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Community helps continue education in the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2008/Naser Siddique
Miraj, a fourth grade student (in blue shirt) and Rakib, a student of grade three of Bhabanipur Government Primary School are all smiles.

By Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury

BARISAL, Bangladesh, 6 August 2008: It was hard to imagine that the brick structure of Odonkathhi Government Primary School, built in 1995, will give in to the cyclone Sidr of mid-November, 2007.  Odonkathhi union is a part of Pirojpur Sadar sub-district under Pirojpur, a southern district of the country which saw the full fury of the cyclonic surge.

Now 86 children of the destroyed school’s first to fifth grades take lessons in the nearby Community Clinic. It operates in two shifts from 9:30am to noon for students of first and second grades and from noon to 4:15pm for the third to fifth grade students. The four teachers from the regular school are still teaching the students albeit under difficult circumstances.

Mosharraf Hossain, a teacher of the school gives full credit to the students saying, “Children pursuing their studies under oppressive conditions are still maintaining high attendance. Academic performance is as good as pre-Sidr times and their spirit are indomitable.”

Crammed in a small room, Ankhi, Lima, Liza and Mala, all fifth grade girl students and aged between nine and 10 glance nostalgically through the window at their old school building. “Our previous school was much better. Rainwater leaks through the tin roof and it’s too stuffy in here”, complains Lima.  But she still does not miss school. “There are inconveniences but we are not letting the difficulties bog us down,” says her classmate Mala.

In fact, they are all eagerly waiting to see their 64ft-by-24ft new school building resume classes. This is currently being constructed with UNICEF technical and financial support as a transitional school. It is designed to have three classrooms, one teachers’ room and one veranda – all with movable partitions, when removed, the space becomes a big hall room for running pre-school activities later as the regular school building will be reconstructed as a school-cum-cyclone shelter. Like all other transitional schools, it too will have safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Prabin Khisa, Consultant, Emergency Education, UNICEF, says: “These transitional schools are being planned, designed and customized to the local needs and availability of local raw materials. The community has a strong voice and ownership in their making,” he said. He added that the School Management Committees (SMCs) are deeply committed to mobilizing resources.

Md. Shahidul Islam, SMC chairman has set an example of community support. The site on which the transitional school was still crawling was a gift made by him through a legal deed. “We are hoping to raise donations locally for the school. But the people in the community are poor. Most cannot give in cash, but I’m sure they’ll support in kind by donating trees and woods as was the case in the island district Bhola.”

During cyclone Sidr, 589 government primary schools (GPS), 207 Registered Non-government Primary Schools (RNGPS) and 46 community schools were destroyed. Since the government has plans to reconstruct the 589 GPS schools, transitional arrangements are needed to accommodate children from 128 schools as the destroyed schools can take up to 12-18 months to be reconstructed.

This initiative is a collaborative effort between Implementing Agencies (IAs), SMCs and UNICEF. The IAs with the help of SMCs and support from UNICEF are implementing the transitional school construction project expected to be completed by the end of 2008. In five districts of Barisal division 40 transitional schools are being constructed in two phases with the first phase implementation starting in April, 2008. Meanwhile, two will be constructed in Bagerhaat and one in Gopalganj districts.

The basic objectives of the project are to provide make-shift learning spaces, prevent student drop outs due to prolonged absence of school infrastructure, develop a community-based partnership in infrastructure building, create livelihood options for the local people through the construction process and ensure environmental sustainability. 

“In fact, this is for the first time that we are supporting any programme directly implemented with and by the community, where even the fund channeled through the Shishu Academy (National Children’s Academy) is being utilized by the SMCs,” said AH Toufique Ahmed, Divisional Coordinator of UNICEF, Barisal.  

Bhabanipur Government Primary School in Bakerganj of Barisal was also rendered unusable as a huge tree uprooted by the monstrous power of the cyclonic storm fell on its roof and into two classrooms.

“We now run the school in the same premise using the terrace and two rooms left undamaged including the teachers’ room, while the 63ft-by-24ft proposed site for the transitional school remained water-logged due to high tide,” said Abdul Mannan Mridha, retired primary school teacher and vice chairman of the SMC.

But such a dislocation has not impeded studies in the school, claimed Mridha informing that the number of boys and girls getting government stipends rose from 42 in 2007 to 57 this year. The total number of students in first to fifth grade remained stable at 143. 

Here also, the land has been donated by Member of the SMC Md. Nowroz Hawlader. Running in two shifts between 8am and 11am, and between 12 and 3pm, the school was over but a few students were still seen wandering around.

Miraj, a student of grade four said, “It is difficult to sit in the sardine-packed terrace in heat and rain. We also have to study a lot at home to be able to do well.”   

Meanwhile, Rakib of grade three said that it will be great once the transitional school is up and running. “We’ll have no problems left.”

 

 

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