September 2004, A new school roof unites a community and makes for better learning
Member of the community are helping to repair the roof of a school in Kyzyl-Kia
The younger children of Kyzyl-Kia School No. 2 in the remote province of Batken in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan are glued to the window. With a mixture of pride, curiosity and envy they stare at the older children in blue overalls working side by side with the professional builders.
Though the rainy day on the eve of Noorus, Kyrgyzstan's Spring Holiday celebration, is drawing to a close, work on the new school roof continues. Everybody is very excited about seeing the last tile put in place and celebrating this special event. The reconstruction project means that rain will no longer spatter into the school's classrooms through a leaking roof and the school will no longer have to close for fear of children being hurt by falling timber.
Three weeks ago, when the UNICEF funding for the new roof came in, there were more questions than answers: how would the work be organized, where would the new roof slates be bought and how long would the project take? A group of parents stepped forward to help and organized themselves into a construction brigade. The following day, three former pupils joined in, followed by 15 boys aged 16-17 years old from the 10th and 11th grades who created a youth brigade. To encourage these volunteers, School Manager Natalia Ivanovna, a plump and motherly woman, fished out overalls she'd kept since Soviet times. And the school's head cook created a special menu for the workers to keep their spirits high.
Finding the roof slates was the next big challenge. School Director Tamara Pustovaya, directors of other schools in the UNICEF project and the Chief of the Municipal Education Department went on a quest for construction materials. They went to many outlets in Kyzyl-Kiya and neighbouring towns and knocked on many doors to find the best quality material at the best price. Late one evening, the new slates arrived at the school. Zarina, an 11th grade school girl was there to spread the word, phoning the youth brigade to rush to the school and help unload the slates. By 11 p.m., all the slates were off the trucks and in piles.
News of the construction project flew around the neighbourhood. People passed by, shared their opinions, offered advice – some of it helpful, some not so helpful. The building of the new school roof seemed to unite the entire community.
Raimbek, the chief of the adult brigade, was amazed by the youth volunteers: "They found simple solutions to big obstacles. For instance, they suggested that instead of purchasing the very thin timbers needed, thicker timbers could be sawed up at the nearby college. Their student friends were happy to help. These teenagers inspired us with their enthusiasm, their cheerfulness and their quick wit."
Zarina recounts: "We girls helped on the ground while our boys helped to lift the slates up. Their work was more difficult and we sympathized with them. And at the same time, their confident bearing made us very proud of them. They could easily read that from our faces and did their best to look even more mature and handsome. The weather was on our side. It was quite a stroke of luck to have two weeks of sunny days in early March. Only on the last day did it rain, but nobody wanted to stop working. It was a long day that was crowned with a feast we cooked ourselves."
At the last graduation party in May when 11th graders left the school, all of the young volunteers who helped with the roof pledged to study hard at colleges and universities, become prosperous and come back to support their school – to repair the roof again if necessary or redo the floors.
"UNICEF's project had many results. But one of the most important was the elated mood felt by many people both at school and beyond," said Tamara Pustovaya.
Community participation is one of the objectives of the UNICEF School Rehabilitation Project. The project was first piloted in 34 schools in Naryn province in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan in 2000-2002. In 2004, it continued in Batken province, where UNICEF provided US$7,600 for construction materials to repair the 14 most dilapidated schools, while the communities provided free labour.
Each and every one of these schools can tell its own story of the power of community goodwill, proving that social partnership has an important role to play in improving schooling. The challenge now is to ensure that similar projects take place across every province in Kyrgystan.
Most of the schools in the Kyrgyz Republic were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. About 50 per cent of schools do not have running water. Sixty eight per cent cannot carry out repairs due to lack of funding. "In rural areas in wintertime, when the temperature drops to -10 celsius and below, children often do not go to school due to the poor condition of the buildings. UNICEF works closely with the Government and advocates for an increase of expenditure on education.
"It is an important part of UNICEF's efforts to ensure the right of all children in Kyrgyzstan to have access to a high quality school education," says Richard Young, Resident Representative of UNICEF Office in the Kyrgyz Republic.