The new Shar Pin school
The old Shar Pin school
New school library
A poster in the library, Chris Edwards's recommended book
Over the course of ten years PACE has contributed to the construction of nine schools in two of the poorest provinces of Cambodia, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng. Since their establishment, these schools have provided a safe and secure environment for nearly 5,000 (mostly primary) school children.
These schools have been built in partnership with Tabitha Cambodia, UWCSEA’s long term partner in the country. Ten years ago, PACE partnered with Tabitha to build Tabitha’s first school; since then, and with PACE’s continued early support, the schools project has evolved to become part of the regular development program for Tabitha, which now builds ten schools per year. On the back of the success of the schools projects in Cambodia, the PACE community sought to leverage this expertise in a new area of need, and after evaluation, Myanmar was considered to be in need of urgent attention in terms of neglected education infrastructure and investment.
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and government spending on education was not prioritised during the military regime. Although Myanmar has over 7,000 schools across the country, the large majority of school buildings have been neglected for more than fifty years, as funding for education was dramatically reduced in 1962. Due to the country’s seismic activity and seasonal flooding, existing school buildings are often deemed unsafe or inaccessible. While progress has been made in the last few years, and the Ministry of Education is taking steps to address the situation, classrooms can be overcrowded and in rural communities, sanitation is an issue.
PACE decided to map the activities in the country aimed to help children pursue a sustainable education, resulting in a new partnership with the 100schools organisation, led by founder John D. Stevens (Canadian) and Burmese manager Maung Maung Gyi, as well as a team of 35 Burmese masons and carpenters. For more than two decades they have been working in four of the seven provinces of Myanmar, to improve the health, economic and educational condition of rural communities. To date, the organisation has completed the construction of 51 Primary, Middle, and High Schools in Myanmar.
PACE’s first school project in partnership with 100schools is for the community of the rural village of Shar Pin, which means ‘acacia tree’ in the local language. The original school was built in the 1950s and sat on the banks of a river, southeast of Mandalay. When PACE first visited the school site in September 2015, the wooden stilted school building was leaning dangerously. The nearby river would seasonally flood the area, rendering the school inaccessible for weeks at a time. Inside the school building, the villagers of 100 families had gathered to express their concern. They also demonstrated their commitment to the education of their children -- the families shared the news that together, they had saved funds to purchase a piece of land located further away from the river. The motivation of the community to help and support the construction of their new school was very evident.
With this urgent need as motivation, PACE organized an awareness and fundraising event in Singapore, the Mardi Gras Brazilian barbecue in late February 2016. Thanks to the generous support of the 150 members of the UWCSEA community attending, the event generated enough funds to construct a completely new primary school building with five classrooms, including a well and toilet block as well as something completely new for this rural community, a library stocked with over 500 mostly local books!
In early June, following a traditional ritual during which the local monks assessed the proper astrological configuration to determine when ground could be broken, Maung Maung Gyi and his team of local masons and carpenters began construction. Villagers helped dig the foundation, pour concrete, and provide for shelter and food for the masons. The skilled crew employed an earthquake-resistant confined masonry construction technique (which is utilized in all 100schools projects) along with extra foundation precautions. The benefits of this technique were clear in late August, when a 6.8 earthquake struck Myanmar, the epicenter was just 14 miles from a high school in Tetma, built by 100schools. Nearly 400 pagodas in Bagan were damaged due to the earthquake, but nothing at all happened to the school, which was located closer to the epicenter.
With trees planted for shade and a well for clean drinking water, Shar Pin Primary school was now a reality and the opening occurred on 3 October when the sun had just cast its first rays across its freshly painted (light green) walls.
The grand school structure measuring 120 x 30 ft stood fierce and strong, waiting to welcome her 130 children lining the path to lead the delegates amidst an equally excited crowd of villagers into her open doors. The drums announced the arrival of the Prime Minister of the Division of Mandalay and together with members of PACE and 100schools, the ribbon cutting released colourful balloons into the air, kicking off the celebration. After a few speeches, each child received a uniform, pencils and notebooks, and then headed home for lunch before returning to school for an afternoon of activities and library training by expert librarian Katie Day from East Campus.
Prior to the opening, a team from PACE, including much-valued and needed Burmese supporters from the UWCSEA community and beyond, sourced, categorized and labeled Burmese books. Katie Day worked with Burmese members of the UWCSEA community to establish eleven categories for the Shar Pin library, as well as a mini-library of Burmese books for group reading activities, in line with current reading pedagogy used in UWCSEA’s own Junior and Infant schools.
The Myanmar Library Association (MLA) recommended books for purchase by PACE and also provided book donations for the school. The Third Story Project (recent winner of the Myanmar Young Social Entrepreneur award) was also tremendously supportive, providing their own published children’s stories in Burmese and sending the very talented local storyteller Tess to the Shar Pin opening for some very engaging activities with the students, who were not keen to see her go!
One key area of focus for the PACE crew was establishing a library culture, drawing people into the library, training the teaching staff on integrating library usage into the curriculum, and making the space simple to navigate. Over 500 children's books in Burmese were purchased or donated, which PACE picked up once arriving in Myanmar. PACE delegates brought a series of posters, illustrated by talented library staff at UWCSEA, that would serve to both decorate the library and establish the library culture for students and teachers.
Katie Day and the UWCSEA East library staff created about 80 laminated shelf-markers using simple animal logos and different colored paper. The children were told that when they came to the library each time, they should pick an animal and a color to keep track of where they found books. To help them remember where in the ‘village of books’ (i.e., the library) each book 'lived', so they could help it get back to its right place.
Katie also talked about book care on opening day where she asked the children to consider how books are like people. (They can be old or young, tall or small, speak different languages, have a front, a back, a spine, etc. And they need to be treated with care and respect, especially when it comes to turning pages.)
PACE also came across a wonderful young Burmese teacher and storyteller, Tess (aka Tin Ma Ma Htet), who works as a professional development coordinator for the Phaung Daw Oo School and the Monastic Education Development Group in Mandalay, and with the Third Story Children's Books Project. Tess entertained the children of Shar Pin with an interactive story while the PACE crew set up the library.
The walls of the library were decorated with pictures of Shar Pin teachers and the PACE delegates showcasing their most favorite book. A curious villager who had been closely following the crew’s actions, wandered in and was later found reading the ‘favorite book’ of our team photographer!
PACE is tremendously grateful to all who helped and supported this first step for UWCSEA to make this dream become a reality in Myanmar.
We wish to thank everyone on behalf of the children of Shar Pin for all the energy and dedication in each and every step of this process to support the construction of Shar Pin primary school for them to enjoy learning and reading in a safe and inviting environment.
Natalie Kennedy, Mieneke Smit
Parents’ Action for Community and Education (PACE) is a volunteer parent-led organisation with over 250 active members,and over 1100 supporters and friends.