It Could Be Worse

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/14/01.

Anyone lamenting the half-million-dollar budget cuts at the school should file this column under the heading: It Could Be Worse.

Paynesville schools cut roughly five percent of their budget for 2001-02, which hurts but is better than the meager number of my ex-students in Papua New Guinea who are continuing in school.

I received a letter from one of my former students, Wairo, who was one of the five fortunate members of the Class of 2000 at Lumi High School to get accepted into grade 11.

When I first taught it in 1997, the Class of 2000 had 120 students, all very pleased and proud to have made it that far. Less than five percent entered grade 11 this February.

Neither I, nor anyone else on earth, knows exactly how many Papua New Guinea children either never start school or drop out before grade six. I do know that only a third are accepted from grade six into grade seven, making this a significant accomplishment.

I remember vividly a party of 12 people who walked for ten hours to escort three kids from the village to school. Lumi High School, as usual, was unorganized; there was no orientation, no welcome, and no offseason custodial cleanup. When they met me, a father's proud face glowed and beamed as he told me his son was going to be a seventh grader!

Classes at Lumi High School dwindle in size because kids drop out due to homesickness, personal reasons, discipline problems, or because they can't afford to pay $100 per year in school fees. One student dropped out, his grandmother later told me, because someone had stolen his pens and he didn't have any writing utensils. Because of space restrictions, the school also reduces each grade from three classes of 40 - talk about atrocious student to teacher ratios! - to two after eighth grade.

When I went back for their graduation last fall, my last class had shrunk to 69 students. Their goal was to earn a spot in grade 11.

They have considerable pressure to do so. For most families, $100 is a large sum of money, so $400 for a high school education is like paying college tuition here. Families expect the students to do well, get a job, and return this investment through earnings from work.

The poor showing by my former students saddened me, but wasn't much of a shock. When I was back, I saw that they had forgotten things I had taught them in eighth grade. I heard that school had been closed for weeks, saw that many teachers were unfit, and learned some teachers had missed school for months.

Our past track records at LHS weren't too spectacular, either. Our best year was 1997, when 14 students went on to grade 11, or 18 percent. We slipped to five percent in 1998, then eight percent in 1999, and four percent in 2000.

It would have been worse, because Wairo - who was the top student in this year's class - nearly died in 1998 from a severe case of cerebral malaria. He missed weeks of school and still suffers from periodic bouts of confusion. Wairo had to walk four days from his village near the Sepik River, through Lumi, over the mountains, to the coast to get to grade 11 in February.

So, be glad that Paynesville still has a bus service. Be glad that the remaining teachers are properly trained and can be counted on to be in class each day, or have qualified replacements. Be glad that we only had to choose five percent of our program to eliminate, and not which five students will go on to college next year.

It could be worse.

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