Average school enrollment has increased across Indonesia’s diverse archipelago, yet two million Indonesian children still remain out of primary school. John Rahail, a second generation Papuan, is introducing a preschool experience rooted in traditional culture that makes education relevant, children confident, and families invested in their children’s school success. 

This profile below was prepared when John Rahail was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Average school enrollment has increased across Indonesia’s diverse archipelago, yet two million Indonesian children still remain out of primary school. John Rahail, a second generation Papuan, is introducing a preschool experience rooted in traditional culture that makes education relevant, children confident, and families invested in their children’s school success. 


To counter disproportionately high school dropout rates among traditional communities in Indonesia, John is repositioning education as a critical tool for indigenous survival rather than an imposition that undermines their culture and threatens their livelihoods. Through the creation of Sekolah Kampung (Village School), John has helped village heads and customary leaders repurpose their roles to champion a new form of learning for their children that is relevant, sustainable, and builds confidence for them to succeed in the formal education system. Using a contextualized curriculum that converts traditional games into learning materials that involve parents in their children’s education, John is helping to bridge a critical gap that instills interest in learning for both children and parents. Building on this, he incorporates community members, particularly mothers, as teachers to instill methods for learning skills relevant to their families and environment. To maximize results from learning, John integrated improved health, nutrition, and hygiene practices into the curriculum. As a result, children feel psyhchologically and physically ready to enter a learning culture that historically has been foreign and alienating. The children’s experience is transformed from one of failure to one of love of learning. 

Important to this shift is creating a governance and sustainability structure that is owned by the community. The village heads and customary leaders regulate the functioning of the school, involving community members as teachers and health post leaders. They also oversee the functioning of a social business—virgin coconut oil—whose profits help to sustain the school while generating income for families of the students. John’s model has shifted the perspective of the people in Papua who are trying to understand their place in the modern world, especially parents, who were skeptical and against education, now engage in monitoring their child’s development and take pride in their progress. Currently, John is spreading the model to five districts of Papua province.


An estimated 94 percent of Indonesian children 7 to 12 years of age reach primary school education. However, two million primary school age children do not attend school. Despite some regional variations, the Eastern Indonesia provinces lag considerably behind the rest of Indonesia in terms of education enrollment. Papua and West Papua provinces, which have the lowest national UNDP Human Development Index, have primary school enrollment rates of a mere 80 percent, significantly lower than the national rate of 94 percent. At the secondary level, the disparity grows with only about 47 percent of children attending school to the 91 percent national average. Furthermore, the average number of years of schooling in rural areas, where 86 percent of indigenous Papuan’s live, is only 2 to 4 years. Despite progress in the transition from primary to junior secondary school, only about 55 percent of children from low-income families are enrolled in junior secondary schools. 

 Indonesia’s legal framework meets most international standards for guaranteeing the right to education. However, countless government programs to address education challenges in Papua fail to succeed in improving school access and performance. Government applied standardized education models are unfamiliar and irrelevant to local people who see schools as a foreign imposition. There have not been any systematic attempts to align the learning model with local traditions and customs. Where alternative models have been tried, they are typically one-off projects with no long-term sustainability. Moreover, teachers brought to teach in rural, traditional communities are ill prepared for the children’s educational needs. As a result, children become passive recipients in the traditional education system. All of these factors have lessened parents’ motivation to send their children to school. 

Coupled with the lack of relevance of the current education system to many traditional communities, education is not seen by families as a viable investment because of high opportunity costs—not only because of the lost contribution of children to the family’s livelihoods but in terms of undermining cultural values and family and community cohesion. Although mandatory school fees were recently abolished, the associated costs of schooling—uniforms, books, transportation, and lunch money—continue to limit parents’ ability to keep their children in school. The major barriers faced by rural families are geography and living within a subsistence economy. Moreover, the upfront investment in education with its long-term time horizon in return becomes too expensive for families needing to meet short-term needs. Education is viewed as a cost and even a threat of losing the family’s resources to take care of domestic work, such as accompanying parents working at the crops or to the market, or staying home to take care of younger siblings. The rural community also considers education as a bridge to urban modernization and believes that once the student’s graduate, they will live in cities and leave the rural agrarian lifestyle.

Papua has been part of Indonesia since the 1960s but development of the province has occurred at a much slower rate than in Western Indonesia partly due to lack of empowerment and local ownership. Despite being part of a greatly burgeoning nation, Papuans are limited in their ability to participate and enjoy their rights as citizens. As part of the Central Indonesian government’s decentralization policies, Papua receives twice the amount of development aid than other provinces, yet the majority of this investment goes to construction and natural resource exploration over services aimed to improve the living conditions of native Papuans. An influx of migrant labor, due to rich natural resources-based mining, also adds pressures on communities to assert their land rights amidst changing property legal schemes. The low education levels of Papuans creates a reinforcing cycle of exclusion and vulnerability that prevent them from directing the way their communities develop and relate to the development priorities of the nation. 


With his deep understanding of Papuan ethnic groups, John began his work to transform the role of education in traditional communities with a key insight: value creation for education must resonate with the traditional structures and values of the tribe. He began working with the sub-tribe of individuals responsible for war. This sub-tribe was previously identified with protecting the community by going to war, which has become less relevant and even “mission-less” in modern times. Since they lacked a clear objective, John worked with these groups to help them understand a new way that they could protect their community: defending their right to preserve and generate knowledge through education. As many Papuans find themselves in a state of transition, struggling to find their place in the modern world, John’s approach helps shift these traditional values to a new role and in doing so gains trust. 

