Thursday, March 10, 2016

Meet the School Director with a big passion for inclusive education

By Iman Morooka 

Dok Sophallida School Director of Vealtrea primary school
© UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab/2015

--‘All children have the right to play together and to learn together’--

In light of International Women’s day we’re celebrating this entire week by shining the spotlight on Cambodian women who work tirelessly to improve the lives of children in the country. 

Dok Sophallida has been serving as the School Director of Vealtrea primary school in Battambang province for about five months now. She says that education is her passion, especially for children with disabilities.

Ms. Sophallida started out as a teacher and had received training on inclusive education, which aims to equip education professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to creating an inclusive school environment for all children, including those with special needs.

“A child with disability could drop out of school because of their condition even if the disability is not so severe, if they get teased at school or neglected in class,” explains Ms. Sophallida. She adds that if the child’s family doesn’t see the value and benefit of sending their children to school, the child is likely to drop out.

“When the family is happy with the education their children receive, they make an effort to keep sending their kids to school. That’s why it’s important that the school keeps supporting children with disabilities, because as they get older, the chances of them dropping out increase as they start to become more conscious of being teased or discriminated against.”

Eight-year-old Ret Sokra listens attentively during class
© UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab/2015

One of the children who have been supported by Ms. Sophallida and the teachers at Vealtrea School is 8-year-old Ret Sokra, who is now attending grade 3. His right leg is shorter than his left leg, causing him difficulty in walking. While his family is very poor, they have been tremendously supportive of his education. He started his education from pre-school and advanced continuously to grade 3 thanks to the encouragement he gets at home and at school.

Every day, Ret’s older sister gives him a ride to school at the back of her bicycle, making sure he gets to school safely, and on time. Despite his limping, Ret starts running around chasing and kicking a ball with friends at the yard as soon as he reaches school. What he likes most about school is playing football with his friends. “I also like to learn reading and writing. I want to become a police officer when I grow up.” adds Ret.

Ret and his sister ride to school every morning
© UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab/2015

Ms. Sophallida is concerned that Ret might drop out if his family stops providing him with transport to school. “We gave him a school bag and learning materials, to show his parents that we are serious about his education. We want to build a relationship of trust with them.”

By 1 PM, students of the school’s afternoon shift have taken position at their desks in their respective classrooms. Students of the higher grades carry out their task of tidying up flipflops and shoes taken off by other students before entering the classroom, forming neat rows of footwear right outside of the class.

The school, equipped with disability accessible facilities, has ramps that lead from the school yard to the classrooms and to the bathrooms. There are currently ten children with disabilities enrolled at Vealtrea School.

While Ms. Sophallida doesn’t teach inside the classroom anymore since her promotion as School Director, she spends her time walking from one class to another to check on the children, especially those with disabilities.

Ms. Sophallida checks on her pupils during class
©UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab/2015

“All children have the right to go to school, and not separately from other children if they have a disability. All children should learn together with support from the teachers and the school director.” According to Ms. Sophallida, inclusive education is the right thing to do, and is the smart way to manage limited resources because having special teachers for some students would be too costly.  

UNICEF is supporting the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports at both national and sub-national levels in the implementation and expansion of this inclusive education approach. This includes training programmes, with support from Sida,  to provide teachers with the tools needed to identify children with disabilities in their communities, encourage them to attend school and to adapt their classroom activities to children’s needs.

But efforts to establish an inclusive environment at school do not come without challenges.

“Teaching children with disabilities sometimes requires more time, so time constraint is a challenge because you need to spend more time with them in the classroom. We need to give extra attention to the academic performance of children with disabilities.” says Ms. Sophallida. “We also need more training and knowledge on how to provide support to children with severe forms of disabilities.”

Children at Vealtrea primary school gather and read together
©UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab/2015

The School Director went on to share with us one final thought: that all teachers should receive training on inclusive education because “..all children have the right to play together and to learn together.”

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