Sorong, Papua Province, Indonesia - Just 15 minutes east of the Sorong port sits STIKP Muhammadiyah Sorong, a serene teacher’s college awash in the blues of the sea.
Between two mid-campus ponds, Herman, a third-semester student at the college, winces as he relays an early school memory.
“We often didn’t even have paper to use [at school],” he says, one hand twirling pen strokes, the other scratching an ear. “So we took notes on our thighs instead.”
Peers were left to wonder: How many words even fit on a five-year-old’s knee?
“I want to return home after graduating [to teach],” Herman continued. “You know, half the time, the teacher didn’t even bother to show up.”
The lack of roads in highland areas of Papua mean many schoolchildren must walk miles to school each day ©Tom Brown//2014//UNICEF
Herman hails from Papua, an island on Indonesia's eastern frontier that accounts for a quarter of the country's land mass, but less than 1 percent of its people.
Plagued by absent teachers and low literacy rates, the island's school system lags behind national averages on nearly every performance metric.
As the island's lone teacher's college, STIKP Muhammadiyah Sorong churns out hundreds of teachers like Herman each year – men and women with a mission to improve the system.
Few of these graduates, however, see a future in preschools or kindergartens – collectively known by the Indonesian acronym PAUD. That's partly because of funding challenges and low grassroots demand. But it's also because there’s a shortage of trained teachers.
The effect is that in many parts of Papua, PAUD are nowhere to be found; this despite the fact that early childhood investments are one of the cheapest ways governments can reduce inequality and boost future incomes in disadvantaged regions like Papua.
“Growing up there weren’t any PAUD at all in my village at all, save for some daycare at the church,” said Robert, a STIKP Muhammadiyah graduate and native Papuan helping mobilize early grade literacy on the island.
“Basically, by the time you could hold your hand over your head and cover your other ear, you went straight to primary school,” he added, skipping PAUD altogether.
Robert, a STIKP Muhammadiyah Sorong graduate, discusses the lack of PAUD in the province. ©Cory Rogers/2017/UNICEF
Pak Anang, STIKP Muhammadiyah Sorong’s head of outreach and research, has been working hard to change that reality.
Since 2013, he has been leading an effort to launch Papua's first PAUD degree at STIKP Muhammadiyah Sorong. By next year, he hopes to have 80 students enrolled in the programme, which would join just a handful of other PAUD degrees nationwide.
“The challenge is how to use the local context [to boost quality]”, Pak Anang said, discussing the coming curriculum. “We hope to have students return to their home villages to teach [in Papua], but we will recruit from anywhere and everywhere," he added.
In conjunction with the launch of the degree programme, in April students under Pak Anang’s tutelage will assist 10 PAUD in Greater Sorong implement HI-ECD, or holistic integrative early childhood development.
The intervention will be guided by UNICEF, and will target 10 PAUD in Sorong and another 10 in Waisai, the capital of Raja Ampat district, a dive destination just off the coast.
According to Try Harysatoso, a UNICEF Education Specialist based in Papua, the ideal HI-ECD brings together physical, emotional and mental development. From an instructional standpoint, it places emphasis on social interactions, positive reinforcement, character-building and curiosity about the natural environment.
“This is the kind of learning that gives children a leg up,” Try says, "the kind that builds confidence, boosts social mobility and increases future incomes."
PAUD Alam Mentari teacher Kartini (second from left) leads a chant of “semangat!”, or “have spirit” with her pupils before class outside Sorong city, West Papua. ©Cory Rogers/2017/UNICEF
In the intervention, which will last about a year, lessons will be drawn from STIKP Muhammadiyah’s work at nearby PAUD Alam Mentari, where students and teachers have been testing out HI-ECD concepts with a trio of teachers.
"Even though we don't have the right backgrounds, we're committed to this early education," says head teacher Kartini, who majored in biology.
"We want to plant something in these children while they're young," she adds.
Local education officials say they do, too.
But they say they need more awareness from above and more demand from below to make interventions sustainable.
This year in Raja Ampat, for example, district funds for PAUD were unexpectedly slashed, leaving hundreds of children without access.
"The district funds were directed to an adult literacy programme instead," said Ibu Martha, who heads the district education office. With the loss of this funding stream, PAUD began to dry up.
"The number of district PAUD decreased from 68 to 45 [in 2016]," she said.
In line with the Government’s 2013 ‘one village, one PAUD initiative’, there should be 117.
Pak Jon, who oversees PAUD in Raja Ampat district, visits a PAUD that was closed due to heavy rain. ©Cory Rogers/2017/UNICEF
In rurban Sorong, where UNICEF and STIKP Muhammadiyah will assist 10 PAUD implement HI-ECD, the situation looks similar: less than 50 percent of the under-6 population attends PAUD, and according to Pak Soni, who heads the district’s primary education division, a major factor is a lack of awareness among parents.
“People in rural areas don’t know what HI-ECD is, so they don’t ask for it,” he said. Across Indonesia urban children attend PAUD at rates nearly twice that of rural children.
Taken together, the challenges add up to an opportunity in Papua, says Pak Anang, especially for a Government vowing to prioritize “development from the periphery”.
He hopes the degree programme and the HI-ECD demonstration sites will entice governments in Papua to take PAUD seriously, and most importantly, to invest.
"Right now they [stakeholders] don't think much about PAUD," he said. "So we have to open their eyes.
"We have to help them see their importance."