Two stories from Asia: how education is changing

Over a thousand miles and close to forty years separate Khun Mechai Viravaidya and Raj Ridwan Singh yet they have so much in common.

Khun Mechai is a world renowned development expert who founded Population and Community Development Association (PDA) which has become the largest nonprofit in Thailand. Khun Mechai is affectionately known as Mr. Condom since he launched the drive to raise awareness around population control and HIV AIDS. He has been both a minister and a senator and has played a significant role in reducing the average number of children in Thai families from 7 to 1.5. Khun Mechai has taken his extensive star power and development expertise and set up a unique learning facility called the Mechai Pattana School – the Bamboo School.

Raj Singh is one of the founders of SOLS24/7.  He is a young social entrepreneur who together with his father and brother are tackling the issue of education for underserved communities in Southeast Asia. I first met Raj in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 when he pitched me his approach to providing training to the underserved youth in an intensive two year effort which aimed to get them into well-paying jobs. He believed that his social venture would become financially viable and sustainable. He wanted to start this effort in East Timor which had just gained its independence. Microsoft took a leap of faith and invested in his effort. I met him again two weeks ago while I was in Kuala Lumpur and had a chance to visit the school he has set up there.

SOLS 24/7 – Science for Life (www.sols247.org) is a nontraditional teaching environment. Founded in 2000, in Cambodia, SOLS 24/7 is educating 75,000 youth in 4 countries in South East Asia. This is a youth run program that offers a comprehensive two-year training and boarding program on life-skills education for disadvantaged and at-risk youths from poor communities. Providing equal opportunities for boys and girls, the program has made it a policy to accept the same number of male and female students. In the recent graduation, 52 percent of those who received their diplomas/certificates are girls.

SOLS 24/7 builds its programs from the grassroots level. It partners with local NGOs to ensure its sustainability and smooth management transition. It advocates the Science of Life systems, learning modules developed and successfully proven to improve the lives of the youth-participants. English is compulsory and through their approach of rapid learning youth gets English fluency (speaking) in as little as 3 months. Each school or community center as they are called teaches English, Computing, Mathematics, Leadership and character skills to both full time boarding students and part time day students.

These training facilities sustain themselves by giving the youths responsibility in the preparation of meals and board requirements. These centers also contribute to the community by becoming involved in the delivery of basic social services such as medicines, food (food in cans), clothes, and carry out public awareness programs. SOLS 24/7 helps the youths and the local communities establish a network of social services. To keep the endeavor financially viable they have a tiered pricing model where English students from developed countries help subsidize the cost of educating underprivileged students.

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Improving cognitive ability by a counting beans exercise at SOLS 24/7

By providing non-formal education and holistic life-skills education to youth who become SOLS Smart; underprivileged youth are now skilled, responsible, dynamic, disciplined and socially conscious individuals, many of them come back to teach and mentor other kids at the center. One key factor to their success is to provide relevant training so these youth can get into jobs or start their own business.

What both Khun Mechai and Raj Singh are doing is turning the concept of education for underserved youth on its head. Both have approached learning as a hybrid between formal learning and experiential learning. At the Bamboo School they follow a regular Thai school curriculum so kids can graduate from school with a diploma. However, the school is also teaching them new ideas and creativity skills that lead to earning opportunities. The schools serve as a center for life-long learning for the entire community; a hub for economic and social advancement with micro-loans available for families with kids in the school; and a teacher training facility; where teachers from rural areas can come to enhance their teaching skills.

One of the more innovative aspects of the learning experience at the Bamboo School is that students are in charge of the decision making process. They are given the responsibility of participating in the teacher selection and evaluation process; and the responsibility for selecting the incoming Grade 7 students, which promotes leadership at an early age. Students operate businesses that have a positive impact within their community, with some of the profits going towards primary student scholarships in government schools. Students participate in the purchasing committee, which enables them to learn budgeting, planning, transparency, and negotiation skills. In lieu of fees the students and their families promise to plant 365 trees and provide 365 hours of community service.

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Aerial View of the Mechai Pattana School

I asked Raj what his biggest challenge was and he said “youth leave after one year as many of them are qualified and they get employed, and then they are under pressure from their families to contribute to their livelihoods”; many of them return back to complete their training as they believe this will prepare them for getting a better job. This is a true measure of success.

As I left my meeting with Khun Mechai I asked him to connect with Raj as I felt collaboration between the two of them would be mutually beneficial. As I returned a got a note for Raj that he was driving to Thailand to visit the Bamboo School and explore partnerships.

We need many more such innovative approaches to bring education to youth that gets them into jobs and creates livelihood opportunities.