“Our Commune is for Early Childhood Learning”
Mr. Saroeurn, 51, is the Commune Chief of Dar Commune in Memot District, Tboung Khmum Province, Cambodia. Memot District is located adjacent to the present-day border with Vietnam, in the central lowland valley of the Mekong River. This area has yielded important archeological discoveries from the past, and has also had a tumultuous modern history owing to the United States’ war in Vietnam and subsequent armed conflicts in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Despite the tragedy and hardships of the past, Mr. Saroeurn is optimistic about the future. He speaks to us with a big smile as he explains his motivation as Commune Chief to serve the citizens, especially the young generation, in the 19 villages in his commune.
Adapting a well-known adage, Saroeurn stressed the importance of providing education and care for children during early childhood to secure a brighter future. “Children are like bamboo shoots, so we must help them grow up to become bamboo,” he said.
He explained that while there was one preschool in his commune, it only had 25 young students, and only four- or five-year-old children were able to enroll. “Before, the authorities in the commune were not concerned with early learning because infrastructure development was their [first] priority,” he said.
Mr. Saroeurn explained that it was previously very difficult to increase the engagement of parents and caregivers in their children’s education, whether it was at school, preschool, or at home. Parents in the commune did not really understand the benefits of early learning, and the vast majority of them did not see the point of sending their young children to preschool.
Contributing to this problem was the fact that the single preschool in the commune was only available to people from one village in the commune, and the road leading there from the other villages was in disrepair. Bringing their children to preschool was a not an option for most of the people in the other villages of the commune.
With funding from the Prudence Foundation, Save the Children began implementing the First Read project in Dar Commune in 2013 with the aim of raising the awareness of parents and caregivers about the importance of Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD), especially through the practice and habit of reading books with their young children, and other home-based activities. Project staff worked in close collaboration with Mr. Saroeurn and the other local authorities to increase their knowledge of ECCD, and encourage them to allocate local budgets for early learning.
After 6 years of implementation, the First Read project established parenting groups in all 19 villages in the commune, training parents how to provide home-based early learning opportunities for their children. The parents are able to apply what they learned and educate their children at home through daily activities. The home-based activities help parents teach their children to recognize and write the Khmer alphabet, read books, and sing children’s songs. Through the meetings, parents and caregivers are able to share their experiences about educating their young children and learn from one another.
Now, the Dar Commune administration has provided funding to continue the monthly parenting sessions. The funds are used to provide refreshments during the meetings and cover petrol costs for the facilitators. The commune administration was also able to allocate some funds to create more preschools in the commune. These new preschools are based out of volunteer’s homes in the communities.
“We increased three more community preschools and [established] a Reading Camp for the young children,” explained Mr. Saroeurn “Most of the villagers have now changed their behaviors and care for their children’s education. I have observed that children are very active, and are more confident than they used to be. Parents have also changed their habits and practice positive education with their children.”
Mr. Buntheoun, another local official in Dar Commune, told us that the Commune Council is now trying to focus on human resource development more than infrastructure development, because they see the good results of the learning outcomes of the children. “I want the young children in this community to have full capacity in the future,” he said.
After the project phases out, the Mr. Saroeurn and the other local authorities are committed to continue the parenting group to support parents and early childhood education in the community.
During the parenting meeting, Mr. Saroeurn assured his constituents of this commitment. “Please don’t worry! Even though there is no [longer] support from Save the Children, the parenting meeting will still continue running through the commune budget.”