RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm Rachel Martin with a story about just how difficult it can be for teachers in Bangladesh. There's so much flooding in that country that students often can't even reach their schools. So one group is trying out a possible solution - floating the classroom to the students on boats. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Bengali).
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: On the Atrai River in the northwest of Bangladesh, Nila Khatun is squeezed onto a bench with two other girls. From her seat in the fourth row, the 8-year-old intently follows along as the teacher leads the class through a math lesson. Nila copies a subtraction problem from the board into her notebook in front of her. On the starboard side of the boat, boys are jammed into another set of narrow benches and desks. Nila is one of 29 students in this third-grade class. When the teacher asks for a volunteer to recite a multiplication table, Nila's hand shoots straight towards the unpainted ceiling.
NILA KHATUN: (Speaking Bengali).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Bengali).
NILA: (Speaking Bengali).
BEAUBIEN: She leads the class in a recounting of six times five equals 30, six times six equals 36, six times seven equals 42. Nila woke up earlier that morning in a village that's across the river and a bit upstream from where the boat is moored. Her teacher, Mafya Begum, came to collect her from her village and ushered her on board as she does six days a week. Begum says the students are eager to attend school, and one of the benefits of the floating classroom is that it can operate in any weather.
MAFYA BEGUM: (Through interpreter) When it rains really hard, this village is cut off from the outside world. The roads end up under water. At that time, the only way out is by boat.
BEAUBIEN: Most of the residents in Nila's village are farmers. Their primary crop is jute, which is a fibrous plant used to make burlap bags. Fishing nets line the riverbank. Narrow mud walkways cut between the reed-walled houses. There's an occasional motorbike but no cars. Mohammed Rezwan, the founder of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, which runs the boat school that Nila's been attending for the last three years, grew up in this part of Bangladesh.
MOHAMMED REZWAN: If you visit these areas, then you'll find that during the monsoon season, they get isolated. And it becomes very difficult to have the normal life.
BEAUBIEN: Not only is Bangladesh one of the most densely populated nations in the world, it's also one of the countries most prone to flooding. Much of Bangladesh is less than five meters above sea level. In heavy monsoon rains, 70 percent of the country can end up under water. Rezwan says he started his first floating school almost two decades ago to try to make sure that the annual rains didn't keep kids from getting an education and trap them in poverty.
REZWAN: If the children can't go to school for lack of transportation, then the schools should go to them. So the idea was to ensure all-year-round education.
BEAUBIEN: His charity now offers free classes on 23 boat schools to nearly 2,000 students. Over the last quarter-century, Bangladesh has made dramatic strides forward. It's cut its poverty rate in half since the year 2000. The economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. But that prosperity hasn't been felt in more rural parts of the country. And places that are cut off by floods for months at a time have lagged behind urban areas in the development of water, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. Rezwan says these areas also have fewer educational opportunities for girls.
REZWAN: In the rural areas, the parents are mostly concerned with the safety of the girls.
BEAUBIEN: Some parents won't send their girls to school if the girls have to walk long distances to get there. So Rezwan has the floating schools pick up the kids from their individual villages.
REZWAN: Here, the education comes at their doorsteps, so they're not concerned about the safety and all those things.
BEAUBIEN: And that's also true for 8-year-old Nila Khatun's parents.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
BEAUBIEN: After the morning classes, the boatman fires up the school's diesel engine. He putters up the river to deliver Nila and the other students back to their villages. Once he's dropped off the third-grade class, he starts picking up older kids for the afternoon session. Nila's mother Musa likes that Nila's teacher comes straight to her door to pick her up. And if it wasn't for this mobile classroom, Musa says Nila probably wouldn't be in school at all.
MUSA KHATUN: (Through interpreter) There's no other school nearby. There's one school, but it's far away. That's why we chose to send Nila to the boat school.
BEAUBIEN: Like almost everyone else here, Nila's parents are farmers, yet her mother says Nila is destined for bigger things. No one in her family has ever gone to college, but Musa insists Nila is going to be a doctor, and Nila nods her head enthusiastically. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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