In Thailand, a provincial school paves the way for education in a global society

A learning environment that encourages a global vision and moral action.

YASOTHON, Thailand - Every May in this quiet provincial capital, people gather to fire elaborately designed handmade gunpowder rockets into the atmosphere. The Rocket Festival is held to wake the great dragon in the sky, so that he will splash in his lake and bring rain. This ancient ritual speaks volumes about the importance of tradition here.

Surrounded by lush rice paddies and stands of cassava plants and sugar cane, Yasothon city at first glance stands in sharp contrast to the high-rise buildings and dense traffic jams of Bangkok, which lies some 530 kilometers to the southwest. More than 95 percent of the people in Yasothon province live in the countryside and Yasothon city is by most standards just a small agricultural town.

Yet, despite the pastoral environment, the province is not at all insulated from the processes of global transformation and modernization that are bringing change throughout the country.

Western businesses are beginning to set up shop in Yasothon city. A Seven-Eleven convenience market opened up recently and there is talk - hopeful talk - that a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant will soon follow. A factory to assemble videotapes has brought the flavor of high-tech industry to the region. On the dark side, a local NGO runs a camp to shelter youth who have AIDS and have come back home from the big city to die.

Against this backdrop, it is not difficult to understand the success of Santitham School, a Bahá'í-sponsored primary school with an enrollment of about 500 students. In contrast to most of the schools in the region, whether private or public, Santitham focuses on providing a learning environment that encourages a global vision.

And despite the relatively remote and isolated nature of Yasothon, parents are increasingly recognizing the need for their children to have an education that prepares them to become world citizens.

"We need to go along with the current of globalization," said Rungtiwa Kongskul, who has an eight-year-old daughter at Santitham. "I like the diversity at Santitham, the staff from different nations. This way my child will learn to communicate and associate with people from other countries."

Santitham also stands out for its emphasis on moral education and its progressive educational model. Its reputation for excellence was recently confirmed by an award from the Ministry of Education, which proclaimed it the second best medium-sized school in the entire northeast region of Thailand. The award compared Santitham with more than 2000 other schools in eight provinces.

“We want to produce a new generation of children, that is our goal. We want to prepare a generation of children that believe in unity in diversity, who practice world citizenship, and who are ready to help serve humanity.”

– Nawarat Wongsopa, director of Santitham

"We want to produce a new generation of children, that is our goal," said Nawarat Wongsopa, director of Santitham. "We want to prepare a generation of children who believe in unity in diversity, who practice world citizenship, and who are ready to help serve humanity."

Founded in 1967, Santitham has struggled towards that goal for more than 25 years. Supported at first almost entirely by the Thai Bahá'í community, the school has had its ups and downs as it faced the sorts of difficulties experienced by any relatively under-funded new project. In recent years, however, it has at last come quite close to being self-supporting. And it is now certainly considered among the best schools in Yasothon city; its students include many children from the families of top-ranking civil servants and military officers.

One of Santitham's big attractions is the fact that it offers instruction in English, which is spoken by very few people here. And the quality of the English instruction is greatly enhanced by the efforts of international youth volunteers who come to the school as part of a year-of-service concept endorsed by many Bahá'í institutions around the world.

This year, four young people from Canada and Ireland are working as unpaid volunteers. Last year, the group included six students from Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, Scotland, and the United States. These youth bring a particular brand of idealism and vision that is very much in line with the school's own philosophy.

"I wanted to serve humanity in a tangible way," said Roya Ravanbakhsh, a 21-year-old woman from Vancouver, Canada, who served in 1997. "The school really needs help, so I feel really needed here. There are only a few other foreigners in Yasothon. The culture is very Thai here. If you go someplace and you work in a different culture, you are serving humanity just by breaking down barriers. And that is what I believe we help to do here."

Municipal education officials agree that Santitham's role is important to the region's future. "The world is moving to be one," said Pean Pakpeal, the Yasothon district education officer. "So English language instruction will help inter-link the nations. I think Santitham is leading the way in preparing the students to fit in with a more global community."

The school's emphasis on moral education is also distinctive. At all levels and in all classes, the teachers emphasize courtesy and good behavior, as well as more sophisticated concepts like tolerance for other religions and peoples and the understanding that all humanity is one.

"We follow the compulsory curriculum that is used throughout Thailand, but also add a strong element of moral education," said Naiyana Wongsopa, the school's principal, who is married to Mr. Wongsopa. "Every morning before the teachers start class, they talk with the children about virtues like honesty, unity and love, and about how to live together peacefully and how to share with each other. This is emphasized every day."

Some of the teachers put it more simply. "Here the teachers treat the children like family," said Tassanee Nantum, a mathematics teacher who previously worked at a large private school in eastern Thailand. "We nurture them."

Educators at other schools say they can tell the difference in the behavior of the children from Santitham. "From what I have observed," said Chamroon Phaipaim, the director of the Anuban Yasothon School, one of the largest public schools in the city, "the students from Santitham school are better behaved than the students from other schools in the city - and also better prepared to study."

Paitun Hienthag, a public school teacher who has two daughters at Santitham, said it is much to Santitham's credit to spend the time and effort on moral education when many schools are focusing purely on academic skills. "Right now in Thailand, everyone is concerned with survival," he said. "So it is a difficult time to bring in concepts of moral education."

But Santitham school officials said that training students in moral virtues is as important to their mission as academic performance. To that end, the school strives to practice what it preaches. The school has also been involved in small projects aimed at improving the social and economic development of the entire community. These projects currently include: 1) the provision of assistance, in the form of moral education classes, to Youth and Children for Development, the local NGO that works with young people afflicted with AIDS; 2) the training of teachers and workers at village child care centers, a project that saw the involvement of some 80 participants in 10 villages for two days in May; and 3) a project to offer sewing classes for women in cooperation with the Non-Formal Education Center of Yasothon.

"We want our school to be like a miniature society," said Mr. Wongsopa, "a model of what we would like society to manifest one day, so that all members of this mini-society will grow up to be loving and contributing members of the community at large with the realization that they are world citizens."