A Change of Guard

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Friday, 20 May 2011

San Jose's Bret Harte Middle School raises funds for Cambodian school named for beloved teacher

By Carol Rosen
News Mercury
Posted: 05/19/2011

Several years ago, Bret Harte language arts teacher James DeLong read a newspaper article about schools with American names being built in Cambodia. The article noted the need for schools, and that the cost of building them was $20,000.

After finding out about the schools being built and supported by American Assistance for Cambodia, he began raising money for a school. Many in the Almaden community helped, and he collected the $20,000. Construction began in May 2007 and was completed in March 2008. However, school was able to start in October 2007 using three available classrooms in the elementary school next door.

He named the new school for Doris Dillon, a well respected and beloved teacher from Almaden who died several years ago from myotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Her namesake school has grown from 19 students in its first year to 207 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders this year. In its first year, 12 students passed the national exam to go on to high school. This year, 48 of 49 ninth-graders passed the exam, raising the school to the top of its district. The only student that did not pass has a palsy affecting his handwriting. School officials are working to provide him an independent study package to allow him to be able to tutor computer students in the future.

It costs about $9,000 per year to run the school. That includes school, health and medical supplies and teacher and nurse salaries. DeLong also
helps fund another Cambodian assistance program, Girls Be Ambitious, which provides $120 scholarships for girls who have been forced out of school because they are poor and have to work to help support the family.

DeLong is hoping this year to collect an additional $1,500 to $2,000 in order to build a water collection system so the community residents can all have clean, pure water.

Every year DeLong and his students raise money to help purchase books and other supplies. The money also pays the salary of the school nurse, whose duties include mentoring the female students, teaching various forms of basic health education--including passing out toothbrushes and toothpaste to students and families--and providing water filters for clean water and intestinal parasite medications.

Sem Sochea is finishing her second year as the school's nurse. She is one of five nurses for the more than 400 schools built and supported by American Assistance for Cambodia. Students take the basic health education she teaches back to share with their families. Sochea also provides the bulk of necessary first aid for students at the nearby elementary school.

DeLong and his students help raise money at a silent auction, part of Bret Harte's annual cultural fair. This year the auction made about $4,000. It's being followed by an online auction, which he hopes will raise another $2,000 to $6,000. Some in the area sign up to be sponsors for the Girls Be Ambitious, which is $10 per month.

During his most recent visit, DeLong provided basic antibiotics and medical supplies including Neosporin as well as hand sanitizer. He buys most of the supplies in Cambodia, because it's less expensive and easier to travel without numerous supplies. It's not a good idea to send the parcels, he says, because it's too costly and they can get lost.

The school library now has nearly 500 books, some in Khmer and others in English-Khmer. These now supplement the books that have become too ragged from so many students reading them. This year, DeLong also supplied the students with puzzles and educational games.

"None of them had ever seen a Rubik's Cube or Sudoku before, so we had a lot of fun trying to explain them. We had [earlier] found that many students love creating artwork. So we stocked the school with more [art] supplies. As a wonderful parting gesture as I left the school, students gave me drawings that I've put on my classroom walls to share with the students I teach," DeLong says. Those wishing to help can email DeLong at delonjh@gmail.com or call him at 408.535.6270, ext. 282, to ask about donating. To find out about the online auction, visit his teacher website at www.sjusd.org/bretharte/middle/school/staff/C5453.

The Doris Dillon School project is run through American Assistance for Cambodia, which has already built more than 400 such schools through the Rural Schools Project, Visit www.cambodiaschools.com to learn more about the organization.

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