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Floating Boat Schools Give Students A Second Chance

Where floods make permanent structures risky and discrimination makes education inaccessible, one group takes a novel approach toward school

If you’re a kid from a small Philippine fishing village, there are a lot of reasons you might not be attending school regularly, like discrimination, poverty, or inaccessibility. But one Bangladesh-based organization is aiding students who’ve been marginalized by the formal education system with a novel solution: floating boat schools. Last June, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) provided seven villages in the Philippines with boats upon which local students can learn to read and write, with the goal of preparing them for the mainstream educational system. Scott MacMillan, a representative from BRAC, says the project had already been implemented in Bangladesh, where BRAC serves 1.2 million students.

“There are certain populations that are river-dwelling and we realized that the best way to reach them was, for a portion of the year, to set up schools on boats,” says MacMillan.

These target regions are also flood-prone, which means traditional brick-and-mortar schools make for risky local investments. MacMillan says that BRAC is not trying to replace the governmental educational system—rather BRAC schools serve “second-chance students,” who have been left behind by the formal schools.

“We don’t put much emphasis on the physical structure itself,” he says. “We’re not building schools. All of our schools are in rented or borrowed spaces. There’s a lot of emphasis, I think, in philanthropy, on, bricks and mortar. It doesn’t really matter that much whether you’ve built a school, what matters is what goes on in the school.”

This year, the seven boat schools in the Philippines will serve around 200 children, many of whom come from the Badjao or Sama tribes. Children from these tribes often experience discrimination or bullying by students from other tribal groups at their traditional educational institutions. Many also work to provide an income for their families, catching and selling fish in the local market. Speaking to a Philippine news agency, one of the boat school teachers explained that they’ve been educating students on how to properly charge for their wares.

“My kids are learning not only words and numbers but also how to do business, like selling fish. They know how many fish is equivalent to a certain price,” teacher Panaglasa Sahiduan Giya said to the Inquirer.

BRAC also employs local women who don’t necessarily have their high school degrees, training them to teach reading and writing. It’s a holistic approach to education with the power to enfranchise the entire community.

“The approach of BRAC is: Whatever it takes, whatever is necessary to allow girls and women to take control of their own lives, we’ll do it,” says MacMillan. “If that’s microloans, we’ll do it. If that’s healthcare, we’ll do it. And if that’s putting schools on floating boats, we’ll do it.”

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