THE BLOG
06/09/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2013

Rebuilding Education From Turmoil: The Spitler School in Cambodia

As many know, educational systems in Cambodia were systematically destroyed and repressed during the Khmer Rouge regime, which controlled the country in the mid-to-late 1970s. Book burnings and the targeting of teachers in the ensuing widespread, tragic genocide were just two by-products of the turmoil in Cambodia.

While the country has worked to recover its educational systems over the past decades, generations of Cambodians have been placed at a disadvantage as a result of the previous political situation.

A few months ago, I traveled to Cambodia and was fortunate enough to spend some time with a variety of NGOs in Siem Riep to understand more about how these educational needs were being positively addressed. I had the pleasure of spending time at Spitler School, a school that has productively and mindfully stepped in to help reestablish and revitalize learning structures.

The Spitler School is indeed extraordinary in that it has done an excellent job of integrating with the local community, of growing within it rather than simply descending on it. With its emphasis on valuing and utilizing the talents of locals and students, the school provides a remarkable model for other nonprofit education and development organizations who want to integrate with a culture to scale long-term growth while providing value to the community in as sustainable way.

I recently spoke with Danny Spitler who, along with his wife Pam, is the founder of The Spitler School. We discussed what American students can learn from their Cambodian counterparts, the many benefits of hiring Cambodian teachers and administrators, and what the future will hold for the school and its students.

The Spitler School provides primary education to children in two schools in Ang Cagn Chass village in Cambodia. Can you talk a little bit about how and why the Spitler School was founded, and how it has changed over the course of its development?

We certainly never had any idea when we stepped into this project that it would reach the size and scope that it has achieved. When the school was founded back 2005, we envisioned it as a small two-room building for teaching the youngest children in the village, who had no access to a school. But, once started, it took on a life of its own. As we look back over the past eight years, we are amazed at what has been accomplished. For the most part the school's success is a direct result of the vision and the hard work of school administrator Chea Sarin.

The school's success has not been the result of any grand plan, but more about being open to each opportunity and a willingness to take on each new challenge. Sarin has continually impressed us with his organizational skills, his leadership abilities, and his passionate work ethic. Pam and I have tried to use our networking abilities to share the story of the school and to invite others to participate in helping us to make the school a beacon of hope for hundreds of children.

The ability to use the Internet to communicate quickly and effectively allows us to be involved in the daily activities of the school. It also gives us numerous ways that we can share this information with a growing number of stakeholders. Many people from various places in the world have learned about the school and have wanted to become involved at some level.

What parallels do you see between Cambodian children and children from more advantaged nations? What could American kids learn from their Cambodian counterparts, and vice versa?

Parallels can always be found between children everywhere in the world. Children are open vessels waiting to be filled. In any society receiving a basic education is critical to the children and to the society as a whole. Cambodia is dealing with a unique situation when the Khmer Rouge regime attempted to destroy the Cambodian education system during their reign. Schools were closed, books were destroyed, and educators were targets of the genocide. So, Cambodia has had to try and build their education system from almost nothing.

Because a large percentage of Cambodian families live in grinding poverty it is not unusual for students to drop out of school as soon as they reach an age where they can do any kind of work to help the family. That could be some kind of a job or simply caring for other siblings while their parents are away and trying to earn an income.

Many visitors to the school are impressed with the children's behavior and their attentiveness to teachers. There are very few discipline problems. Most students live in homes without bathrooms or running water and certainly without televisions or computers, so going to school is exciting and stimulating for the students. Most of them enjoy being at school and will attend whenever they can, even during the summer break.

I suspect that if American children were to have the opportunity visit a place like Ang Chagn village they might have a better appreciation of how very blessed they are, and they might come to a realization that many children simply do not have access to the kind of education that is simply taken for granted in our society.

The teachers and support staff in the schools are native Cambodians. What was the thought process behind this decision? Why is this a good fit?

In the early years of the school we never really considered having anyone working at the school that was not Cambodian. We wanted the school to be a part of the local village and the teachers and staff to be role models to the students. We also wanted to make sure that the school was meeting and exceeding all of the requirements of the Cambodian Ministry of Education. Sarin has done a great job of keeping officials of the ministry informed about the school, inviting them to attend various functions, and obtaining official recognition of the school.

In recent years, we have been very fortunate to have several talented and dedicated Western volunteers who have contributed their time and talent in many ways, principally by helping us to develop a comprehensive English program and giving valuable training to our teachers and staff.

What makes the school unique? Are there any students or teachers who have gone above and beyond even the highest expectations of them?

There are a number of NGOs in Cambodia that provide assistance with schools and education, but I'm not aware of too many other privately funded schools offering a full elementary education to all the children in a rural village.

We are also different in that we do not charge any fees to the students or their families. In the public schools the teachers are paid very poorly and have to supplement their incomes by obtaining special fees from parents and charging for providing private tutoring classes.
We believe that the school has created a lot of community pride and prestige despite the serious poverty that engulfs most of the families in the village. Our foundation has funded some community projects including a major road improvement in 2009. The children and teachers perform regular community service picking up garbage in the village. The village leaders are always included in school functions and ceremonies, and we invite the full village to attend the opening ceremonies each year as well as the annual graduation ceremonies.

We have some members of our teaching staff that have been at the school from the first or second year, so we have enjoyed having a core group of teachers for many years as the school has grown and expanded. Several of our teachers live in the city of Siem Reap so they need to travel several miles each day on a bicycle or motorbike to get to and from the school.

What is on the horizon for Spitler School? Are there any special initiatives or projects that you would especially like to undertake?

In the last few years we have had the opportunity to upgrade our programs and our facilities, and we would like to continue to be able to fund these initiatives.

We have been able to bring electricity to the school, which gives us the opportunity to add many teaching tools including computers, and we would like to add more computers and give our students more exposure to computer training.

With the help of some dedicated Western volunteers, we have developed a comprehensive English program. Because the village is located in an area that draws a lot of tourism a working knowledge of English will certainly be an advantage to students.

Two years ago we agreed to take over the funding and administration of a poorly performing government school located in another part of the village (Kurata School). We have added the English program to this school, and we are continuing to try and rebuild this school to make it a source of pride in the community and make sure that the children in this school receive as good an education as the students at Spitler School.

After being able to fund our primary mission of providing a quality education there are almost limitless needs throughout the area surrounding the school that we would love to address. There is little available in the way of sanitation, limited access to medical or dental care, limited access to clean water, and most of the children's parents have little or no education. Addressing these issues has to be done in a way that is community based and collaborative with leaders of the community and the village as a whole. But, if done properly, the improvement of the quality of life in the village would significantly increase the odds of all Spitler School children having the opportunity to break out of the cycle of abject poverty.

Eventually, we could even envision building a middle school in the village that would greatly enhance the children's access to an education beyond just sixth grade.

To learn more about The Spitler School or to get involved, visit www.spitlerschool.org.