Friday, March 2, 2012

Things have changed in this school

Grade 4 students wave happily before they enter their classes which start at 10:30am
©UNICEF/Timor-Leste 2012/Fdosreis
“I began as a teacher here in 2000,” Mr. Luis Mario de Silva, 40 years old, said quietly. “In 2008, I was made the Director of the School.”  He also shyly adds, “I am also now the Director of Basic Education since I was appointed to the position in 2010.” 

To Mr. de Silva, being the director of the school is a serious responsibility.  It does not matter that to get to this school, a sturdy four-wheel drive car needs to go through the mountain road from the Ermera District’s capital town of Gleno for close to 1 and half hours.  The road to Licapat hugs the side of the mountain range --- weaving and following the contour of the mountains ---  one side of the road showing gapping ravine and on the other side, soil and rock that could obviously be weakened and loosened by intermittent rain.  Despite the seemingly treacherous road, the scene is picturesque with scattered stone-built homes, green tree tops and a rolling valley below. The school itself is carved on the mountainside and could easily be missed as it is off the main road.

When asked what it meant to be a Basic Education Director,  Mr. de Silva explains that he now manages all of Grades 1 to 9, instead of just Grades 1 to 6 of his school. It also means that he has to provide support to 9 schools from the nearby four villages. He therefore has to visit these schools regularly to get data from them and to also share information he receives from the education ministry. 

Mr. de Silva speaks from his modest office desk, one among five other desks of teachers in the room. The only distinction that he heads the school is a simple card board with the words : School Director.  His name is not even printed on the card board.

“This school today is very different from what it was in 2000 when I began teaching,” Mr. de Silva continues. “In those years, we only had three classrooms in this very site. But in 2005, our Licapat School was rebuilt with nine classrooms. It is also complete with toilets and running water. It is very different now!”

Director of Licapat School Mr. Luis Mario de Silva
Licapat School provides schooling or 1,154 students and on wonders how nine classrooms can accommodate so many school children.  The formula for this school, as well as in most schools in Timor-Leste, is by scheduling.  Grades 1 to 4 students start their classes at 8:00 a.m.  They have to quickly vacate the classrooms by 10:30 a.m. to make room for the Grades 5 to 6 students. Finally, the last batch of students from Grades 7 to 9 come starting at 2:00 p.m. and end their school day by 5:00 p.m.. The students are tutored by 24 teachers struggling to give the best they can given the meagre resources they have.

“But the real big change here started in 2010. I was introduced then to the child-friendly school approach,” Mr. de Silva said. “From that training, it was the first time I heard about student-centred learning. Before, the teachers did all the talking and the students just had to listen. Now, in this school, there are a lot of group work which encourage students to discuss and come up with possible answers to problems that are posed by the teachers.  They get to learn from each other based on the exchange of ideas and the teachers no longer do long lectures, unlike before. Even the way we arrange our school desks is different. These are no longer lined up in rows but are clustered into groups. The child-friendly school approach is easy to facilitate because of the training supported by UNICEF.”

There are obviously still many challenges in Licapat School.  While the Parent-Teacher Association has been formed and is currently headed by Mr. Armindo Borges, its activity are fairly limited and more community involvement can further help the school.  Right now, the Association meets only three times a year. One major contribution of the Parent Teacher Association was when they built a temporary school many years back. That school building has since then been replaced by the 2005 school house. The elections for the next batch of student council officers has not commenced and is scheduled by April.  School inspectors come and visit – the last one just about two weeks ago, but the inspectors cover too many schools and cannot provide the full support required by the teachers. The school has no electricity since the solar panel system donated by UNICEF in 2010 was stolen one night during a week end. More troubling is that each classroom, despite the shifts in schedule,  is often over crowded with around 80 to 100 students.

Mr. de Silva dreams of a time when his school will further improve with more classrooms so that there will be merely 30 students in each classroom. He dreams that in five years time, there will be one text book for each student in all of the required subjects instead of two students sharing one text book in the only three subject areas: Mathematics, Environment and Portuguese.  His dream will soon see fruition with the education ministry completing text books for the subjects of Tetum, Culture and Physical Education.  He dreams that in a few years time, there will be a separate building for the pre-secondary school students.

Mr. de Silva smiles.  “This can be done.  Look at how we have moved from a three-room classroom to this nine classrooms. I am hopeful.”

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