RATIE (Khmer Times) — Pronounced “Krah-cheh,” the name of Kratie province literally means “poor-able.”
But, as another year of high-school exam results comes in, what used to be a nasty joke is turning into a slogan for provincial residents.
“They’re poor, but able,” says Chhay Lon, the chief of Kratie market, speaking of the province’s high-schoolers. “That’s what the name means, Kratie.”
The northern province, one of the poorest in Cambodia, is fifth in the nation this year for its high-school exam pass rate – 5.8% higher than in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham, and far higher than the national average, 55.8 percent.
So. What’s the secret?
Most local officials insist that Kratie owes its high marks to the difficulties and determination of the province’s people.
“Students try really hard to learn,” says Thy Chan Sothea, the head secondary officer in Kratie’s Department of Education.
“Students try really hard to learn, and teachers try really hard to teach. And parents encourage their children to try hard, too.”
The Department of Education, said Mr. Thy, pays teachers for overtime classes on Saturdays and Sundays – a $107 for every two months, which, he said, was very little.
“But the teachers wanted their students to do well. They put a lot of effort in.”
If trying hard means hours of underpaid overtime for Kratie’s teachers, it means even more for Kratie’s students and parents.
Neang Pisey, 18, has lived away from home for more than half her life. For the past two years, she’s been eighteen kilometers from her parents in the Chet Borey District.
She’s lived in a rented room with three other girls, while finishing her secondary education at Kousomak High School in town. Her parents, a rice farmer and a Khmer food seller, scraped together some money every month to pay for her rent.
Hunger to Learn
“They wanted me to learn,” she said. “They wanted me to have a skill.”
Pisey’s story isn’t unique. About 50 percent of Kousomak’s high-schoolers are from rural villages in Kratie, estimates the principal, He Bunchhy. Some of the rural students attend school while staying with family in town – most, however, rent rooms across the road from the school, which is a few kilometers from Kratie’s town center.
“It’s a safe town,” says Mr. Thy. “We’ve never had any problems with the students living here. They cook together and look after each other.”
Safe as Kratie is, the years were hard. “Pisey was rarely home,” said her mother, Vuth Navy. “I haven’t really seen her, these past years. sSometimes I cried from the stress of being away,” said Pisey.
For those families who can find a way to make the rent, Pisey’s high school, Kousomak, is a strong option; its pass rate was 74.3 percent this year, and its teachers, say Vin Sokheng of the town hall, are old and experienced in their teaching methodology. For those who can’t, the available options are patchy at best.
Neap Komvuy is the principal of Sandan high school, in one of the poorest districts of Kratie. The school’s 45 12th graders made a 71.1 percent pass rate this year, he said, but noted that over half of the area’s students drop out before reaching their final year of high school.
“We lack teachers,” he explained. “We lack English teachers, Khmer teachers, math teachers, chemistry teachers, physics teachers – not just in one grade level, but in a lot of grade levels.”
The school is sent teachers from Phnom Penh every so often, he says, but most are new on the job, and only stay a year or two.
“They teach out there because it’s easier to pass the teachers’ exam in remote areas,” remarks Mr. Thy. “But they leave quickly, because their salary is low.”
Meanwhile, Komvuy’s students do their best to study – often by themselves, he says, often without sufficient classroom space. In this district, the parents who are able send their children to study in Kratie Town, at stronger high schools like Kousomak.
Pisey’s mother came to the recognition ceremony for Kratie’s high-achieving students, which took place the Friday after the results were released. Kratie’s deputy provincial governor, Houe Sieyiem, spoke – then Pisey and Pit Khannora, Kratie’s two A students, received laptops.
Asked what part she’d played in her daughter’s education, Pisey’s mother was brief. “We sold rice and cakes,” she said. “We made the money to send her to school. We are very poor,” Pisey’s mother said quietly. “We do not want her to live in the state in which we’ve lived.”