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Opening Our Doors to Impoverished Students
Rethinking Scholarship Programs in International Schools By Barry Sutherland 18-Jan-19
International School Phnom Penh (ISPP) has a long-established scholarship program for which selection criteria were traditionally a combination of merit and needs-based factors. Students were tested as early as Grade 2 to establish merit and parents were concurrently invited to complete a declaration of need. These scholarships were offered to one lucky elementary child in alternate years anywhere between Grades 2 and 5. We realized we could do much better. My view of this program changed the day I was informed that our scholarship recipient would be late enrolling for school because the child’s family was vacationing in Europe. The school honored its agreement but decided it was time to review our assistance program with a view to providing opportunities for very poor students—the ones most international schools choose not to serve. What ensued was an inspiring, impactful, and sometimes painful experience. Backstory ISPP has suffered a bit of financial trauma over the past 10 years. In 2007, the Board had signed over US$3 million to a local developer who, after the 2008 global financial market crash, could not deliver land intended for a new school. When I arrived in 2009, I was tasked with retrieving the US$3 million, in addition to securing a new piece of land on which to build. In 2011, ISPP was embroiled in a lawsuit over another failed land deal, in which the developer was unwilling to release US$2.5 million dollars of the school’s money held in escrow. This little fight is one I was responsible for causing, as I had followed only the first half of the golden rule: “Trust, but verify.” In spite of these challenges, the school managed to finally purchase land and began to build its current campus in 2012. The problem was, there was no money left to build. Banks, as rule, are not enthusiastic about lending money to schools because no one wants to find themselves in the unenviable position of having to foreclose on a school. As such, we had a difficult time securing a loan. Eventually, a local bank took a chance on us, offering a US$20 million construction loan at a very high variable rate. We were grateful to get a loan at any rate. By the time the new campus was completed in 2015, the bank had already tried to raise the interest rate once (bankers, sigh), as was their right. We immediately contacted the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) in Washington, with which we had established a relationship years before. At the time, they had said they would like to help finance the construction but, given the lengthy congressional approval process and the fact that our clients were wealthy, ultimately recommended we try to secure private financing. Flash forward to 2016. I once again contacted OPIC and proposed that they buy out our construction loan as a social development loan—social development because I promised to plough all of the savings from a low-interest, long-tenure, fixed OPIC loan into a new type of scholarship program. The savings to our ISPP would be US$2.3 million dollars over 15 years—more than enough to support a long-term ISPP scholarship program for children from very impoverished families. While it has taken two years to negotiate and perfect the buyout loan, it has been well worth it. In August 2018, six very poor children joined ISPP on seven-year scholarships that start in Grade 6 and end when they secure their IB Diploma in 2025. How did we gauge the level of need? We sensed from the outset that proposing to serve very poor children would be our biggest challenge. Given the nature of the family structure in Southeast Asia, we understood that if we could provide an ISPP education and eventually an IB Diploma, we could not only pull that child out of poverty but would potentially pull up the whole family as well. As such, we wanted to partner with a local NGO operating in the local education sector that worked with both impoverished students and with their families, which is how we connected with the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). Knowing we would need to support families in our efforts to support these students, we hired a social worker—the first at an international school in Cambodia—at the beginning of 2018. This person serves as liaison between the school and our scholarship families and is also available to work with the rest of the ISPP community. Each of these families has both a CCF and an ISPP case worker. Our vetting process was extensive. Our scholarship team, made up of dedicated teachers and administrators, spent six weeks getting to know the 19 Grade 5 children who had been selected for testing from an original group of 185. We spent weekdays and weekends on rotation, observing the students in their CCF classes and working on tests, puzzles, and games on Saturdays. After selecting the final six scholarship students, we created a nine-week transition program on the ISPP campus over our summer break, with the intent of allowing these children a running start in August. Our teachers are 100-percent on board and know that over a seven-year period they can shepherd any student through to an IB Diploma. We have met the scholars’ parents, who live in a part of Phnom Penh called Steung Meanchey, a former city dump site that still smolders away. It is a dangerous place where drug use, gambling, and violence (domestic and otherwise) are rife. The parents of our scholarship students earn money as garment factory workers and scavengers—people who drag handcarts through the streets of Phnom Penh at night and separate garbage by headlamp on the streets outside of fine restaurants of the sort frequented mainly by families such as those that attend ISPP. When their carts are full, they push them back to warehouses in Steung Meanchey and receive a few dollars for the plastic, metal, and cardboard they have managed to scavenge, earning perhaps enough to buy some food. The following day: repeat. To really make a real social impact, it was the children of these families we wanted to enroll at our school. CCF has a reputable network of schools in which all subjects are taught in English for half the day and in Khmer for the other half. As long as these students remain in school, CCF provides their families with support, offering a food program, housing, medical and dental treatment, as well as social and emotional counseling. To access the ISPP IB curriculum, it was critical for us to ensure these students would join us early and would be supported in their community after they left ISPP at the end of every school day. Too hard? Any school can set up a similar program if it is prepared to do the work. All it takes is starting the process and ignoring the many people who will tell you it can never work. In our case, naysayers included ISPP community members and colleagues from other regional international schools. Every criticism and warning was fear-based. Comments ranged from: “You cannot partner with an NGO because of the reputational risk to your school,” to “How will you deal with child protection issues when it comes to ‘these’ children,” to “Their English is too poor and your teachers will not be able to make them learn.” One well-intentioned commentator suggested that we offer the money intended for scholarships to a local school and that we send these kids there instead, as if fearing that poverty is something ISPP children might catch, like a cold. Our team found these comments both painful and inspiring. Remember: money is not the issue. We can all afford to take in students from impoverished families, and I’m not just talking about local middle-class kids who already have family support and a future. Is it harder to do what we have done? Sure it is. As are most undertakings that are innovative and aim to have a wide-reaching social impact. Sadly, I think the fact that I could say to a very small group of parents that this program would literally cost them nothing was more powerful in gaining their support than describing the positive impact that the program is sure to have on their own children. Either way, it allowed us to move forward, because it is hard to argue against free. In reality, it does not cost much to do the right thing. If you are interested in learning more about our program—including how we tested students and how we intend to get them all full-ride university scholarships in 2025—please reach out. We are beginning our search for our 2nd cohort of six Grade 6 students this semester to join us in 2019. Barry Sutherland is Director of the International School Phnom Penh.
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