After 2 solid years of hard work, developing and setting up our programs, we are now seeing first-hand the benefits that our integrated eco-system of offerings is starting to have on REACH’s kids and their families.
With the goal of equipping families with the tools required to break free from poverty, we have developed the following 4-part strategy:
The 4-step strategy of our Cambodian children’s poverty charities.
Since opening, we have rolled out 10 programs, all of which are integrated, and in line with achieving the final stage of our strategy ‘Youths Securing Employment Opportunities’.
At REACH, we enroll children from age 5, and once enrolled, each child and their family, has the opportunity to experience every program that we offer.
Of our programs, the final link in the chain, and arguably one of the most important, is our ‘Youth Pathways Program’.
This program comes into play when a child at REACH enters grade 7 at public school or is not yet in high school but is 15 years or older. The purpose of this program is to provide REACH youths with the support required to progress through their important years of schooling, so that once they become young adults, they can secure fair employment.
What this journey looks like is different for every youth, and because we don’t focus solely on academia, to cater to the needs of all students, our approach to this program is complex and multifaceted.
Students from the Youth Pathways program during an inspiring talk from the Youth Leader.
THE CHALLENGE FOR YOUTHS
According to Open Development Cambodia only 20.2% of Cambodian teenagers complete high-school each year, and of that, only 14% of the graduates go on to study at University. Sadly, we expect that these devastating statistics will only be further exacerbated by the current global pandemic.
In Cambodia, public school is free for half a day of learning, but once a child enters high school, to understand the content needed to pass their exams, they need to pay additional lesson fees to their teachers and attend extra classes after hours.
Extra lesson classes cost approximately USD$7.5 per month per subject, and with 4 core subjects and several electives, fees can add up to $50USD per month; an amount that is impossible for impoverished families to afford.
As a result, with no money, and no way to access comprehensive education, when impoverished youths begin to fail within the system, most see no other choice but to drop out and begin working to provide for their families.
From an early age, impoverished children are often forced to work in order to help support their families.
DEVELOPING THE PROGRAM
From REACH’s inception, we’ve always had big plans for our Youth Pathways program.
Our goal of empowering youths to find dignified job opportunities through further education in either vocational training or the university degree of their choosing, is no small goal.
As mentioned, there are complex issues and countless motivators for impoverished youths to leave school, making the development of this program an enormous undertaking.
To ensure success for each student, we plan to be closely involved in their development throughout their important high school years from grade 7 to 12, with a strong focus on the national exam years in grades 9 and 12.
Since opening, we established that to properly support the youths through their public schooling, we would likely need to support their extra lesson fees.
At $15-50USD monthly per student, this is a huge budgetary goal, and without proper administration and very close guidance, this money could easily be wasted.
For it to be effective, we’d need to build close relationships with our teenagers and their parents. We’d need to ensure that every month they attend their classes and that they are properly supported by REACH, not only with financial subsidies, but physically and emotionally, with inspiring mentors by their side.
Our youths receive constant support and guidance from our Youth Leader Seangheng (middle).
Above all, we’d require youths to invest in themselves and commit to their own futures; with this in mind, we decided the program would not be compulsory, but on an application basis only.
With so much to cover over the course of 6 years with each youth, we decided that a students’ journey within the Youth Pathways program would encompass the following stages:
Once the above plan was hashed out, in November 2021 our Youth Pathways team began reaching out to other NGOs and local partners to see what was already being done, and to begin developing our first level of the Youth Pathways program.
With the support of an international volunteer, the 12-month Sunday program took 5 months to develop. Within the curriculum are monthly excursions and workshops covering important life-skills and topics that are often overlooked in the public sector.
Our topics covered include a range of soft skills such as leadership, mental health, anatomy, goal setting, conflict resolution, and much more. In this exciting course, the students not only learn within the classroom, but also through experiences, they learn about the outside world while visiting other NGOs and are able to build strong ties with their peers through team building activities and interactive lessons.
The youths during an educational excursion to ‘APOPO Visitor Center’.
