Every day at The Rice Academy brings a pleasant surprise. Sometimes it is a hug from a student; other times it is an innovative feature of this great school. Today it was an ingenious method of encouraging students to attend school every day. The original challenge that Scott faced when he started working at Steung Meanchey was that no children went to school. Many of the impediments to attending school have carried forward to the new era in which almost 2,000 children attend school under the auspices of the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Having gone on a community walk with Scott, I had a sobering introduction to many of these impediments. But as Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist once said (more or less), “The more difficult the problem, the more satisfying is its resolution.” Scott Neeson is most definitely of the same persuasion. And the following is an example of a really satisfying solution to a very difficult problem.
A few days ago, I noticed that, overnight, a mound of something, covered by a tarp, had appeared in the area just in front of the classrooms. And here it was:
I guessed that it consisted of construction materials for a renovation project, and moved on without further consideration. However, at 10:30 this morning, while classes were underway, the students suddenly started looking out of the windows and talking excitedly. The door to my classroom opened and someone said, “This class is next.” There was a mad dash for the door and everybody lined up in front of a desk which had been set up and was manned by Samath Eng, the “school operation officer.” And this is Samath, getting ready…but for what?
One-by-one, the students gave Samath their name, he shuffled some papers, found the name, and then the student pressed his or her thumb into an ink pad and made an imprint on the sheaf of papers. And here is a student performing this ritual act:
In return for the imprint, Samath gave each student a piece of paper with a number on it, either “5”, “4”, or “2”.
With a purple thumb and a piece of paper in hand, each student hurried over to the pile, from which the tarp had been removed to reveal the following, which turned out to be – not construction materials but – bags of rice! The bags appeared to be in large, medium, and small sizes:
At this point I had to ask what was happening, and learned about the cogent and brilliant solution to the challenge of encouraging the children to come to school every day. Once a month, the school operation officer (Samath) totals up the attendance sheets. Those students who have perfect attendance at TRA and Khmer School get two 5 kg bags of rice to take home. Those students who have perfect attendance at one but not both schools get a single 5 kg bag of rice. The medium (4 kg) and small (2 kg) bags are awarded to students with less stellar attendance records. Aha!
The rice makes a meaningful difference in the nutritional security of the family of each child. As a consequence, the parents have incentive to make sure their child attends school every day. For the students, the feeling of accomplishment that they were able to provide food for their family is added incentive. Those students who receive two, 5 kg bags of rice are shown respect by both teachers and fellow students. Combining these three incentives through the rice distribution program has proven to be an excellent way of improving attendance.
If you don’t believe that the students are excited by this opportunity, take a look at how they feel about the rice they are bringing home today after school: