for small children. The community should have its own preschool, said parents, and the community can build it. Through the project, representatives of the communes are trained to monitor the construction of the schools.
Tith Sokhon, Director of Tountean public preschool in the Soutr Nikhom district of Siem Reap province, listed the benefits of attending preschool: development of skills, regular exercise, and practicing good hygiene; developing morals and learning respect; participating in activities that encourage collaboration; improving thinking skills, and gaining proficiency in the Khmer language.
Graduates of preschools are popular with Grade 1 teachers such as Vay Chanthy at Komrou primary school. “A student who went through preschool catches lessons very fast,” said Chanthy, adding that former preschoolers sail through the next grade. In contrast, only half of those who did not go to preschool pass Grade 1, and often find the first few months of school difficult.
In addition to building schools, the Early Child Education Project trains pregnant mothers on first aid, cooking nutritious food, and proper hygiene such as washing hands, among others, for both a healthy pregnancy and children.
So far, the project is reaping results. For example:
- By June 2017, some 100 formal schools and 1,000 community-based new preschool facilities have opened.
- More than 47% of children between 3-5 years old are now enrolled in preschools, both in urban and rural districts. By May 2017, more than 125,000 students between 3-5 years old have directly benefited from the project.
- More than 3,800 community-based early child education teachers and mothers have been trained on health-care, school construction, and child-rearing skills.
The government hopes that this marks just the beginning of more progress for future generations. That is why H.E. Dr. Hang Chhuon Naron, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sport, continues to encourage parents to pay more care to the early years of child rearing, from pregnancy to the 3-year mark – regarded as the golden years for developing physical and mental health.
Said Minister Naron, confident that early childhood education opens worlds of opportunities: “Parents should allow their children to attend preschools, which is the foundation for their success in pursuing primary, secondary and higher education.”