The major draw card of this program is that all students who applied and were accepted, would in exchange, have their extra lesson fees at public school paid for by REACH.
During the recruitment phase, we had a great show of interest with more than 25 applying.
But as with all good plans, when launching the Level 1 program, an unexpected challenge arose.
Since officially launching the Youth Pathway program in June this year, we quickly noticed that several students were unable to attend our course, due to increasing pressures from the Public School teachers to attend extra classes 7 days a week.
Prior to the pandemic, extra classes had predominately been carried out from Monday – Saturday, with Sunday being left as a holiday from school.
However, due to the 2 years of missed schooling, students are now so far behind in the levels in which they study, that their teachers have been pressuring them to attend for full days on Sundays too.
Education is vital to lift our youths out of poverty.
We launched the program with more than 25 youths intending to participate; however, as a result of public-school, within the first few weeks the Level 1 Course cohort number ended up at 17.
While we know that catching up on 2 years of missed schooling by studying 7 days a week is unrealistic, this is the system that our students are in, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
As devastated as we were to see several students drop out of the pilot of our Level 1 Youth Program, our immediate response was to analyse the issue at hand and begin responding…
THE CHALLENGE AT HAND
As soon as the program commenced, we began intensively reviewing our youths progress at public school.
On a monthly basis our students receive a report book which lists their subject scores and attendance class rank. From reviewing the monthly book report, we found out that 76% of our youths were failing at least 1 of the 4 main subjects of Physics, Mathematics, Khmer or Chemistry.
While we were confident that the 17 students from our Level 1 Youth Program would now be supported by their extra lessons subsidies and individual mentoring, we were left extremely worried about the remaining 29 youths who also attend REACH that require immediate help with their high school studies.
In response to this huge concern, our Education, Youth Pathways and Outreach team formed a working group to discuss a widespread approach to tackling this challenge.
Through our research, it was evident that the greatest issue our youths face at public school, is that their class sizes are too big, teachers are under resourced, their time in class is too limited and as a result their teachers cannot teach them everything required to pass their exams.
With 46 REACH students currently in high school, paying for all their extra lessons would amount to more than $1,350USD per month, which was not something we could afford.
So, after several sessions of discussions, research and feedback from existing partners, the idea for in-house remedial sessions at REACH was born.
REMEDIAL SESSIONS EXPLAINED
To ensure that every youth in our care could access public school support, our 3 departments decided the best approach would be to offer free drop-in homework sessions at REACH to be hosted by professional, well-respected, public-school educators.
This way, the students could choose which drop-in session to attend and lead the discussions with their teachers in small class sizes, receiving the individual support they need to work through any challenges they have at public school, at any given time.
Last month our Senior Education Team interviewed several candidates to host these remedial sessions. The interview process involved running practice homework sessions with our small focus group of Youth Pathways Level 1 students. Each session was observed by our Senior Education Team and we then requested feedback from our youths on how they felt about the sessions, and what they learned.
Students from our Cambodian children’s charity were encouraged to fill out a form with their feedback on the remedial classes and also gave their feedback verbally to the Education team.
The students’ feedback gave us great motivation for the project.
Following these successful weeks of trials, our team then selected the best 4 Public School teachers to work as contractors for REACH.
Before the sessions could go ahead, we knew that the most important next step was gathering buy in from REACH’s guardians; to do this, we presented the new remedial sessions project to all our youths guardians.
In an interactive discussion led by our Education Manager Mardy, the guardians were explained at length all of the benefits of these guided study sessions as well as the launch of Computer Classes. To further encourage attendance at the new Youth Pathways afternoon sessions on Sunday, one of our amazing youth, presented her own experiences of joining the very first trial remedial session.
The speech that this student gave made our team so proud. She stood confidently in front of more than 30 guardians and shared that through these classes, she planned to change herself and become a good and committed student. She mentioned that the remedial class sizes at REACH were very small, and that she felt confident asking questions about all the things she found difficult at public school.
The REACH team is proud to see empowered students who want to continue studying.
