|Old Schools Reborn|
|No. 1 Kamaryut High School|
|No. 4 Ahlone High School|
Tzu Chi has underwritten the reconstruction of five damaged schools left in the wake of Nargis. Some buildings require major repair and others require reconstruction from the foundation up. Regardless of what needs to be done, Tzu Chi’s project team is mindful of the balance that must be struck between the preservation of historic structures and their functionality and safety. It is a challenge they gladly accept.
The Burmese have long prized school education. The country boasts a literacy rate of over 90 percent. Unfortunately, Cyclone Nargis brought catastrophic destruction to many schools in May 2008. Countless school buildings collapsed or became unsafe for use, putting the students’ education at risk. To help students get back to school, Tzu Chi undertook the reconstruction of five schools. Construction on the first school, No. 4 Thingankyun Primary School, started in November 2008.
For a few days in early December 2008, I accompanied the Tzu Chi volunteers responsible for the project as they surveyed the five schools and planned to move the project forward. I witnessed firsthand the dedication and care of the Tzu Chi volunteers and local educators. All were working extremely hard in less than ideal conditions.
No. 4 Thingankyun Primary School
Construction of the new No. 4 Thingankyun Primary School began on November 2, 2008. The school is scheduled to reopen in June 2009. With only an eight-month window to complete the work, workers must proceed at full speed to meet this ambitious goal. They work every day, including weekends, and rest only on national holidays. When I visited in early December, they had already finished the foundations and pillars for some of the classrooms. Khin Zaw, the project engineer, summed up the team’s determination to make the target date: “We work from eight to five or, if necessary, to eleven.”
The school had survived the elements for 44 years, but it wasn’t able to withstand Cyclone Nargis. The storm left the school with just one classroom standing; the whole school had to be rebuilt. Ironically, the devastation actually gave the team much more leeway in designing and rebuilding the school. Starting nearly from scratch and building from the ground up, they will be able to erect a much better school.
In fact, the new school campus has been so well designed that it meets the more stringent requirements for middle schools. As such, the government elevated it to a middle school before the work even started. It will now be a school with nine grades, five elementary and four middle school.
For now, each of the 800 first- through fifth-graders has to make do with only a half-day of class in either of two makeshift classrooms. At any given time, 200 students from various grades occupy each of the classrooms. One of the classrooms is in the school proper and the other at nearby Zaya Thu Ka Temple.
The students have brought liveliness and noise to the quiet temple. The monks have adjusted their schedules to accommodate the students: They now meditate either before or after school.
Principal Myaw San shuttles between the two sites to make sure that classes are going well. She also wants to elevate disaster awareness and preparedness for the whole school. She looks forward to the opening of the new school. “When the new school is completed, it will be able to weather even a cyclone. All the students and their families can take shelter at the school if necessary.”
San Pya Primary School
San Pya is a small village in Kungyangon, south-southeast of Yangon (Rangoon) near the Indian Ocean. The primary school in San Pya was founded on the same day in 1959 that the village itself was established. Just as they were preparing to celebrate their 50th anniversary, the cyclone hit and threw everything into chaos.
The village was severely damaged and the school was entirely wiped out when Nargis made landfall on May 2, 2008. Despite the destruction, the villagers wanted to have the students back in class by June. Just about everybody in the village scrambled to make that date.
Principal Than Win and her husband, village head Aung Chit, donated the land next to their own house to build a temporary school. They called on students’ parents to salvage usable building materials from the damaged school site for the cause, and Aung Chit donated some lumber himself. They and many others rolled up their sleeves and went to work putting up the temporary classroom.
Than Win said, “The roof of my own house was blown away by the cyclone, and a falling tree wrecked my kitchen. But building the temporary school took precedence over fixing my own home. I literally didn’t have time to even think about the damage to my own house.”
The group pulled it off with a lot of toil and sweat, and 194 students of the school resumed their full-day classes by the deadline. But conditions in the temporary school are far from ideal. The students are packed in a single large classroom, each trying to listen to their own teacher while other teachers are teaching their own students nearby. It’s not the best environment for learning, but at least the kids are in school. The students were also fortunate to have received books, school supplies, desks and chairs from the education bureau and UNICEF.
Everyone was happy when classes resumed in the temporary school, but everyone is even more excited about what’s to come—a brand new school, potentially an elementary and middle school combination, for which the government has already allocated a two-acre plot of land. According to the rebuilding plan, the new school, along with residential units, will be part of a new Tzu Chi Great Love Village.
Many people in San Pya make their living as fishermen, dock laborers, or rickshaw pullers. Most students need to help out at home after school. It’s understandable then that the villagers hope for a middle school right in the village. This will easily allow the older children to attend school during the day and get home quickly to help out after school. Principal Than Win hopes that the new school can help address this common need of the villagers.
In Burmese, “san pya” means “a model that others emulate.” The name is well suited. Students in San Pya Elementary School have historically performed well. In fact, the school was ranked among the top three in terms of academic performance among all schools in Kungyangon.
With a new village and a new school on the horizon, residents and Tzu Chi volunteers are working hard to make sure that San Pya village in fact emerges as a “san pya.”