Notes from the Field

Deep in Jakarta’s Slums, Community Learning Centers Thrive

October 26, 2011

Sitting at the back of the classroom, with one eye on her mobile phone, Shanti looks like a typical Indonesian high school student. But Shanti is not here to learn; instead, she’s a tutor herself. In a makeshift classroom constructed from two old shipping containers stacked on top of each other, Shanti tutors first grade students at the Master Community Learning Center in Depok, on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Shanti with students at the Community Learning Center

Shanti (center) first came to the Master center three years ago after moving from Sukabumi in West Java and now serves as a tutor to the center's students, many of whom spend the day busking on the streets to support their families. Photo by Anne Luntungan.

“It’s a great experience,” the 17-year-old says. “I can contribute to the education of Indonesian children as well as help relieve some of the pressure on the learning center.”

And this center needs all the help it can get: due to lack of funds to hire trained teachers, the sprawling Master center recruits its successful alumni – like Shanti – as tutors. The center is named for its location near a mosque and the Depok bus terminal. (“Master” is a contraction of the Indonesian words for mosque, masjid, and terminal.)

The Master center is one of nearly 50 Community Learning Centers across Greater Jakarta supported by The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. To coincide with National Literacy Day (Hari Aksara Nasional) last week, we distributed 3,250 English-language books to the centers.

Educational attainment levels across Indonesia have been improving, yet many poor children still fall through the gaps. Although 95 percent of Indonesian children are enrolled in primary school, nearly half of the nation’s poorest children do not continue beyond the sixth grade.

Recognized by Indonesian law as part of the informal education system, CLCs are an important safety net for children and youth who cannot access formal schooling due to financial difficulty. In the urban slums where the centers operate, families eke out a living scavenging trash, working as day laborers, driving motorcycle taxis, or running micro-businesses selling snacks, petrol, or other low-cost wares. While public schools do not have entrance fees, the cost of uniforms, books, and transportation is prohibitive for families with limited, unstable incomes.

Students at Community Learning Center in Indonesia

The Himmata Community Learning Center in the Plumpang neighborhood is built on stilts above a tidal swamp. Photo by Anne Luntungan.

The centers help fill a critical gap for Indonesia’s poorest children – many of whom make their living on the streets – by offering free, public school-equivalent lessons, allowing children to take exams for graduation certificates so they can continue their schooling or look for work. In addition to providing informal education, these centers offer children encouragement and support from adults in the community, as well as a safe place to study, play, and socialize with their peers – whether they are in the formal system or not.

For older students or those who have already obtained their school certificates, the centers offer further vocational education in sewing, computing, fisheries, cooking, and more. Classes are led by local community members, and programs are tailored to the needs of the local environments and industries.

Shanti first came to the Master center three years ago after moving from Sukabumi in West Java. Her mother died when she was young, and when her grandmother could no longer afford to pay for her tuition, a relative who taught and lived at the center suggested she come to Jakarta.

“I can study here,” Shanti says. “And by teaching at the same time, I can earn an income without having to disturb my family.”

Having received her junior high school certificate with support from the Master center, Shanti now tutors primary school children during the morning and attends a public high school in the afternoon. She dreams of studying economics at university.

“I want to go to the University of Indonesia, if possible, but really I would be happy to go anywhere,” she says. “The most important thing is that I go to university.”

Most of the 2,000 students attending the Master center work during the day, busking and begging to support their families. In Indonesia, many of these types of “street children” don’t do well in formal schools, given their work schedules and lack of support from parents and families.

The Master center uses the government’s equivalency curricula to provide education that is more responsive to the children’s learning style. They also provide services like free meals, simple accommodation, health, and psychological care. Volunteers also conduct home visits to encourage parents to get their children off the streets and back into formal schooling as quickly as possible.

With the funds of most CLCs stretched to the limit, the Books for Asia program offers valuable resources to institutions like the Master center that would normally struggle to afford quality English-language teaching materials. This has become increasingly important in recent years as the government has made English lessons compulsory from primary school level.

Students at Indonesia's Community Learning Center

Students take turns reading from a new textbook, donated by Pearson Education through Books for Asia. Photo by Anne Luntungan.

Nurrohim, a former hawker whose concern for local street children led him to establish the Master center in 2000, says compared to local teaching materials, the books offer a more practical and systematic way to learn. Although many of the students at the Master center have limited English skills, both students and teachers tend to find the materials more engaging, and provide a useful starting point for discussion.

“The books really help to complete the students’ education,” Nurrohim says. “The response from the children has been really great.”

Watch a slideshow that offers a glimpse into the important work being done by these vital learning centers.

Tim Mann is a program officer with The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at tmann@tafindo.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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