This pandemic has brought the inequality and inequity in education to the forefront. The students we serve suffered greatly with the school closures as most of them cannot afford computers and access to internet at home to continue with online classes like their wealthier neighbors just a couple kilometers away. This compounded with the fact that the parents of our kindergarten students don’t know how to engage their children in development activities and cannot afford educational toys, even further widened the gap between them and the more privileged.

While we did our best in extending kindergarten classes to the communities with “home” schooling, this reality gave us the motivation to take a fresh look at our Kindergarten serving 200 children. We set a goal to enhance the quality of education by further integrating teaching through the arts, making the program more holistic, while adding an English language early childhood program to provide our students the same opportunity the more privileged have attending expensive private schools.

A chance meeting with Janice Rushdy, an early childhood education specialist from Canada, stranded in Battambang due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, meant the stars were aligned in our favor. Janice has provided the framework and capacity building for our English-language kindergarten program, which we launched in January.  The next steps is integrating both visual art and music as tools to meet learning outcomes, as well as a phonemic awareness methodology for learning languages, helping the children to learn a foreign language faster. The same methodology has been adapted to teach Khmer, which will help our students catch up for lost learning time.

Upgrading the facilities, for greater comfort, a friendlier and safer learning environment is also in progress. Our first classroom with a television and computer to facilitate digital learning activities for kindergarten has been set-up. In addition tables and chairs have been added to all classrooms to make drawing and writing lessons easier. We aim to upgrade all the classrooms one at a time. Janice has this to say about our kindergarten program:

“The Phare Ponleu Selpak English kindergarten program uses the arts as a means of helping the students to express their learning in English, science, and math. We use a child centered approach where our students guide their own learning, as well as a “learning through play” model where students learn by exploring and manipulating learning materials in a safe and secure environment. Within the first month of the program, students were speaking and singing in English and showing a well-developed understanding of math and science. They are engaged in their learning and excited to come to school. It is a joy to see such motivated and happy children.”

We are extremely grateful for Janice’s voluntary contribution in changing the lives of our community children through education!

Those of us working in arts education have to prioritize equity as our explicit ultimate goal. We have to put strategies in place that directly focus on closing the achievement gap—or the gap will never close. The question that arises for us is, “what is next for the students that complete the Phare kindergarten program?” Our goal is to pilot an education through the arts curriculum for the public school on our campus – one grade at a time. We aim to close the achievement gap for the Phare public school students in 6 years’ time. And in 12 years the students who start today with the Phare kindergarten will have better higher education and career opportunities to permanently break the cycle of poverty for their families.

Our child sponsorship recurring donors enable us to keep this most vital program, to build a strong foundation for the children’s learning, going. We would also like to send a special thank you to the team at the Chevron Phillips Chemical Limited office in Belgium for raising funds to enable the upgrading of our Kindergarten program and supporting the additional teacher for the new English Language early childhood education program.

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