Song Pro is a widow from the Pnorng ethnic group. She lives in Mondulkiri province, where she has watched all five of her children drop out of school, none of them reaching beyond the fourth grade.
Most of them now are fully grown, young men and women without jobs, a source of much regret to their mother.
“If you dropped out of school, how is your future?” she asked recently. “My children say, ‘What should I do, Mother? It is because we are poor, so let chance decides.’”
Song Pro’s children are not alone. A recent report from the Ministry of Education shows that some 700 ethnic minority students dropped out of school in the 2008-2009 school year, compared to less than 1,200 dropouts nationwide. That’s an increase from 522 dropouts in minority groups last year.
Sroung Polonh is the head of Pechr Chenda district’s education office in Mondulkiri, where 156 students dropped out of school.
“There are a lot of influences,” he said. “However, the most important thing is their living conditions, and the teachers are not often there to teach in class. Also, the study facilities are poor.”
Khan Channy, the head of an ethnic community in the province, said most minority students drop out of school because they need to find work to support the family.
She worries at the rising numbers of dropouts, which are increasing each year.
“We don’t know what the future ahead holds,” she said. “However, in Pechr Chenda district, there is a lack of teachers, people are still poor, and there is no development in the village, because there are no human resources and leaders.”
In the entire province, minority students number 6,404 in primary school, from first to sixth grade, about half of the 11,297 total students. But in the lower secondary and high schools, minorities only number 481.
The national policy is to push students to reach at least the ninth grade.
Teum Sangvat, director of Mondulkiri province’s department of youth and sports, said it was not only the minority students but all students in the province who were at risk.
Rung Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said the minority dropout problem will negatively affect Cambodia’s developmental process.
“A society can be developed depending on its human resources,” he said. “And these resources come from the strengthening of education and by encouraging Cambodians to attend school, along with quality.”
Teum Sangvat said the Ministry of Education was working to build more schools in the province’s five districts, to curtail the dropouts.
Meanwhile, the government has begun offering scholarships to students who pass their bachelor’s degrees in university, in an attempt to encourage students to continue their studies.