She did her best to encourage the guardians to send their kids to these sessions and seeing her give this speech was an important milestone for us -we are beginning to see our oldest students begin to lead the way.
THE SESSIONS GO LIVE
On Sunday October 2nd at 12pm we welcomed 46 youths to REACH for a healthy and nutritious meal, followed by 2 hours of computer classes and then 2 hours of remedial sessions.
Since the official launch, the majority of our youths have been spending 2 hours each weekend with one of the professional public-school teachers. Our students are grouped based on their public-school grades; we have grades 7-9 attending separate sessions while grades 10-12 attend another.
In the remedial sessions the students lead the learning by asking the teachers to explain homework questions or exercises in their textbook that they don’t understand, allowing them to take charge of their own education.
It’s early days, but from observing results in their monthly record books, attendance on Sunday classes and our students’ engagement in the classroom, we believe that this project is off to a great start. In an ever-changing landscape, taking into consideration the unforeseen challenges that lie ahead, we know that this project will need to constantly be adapted to achieve our goal of bridging the gap of missed education.
Through coaching and ongoing consultation, we are working very hard to encourage our youths and their families not to worry if they do not pass this year. The disruption to their education due to COVID-19 was unprecedented, and although staying back a year is not ideal, REACH is in it for the long haul, and we’ll be doing everything we can to help each student move forward, however long it takes.
At REACH, we want to provide ongoing support to our students in order to alleviate their daily pressures.
Our students receive so much pressure both in their personal lives and at the public schools, the last thing we want to do is add pressure. These free drop-in sessions are designed to eliminate that pressure, so that our youths have access to the support they need, without having to pay.
Through these sessions, we hope to see our students drive their own learning without fear or judgement, hoping to level out the playing field and give them access to the education they deserve, in a warm and supportive environment.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE YOUTH PATHWAYS PROGRAM
We will continue piloting our 1-year Youth Pathways Level 1 Course every Sunday morning, as we are seeing great results from the youths attending this course. As originally planned, these students will continue to receive extra lesson stipends for the duration of the course with close monitoring and mentorship from our team.
On top of this, we will continue to run our free remedial sessions for all our youths with the contract teachers each Sunday afternoon.
Upon the completion of the Level 1 Course in June 2023, we will then evaluate the success of both approaches. We are unsure if extra lesson stipends for every student is the answer, if the more widespread approach with remedial sessions for every student will be just as effective, or if the two-pronged approach is necessary long-term. Time will tell.
Moving forward, while these 2 pilots go ahead, our team will be busy preparing to develop the Level 2 Youth Course set to launch in Q3 2023. This course will be open to all Level 1 Graduates aged 16+ or anyone who is in Grade 10 or more at REACH.
As to not reinvent the wheel, we will be looking to our existing partners and new partners for support in this next stage. Unlike our Level 1 Course, which is aimed at exposing our younger youth to the outside world, the Level 2 course will be much more focused on career guidance, work experience and support during the final stages of their educational journey.
This will be a very important year in which the youths set goals and create plans for the next stages of their lives. Through this course, our Youth Pathways team will expose the cohort to Universities, Vocational Training Centers and explain the different avenues which REACH will find appropriate scholarship opportunities for them, based on their individual goals, upon completion of the level 2 program, and their time at public high school. The final stage after that will be finding said scholarships to turn their plans into reality.
Through the Youth Pathways program we seek to empower, motivate and provide all the necessary tool to future leaders.
As we said at the beginning of this blog, the 6-year journey with our youths as they enter high school will be complex, and we will need to ensure every student’s needs are met. As such, there are so many things we need to consider while developing our Youth Pathways program.
No doubt, there will be a lot of trial and error, and countless challenges that arise, but we are all working very hard to provide as much support as we can, so that against all odds, our youths can have the best chance of succeeding.
If you’ve read this blog and have feedback, ideas, or want to volunteer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2023 there will be a huge focus on Youth Pathways at REACH and if you’re interested in supporting this effort, we’d love to hear from you.