School, but not as you know it

Mechai Viravaidya's unconventional boarding school in Buri Ram is drawing interest from across Thailand for its unique approach to student development

Agriculture is a skill embedded in all students at Mechai Bamboo School. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

'School is a diamond," uttered Mechai Viravaidya. "But all we have ever done is use it as a glass."

A school, in his view, is a vessel that moulds students into a uniform shape instead of building something more out of it.

Video by Melalin Mahavongtrakul

To general Thai people, Mechai may be known as "Mr Condom" for his work in promoting the use of the contraceptive back in the 70s. Some may call him Kobori, the leading man of the 1970 melodrama Sunset In Chaophraya, which he starred in. He also founded the Population and Community Development Association in 1974 to counter the country's then alarming population growth. In the 80s, he had his role in combating the prevalence of HIV and Aids. A handful of positions within the Thai government topped the whole journey.

One of the vegetable plantations. (Photos by Melalin Mahavongtrakul)

Since 2008, he has been taking one of the most challenging roles in reshaping Thai education by establishing Mechai Bamboo School in Buri Ram province.

He intended the place to be an alternative form of educational institution where students and staff focus not on numeral and literacy skills, but rather on life and occupational skills, which he feels is more dynamic and relevant to our current society.

"There are almost 40,000 schools in Thailand, and millions in the world. People just don't use school to its full potential, not its land, buildings or staff," said Mechai, 76.

A student plays with a school goat. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

In the hope of setting an example as to what a school can be, Mechai opts for unconventional means for his boarding school which currently has about 150 secondary school students from 26 provinces across Thailand.

Each day, traditional classes that follow the Thai core educational curriculum run from 8am-2pm. For the rest of the day, students spread out across the school's 100 rai space to participate in different extracurricular activities that include hydroponic gardening, taking care of goats and chickens, making water jars, constructing solar flashlights, making biodiesel fuel, and more. These activities also serve as the school's social enterprises. Their self-grown produce makes up school meals, and they also generate income for the school.

One purpose for introducing various life and occupational skills to the students is that Mechai hopes they can be self-employed, and will be able to earn a living without having to leave their own community and family behind to seek employment in big cities.

A view from the school's entrance. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Contributing to the unconventionality is the fact that the school is largely managed by its students. The student cabinet is tasked with regulating the school budget, researching and writing up a proposal when they need to buy things for the school (they recently bought five vehicles), auditing the school's purchases, as well as managing the student body's discipline, environment, communications and business. The process is democratic, and the opinion of the student body is sought and consulted before any big decision is made.

Other tasks that are usually limited to administrative members like selecting prospective students, or even recruiting new teachers, are also conducted by students.

It may be a bold move to entrust such heavy responsibilities to the young, but Mechai said he has complete faith in his students.

"We train them to be good people. And there are always teachers to supervise them. We're like a family. We support and encourage our students. And so far, after almost nine years, I think everything is going rather well," said Mechai. This approach is beneficial in that it puts him in direct contact with his students. He gets constant feedback and suggestions from them to further develop the school.

According to Mechai, it costs about 100,000 baht a year to cover a student's expenses in school fees, meals and accommodation. The students and their parents do not have to pay, at least not in the traditional monetary sense.

Surapon Petchvra and Mechai Viravaidya. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

"We pay our fees with time," said Jirapa Tibmoon, 15, a Mathayom 3 student. Each student and their parents share the responsibility of planting 800 trees and engaging in 800 hours of community service a year to satisfy the fees requirement.

Mechai hopes this will instil a feeling of civic pride in his students. If everyone learns to share and help one another, perhaps the problem of social disparity can be solved.

To keep the school in operation, Mechai seeks sponsorship from private companies and friends, plus his own salary, as well as income from the school's social enterprises. He aims to make the school self-sustainable without having to take money from the students.

"Most of the students are from a poor financial background," said Mechai. "But even if they do have money and we take that from them, what do they get from that? Would their lives become better by giving money to the school?

"In building up our future generations, I don't think it is right to collect money from those we are trying to develop. How can the poor strive in that scenario? Education then becomes something only affordable by rich people and that is not fair at all."

Lending its hand in eradicating poverty in rural areas, the school also offers loans for its students and their families to start their own small business ventures in the hope of improving their quality of life and financial situation.

A school, to Mechai, is not a place reserved for students alone. Whatever knowledge and help the school is capable of giving to its students should be extended to their parents and the local community, too. His students regularly engage in several community outreach projects. They train the elderly and wheelchair-bound people in the arts of agriculture, and also assist in teaching local kids to swim.

Recently, the students began a project with Shell in setting up vegetable gardens in four petrol stations. The station's staff take care of their small plantation, selling the produce to passing customers to generate extra income. The students have since got requests from several petrol stations, even in the Deep South, asking for similar help.

All these activities are within Mechai's goal of making his school a lifelong learning centre for the entire community -- a place to foster future community leaders, as well as a hub to drive social and economic advancement.

Recently, Mechai enlisted the help of Surapon Petchvra, former ambassador of Thailand to Chile, who he is looking to pass on the works within his foundation and school to. The two revealed that they aren't looking to build more schools like Mechai Bamboo School, but rather for others to consider the school's original concept and take it to apply to their own.

Mechai and Surapon happily shared how they have welcomed different institutions that have visited the campus with the interest of learning this alternative approach, and especially that the visitors were very impressed with the students' confidence and know-how in various skills at such a young age. Students are the ones conducting the school tour for guests, with Mechai often taking the back seat.

"I think we're heading in the right direction," said Surapon. "And I don't intend to change what Mechai has already built. My job is to pick up loose ends, to make everything complete and fulfil Mechai's idea in turning this place into a model school and move forward with it."

Surapon suggested that the private sector can lend its hand in reforming Thai schools in a semi-privatisation approach where state schools are managed and run by private companies while still belonging to the government. As many companies now engage in CSR projects anyway, he views that education is one area they may consider reaching out to.

In the future, Mechai and Surapon plan to continue making the school self-sustainable. They are also considering the idea of accepting teen mums into the school, introducing full vegetarian meal options, and also giving students a second chance at retaking exams. These ideas, however, won't just be imposed on the children. It will be the work of the student cabinet to pitch the idea to the student body before they reach their final decision.


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