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By Aenet Rowa

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Yokwe, April 30) – A study on Ebeye Island—the second largest urban center in the Marshall Islands—documented that last year one-in-four students was absent from the main public elementary school every day.

In Majuro, outspoken elementary school principal Evelyn Konou at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum on education said bluntly that the reason many elementary age children don’t go to school regularly—or don’t do well when they do attend—is because they are hungry. Many public school students in the urban areas come to school without eating breakfast and the public schools have no lunch programs, having closed them in the 1990s when U.S. funding expired.

Previous nutrition surveys in Majuro have documented in glaring detail diet deficiencies of young people in the urban centers, with a large percentage of school age students identified as moderately to significantly malnourished.

The Rethinking Conference discussed a new draft strategic plan for the Ministry of Education 2007-2011, and injected suggestions into it. But it strains credulity to believe that this can be more successfully implemented than any of the multitude of previous plans in the absence of some major new developments, such as staffing at the ministry, a demand for change by the public, reform of the hiring and firing system, or promotion of a catchy and easily understood message that stimulates people’s participation in and appreciation of the need for change in direction for public education in the country.

Washington-based Interior Department official Tom Bussanich has confirmed to Marshall Islands Chief Secretary Casten Nemra that the Marshall Islands will receive US$5,990,490. This funding supplements more than US$20 million in other grants that the U.S. government is providing for public education in the Marshall Islands.

The lack of a U.S. government budget until last month prevented determination of the supplemental education grant amount.

Supplemental education grant funding supports a variety of education projects, including kindergarten services, textbook purchases and National Training Council skills training programs. Ministry of Education officials said they are on a fast track to provide their detailed budget for the funding to expedite release of funds since the funding plan must be vetted by three U.S. agencies in Washington, D.C.—Interior, Education, and Health and Human Services—before Interior can give the money to this western Pacific nation.

"The Marshall Islands Ministry of Education has been notified about the fiscal year 2007 supplemental education grant amount and is now required to submit an official plan to Interior for approval indicating how they intend to use the FY 2007 money," said Alan Fowler, a Majuro-based Interior Department official. Fowler said he hoped that the money would be available for use by the Ministry of Education "no later than the end of June. The sooner the plan is submitted, the sooner the approval process can begin."

National student test scores in the Marshall Islands are abysmal, but the top public school administrator in the country said Friday that, "the most important question is not where test scores are now, but where they are going." Last year’s Marshall Islands Standard Achievement Test results, released this week by the Ministry, show that the best average school test score was an "F" (60 of 100) in math, a "C" (78 of 100) in English, and "B" (83 of 100) in Marshallese — for third, sixth and eighth grades with at least three students. These test scores, though poor, improved slightly over 2005.

"It’s no secret that education in the Marshall Islands was neglected for many years," said Education Secretary Biram Stege. "In many ways, we’re seeing the results of that neglect now."

For many years, Marshall Islands test scores have been among the lowest in the Pacific island region. "It’s fine to say that results are bad, but the real question is, ‘where are the results going?’" she said. "The first year of this new test was 2005. Almost all of the results improved in 2006, and we’re hoping for the same in 2007."

Tests for this year are currently being conducted throughout the country. High truancy and a lack of qualified teachers and administrators are among the problems. Government officials estimate that at least 10 percent of school age elementary students are not registered for school, and a study at one of the country’s largest public schools last year showed that 25 percent of the registered students were absent every day.

Meanwhile, a majority of teachers are only high school graduates with little classroom training. There is no single solution to fixing the current situation of low achievement in Marshall Islands schools, Stege said.

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