Building on this trust, John works with communities to design a relevant education model that is their own; it is valued because they created and sustained it through an economic structure they support. To do so, he helps repurpose the local structures that have become antiquated rather than imposing new ones. The result is greater confidence and ownership of the model. John goes to different power structures in the community and helps them develop a governance structure for the community-based school, which is owned, financed, and operated by the community. John facilitates the local customary leaders to elect members of the sub-tribe to become teachers. The village school management team consists of not only members from the sub tribe but also from the local church and the village health-post. John then facilitates training sessions for the teachers in which they determine best practices sourced from local traditions as a way to manage the school. As an example of the transformative impact, the first community where John began his work came together to build their own wooden school building. It was the first time in Papua that a community has built its own school.

A key component for making educating valued and relevant to the community is through local financing of the initiative. To cover the teacher’s cost, John facilitated a school-run virgin coconut oil production cooperative that provides cheaper access to coconut oil for families while generating revenue to cover school costs. While making the school sustainable, John also countered the assumption that gaining an education means leaving the agrarian culture by mobilizing local resources within the community.

John also works with parents. Part of the problem for communities to embrace schooling has been the alienation of parents when their children arrive home with schoolwork that they don’t know how to help with. Tapping into existing assets of the community to make education pleasurable and to overcome parents’ resistance, John breaks down the barriers by using traditional games as part of the learning tools to include parents in learning. For instance, to introduce students to the new concept of counting, John made use of a traditional hand string game (twen’kam), tops (smin’kan), and lemon spears (lemon’bran). These games build parent-children relationships and preserve diminishing facets of their traditional culture.

John’s approach has also led to clear improvements in health and hygiene among school age and younger children. Traditionally, mothers would work in the fields with their husbands and would leave older children to take care of the younger children. As such, care for the younger (as well as the older) children was often insufficient, particularly relating to hygiene. With income opportunities closer to home through the sugar palm activities, mothers are able to be more involved in the health and education of their children. Kids now get a mandi (shower) and get dressed to go to village school. John also integrates the village health-post—a government-run primary healthcare activity, into the village school. Twice a month, the health-post runs a nutritious feeding day through which the children not only get healthy food, but also learn hygiene practices such as washing hands before eating and after defecation. The village health-post cadres reported that since this program, there has been a decrease in diarrhea cases in the village.

To spread his model, John has systematized the methodology for working with the community and traditional structures to develop Village School. This includes the philosophy of the initiative and the methodology around who should be involved and what their roles should be. He also plans to develop documentary film to showcase the model. John designed the school to link to the existing education system. He has certified Village School so that it is recognized by the local government and is therefore able to access public education funding to support the school operation. John is currently working on policy advocacy with the provincial government by drafting a mandatory education regulation to integrate the Village School as part of the local curriculum. He is also working on advocating for village regulation to make implementation of the Village School mandatory in all villages.

Since the Village School began in 2007, 372 children have benefited with 85 of those children enrolled in primary school. John is currently working on spreading the model to the districts of Kerom and Jayapura with funding from USAID, and in the district of Kaimana from local government budget. Recently, John’s model has been acknowledged by the Eastern Indonesia Forum, comprised of twelve provinces in Eastern Indonesia, as a best practice, which led to the West Kalimantan’s government to show interest in replicating his idea. Recommended by the district of Sarmi and the provincial government, John has been invited by the Ministry of Education to showcase his model nationwide. His work has also attracted attention from experts in education from New Zealand and Fiji who visited his sites to learn ways to adapt the approach in their countries. 


John was born in 1966 in the Merauke regency of Papua. His grandfather moved to Merauke from the Maluku province in 1929 as a respected religious teacher; the first to spread Catholicism in South Papua. Among the Papuans, John belongs to the fourth tier of Papuan tribes, meaning he was born in the land but whose ancestors came from outside of Papua (the 1st tier is the highlander tribes, 2nd is the coastal tribes, 3rd is descendants of Papua from either father or mother, and 5th are those who live in Papua for work.)

John was inspired by his grandfather’s experience and story as a teacher; which motivated him to follow his path. He graduated from high school in 1985 and took a job as a teacher to help support his parents. Wanting to improve his teaching skills, he received a scholarship to complete a bachelor’s degree. At university, John became an assistant to the late Professor Michael Rumbiak—a mentor and supervisor as well a father figure to him. John’s engagement in research allowed him to travel across Papua where he learned that so many efforts to address society’s problems were not effective because there was little alignment or participation with the people being served. 

During his research, John became troubled by the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in the communities where he worked. In 1990 after university, John led family planning activities through local organizations. He learned that the government’s top-down family planning program—forced people to take contraception—was counterproductive. John identified that there were actually traditional ways for birth spacing that were more sensitive to the local culture. In 1994 he received a postgraduate scholarship to study public health with a thesis on cultural social patterns and traditional food in the Asmat ethnic group. After graduation, John was recruited as a lecturer in Geography at Cenderawasih University. He found teaching at university a hub to connect students to the real world. In 1996 John joined the Indonesia Family Planning Association as Papua branch director, to develop family welfare through family planning. During his ten years of leadership, John has innovated different programs utilizing local culture and resources. 

Throughout his work, John realized that the root cause underlying the misconceptions, distrust, and misalignment between development interventions and real community welfare improvements was a lack of trust and ownership by the communities. Papuans needed to be in charge of their education and health, through which they could improve their welfare. In 2006 John founded an organization to promote this profound shift, the Community Development and Empowerment Institute. Key to empowerment was the issue of education. Later, based on research he conducted with UNICEF and supported by the UNDP, John developed the Village School program. With John’s sensitivity and understanding of the traditional structure and context, he was able to build with the community, a new role for education that empowers children and parents.