Educational wasteland

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A group of parents resists an expensive French school's decision to relocate at the edge of a dump


Parents Pham Minh Duc (in black) and Methais Raphaelle survey the wasteland near the new French International School Colette, where their kids may begin classes this September

Parents who protested in a group of 200 against a decision to relocate a French school to a District 9 site steps away from a trash heap say the institution is not making good on its promise to clean up the area.

The frustrated parents of 650 pupils demonstrated outside the French General Consulate in HCMC on May 5 demanding that the French government, which runs the French International School Colette, make the new site in Long Binh Ward fit for a learning environment.

When Thanh Nien Weekly visited the makeshift landfill roughly 100 meters from the new school location several garbage fires were blazing, filling the area with a black, lung-stinging smoke.

Next door, an industrial zone and brick kilns spewed incinerated chemicals into the air.

The ground that was not covered in trash was covered with what looked like tar. Brushing that away, Thanh Nien Weekly saw the soil was not a healthy brown, but rather a mossy-chemical like green.

Anxiety

Nicolas Luong, a French citizen and vice president of the Colette parent association, said that he could not understand how the school could even think of opening a new campus so close to the dump.

"There is nothing around the school, no small houses, nothing. It is crazy."

He said the director of the school, Mr. Saint. Jalmes visited the site, in April 2009 with several parents.

But after half an hour breathing the smoke coming from the waste site, he couldn't stand it anymore and said he couldn't imagine forcing kids to study in such conditions.

"Why do they want to open a school there?" Luong said. "Maybe they want to test us to see if we can survive?"

Luong said he was worried for the less-wealthy families that might not have a choice other than to send their kids to the school. He said 38 percent of the school's enrollees had their school fees subsidized by the government.

"Maybe the subsidized kids will have to go to the new school... but it is unacceptable to bet on the health of kids. For years, the school has promised to solve this environmental issue."

Luong said he, and probably other parents, now had to devote 90 percent of his time to the school situation, leaving little time for work.

The Parents Association (APE) has expressed concerns that parents are now talking about remitting their school fees into an escrow account opened at a Vietnam-based commercial bank, which, in turn, will give the money to the French School provided that the environmental problem is solved


Methais Raphaelle, a mother of two students at French International School Colette, worries that a garbage dump next door to the school's new location could harm her children's health

"If it comes to that, it is not good for everybody," said Nasir PKM, legal counsel for the Parents Association and member of the French School Management Board.

"But if the parents association does not have a choice, they will do that."

His 10-year-old child is a student at the school.

Registration row

One parent, who declined to be named, said he didn't have enough information about possible solutions to the problem to decide whether or not to register his kids for the new school year.

"But if we delay any longer, we'll miss the deadlines to enroll in other international schools."

Luong said his family preferred a French education because it would allow his children to adapt better to life and school in France later on.

He said he was ready to consider another international school, but Methais Raphaelle, a mother of two Colette students, said she wasn't ready to do that.

"If my children go to another international school in HCMC they will study in English. But I do not understand English enough to take care of their studying at home."

She said she planned to pay for a home-school tutor if the pollution problem at the new location cannot be solved.

Pham Minh Duc, a Vietnamese French father of two Colette students, 12-year-old Jade and nine-year-old Eliott, said the problem had made him consider moving back to France.

"I do not know where my children will study when September comes around. I have to make the decision in a month. Maybe I'll go back to France."

Broken promise

Nasir PKM said he and many parents would register their kids at Colette immediately if the pollution problem was completely taken care of.

He said the school board was scheduled to meet May 17 to discuss and vote on the issue.

But the Parents Association only has three voting members on the 15-person board.

Nasir said those were the only three votes that would certainly be against the relocation.

Either way, the vote will not be binding as it is the AEFE (the French Education Authority) that will make the final decision.

"Parents are not expecting any miracles now," said Nasir.

"The association can only hope that the AEFE will come to their senses and make a reasonable and logical decision not to relocate to District 9, which is a commitment they made in writing."

He said the letter had been sent from Mrs Anne Marrie Descotes, head of the Paris-based AEFE, to the Parents Association June 17 last year.

As of this paper going to print, the French consulate general office had agreed for an interview with the head of French General Consulate Thursday afternoon.

"Personally, I think the subject is only the beginning as the new school year will start next fall. It is a complicated and very difficult situation," said Ms. Nguyen Thi Thuy Linh, press officer of French Consulate General in HCMC.

Methais Raphaelle, a mother of two students at French International School Colette, worries that a garbage dump next door to the school's new location could harm her children's health

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