17 - 23 June 1999
Issue No. 434
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Living Travel Sports Time Out Chronicles People Cartoons Letters
Investing in the futureBy Aline Kazandjian
When the Sadat City Investors' Association (SCIA) approached Khadiga Yassin with a proposal to set up a school in the city, it was as if someone had offered her a life-long dream on a silver platter. The investors, who include Yassin's husband, industrialist Ahmed Ezz, were driven by their desire to provide better living conditions for their employees in Sadat City. They wanted to help them settle there instead of commuting from Cairo every day or living away from their families.
But the school was to have a special mission. They wanted a learning institution that can produce generations of well-educated, self-confident young men and women capable of functioning in the developed world and who, they hope, will be able to run their businesses efficiently in the future.
"The investors are guided by a vision," explains Yassin, "they understand that what is good for society is good for them. In the long run, there will be returns for them." Yassin and her "invincible team", as she calls her staff, are responsible for making the LE1.5 million capital investment the association has contributed to the school, in addition to LE750,000 annual running expenses, worth their while.
Yassin has an additional mission in mind. She wants to cultivate in her students "a sense of belonging to Egypt. A sense of nationalism, so that in the future they will stay and serve their country instead of going abroad," as she says.
Although these goals may be shared by many teachers and educators in Egypt, the sheer logistical hardships they face make their realisation very difficult. These include classrooms where 40 to 60 students must share desk space and fight for the overburdened teacher's attention, the lack of facilities for sports, music and other activities, not to mention the lack of funds. None of these problems exist at the Sadat City Languages School (SCLS), which opened its doors to students last September.
The school grounds are 9,000m2 in a quiet residential area of Sadat City. Just inside the main gate, an outdoor playing area welcomes the children. Inside the square building that houses the primary classrooms, there is an open courtyard adorned with palm trees where music is played at break. There is a music room complete with recorders, triangles and jingles, not to mention two pianos and a complete drum set. There is a video room where children can watch films. A 300-seat theatre is used for performances and exhibitions. Also available to the children is an indoor gymnasium with sponge matted carpeting supervised by a physical exercise teacher who is preparing his PhD in motor coordination. Teacher Hani Mettanawi says the first thing he told the school board was "if you want a model school, then you have to give us the best. And they did."
The school is remarkable not only for the facilities it provides, but for the beneficiaries. Because tuition is just under LE2,000 a year, most middle-class families in the area can afford to send their children. The 55 girls and boys aged three to six who comprise the student body this year come from diverse backgrounds. Some are the children of workers in the Sadat City factories. Others are the children of engineers, managers and other professionals in the city, including foreigners. The school has four Korean and one Russian student. There are also the children of farmers who live in Menoufiya Governorate, Sadat City's administrative centre.
"We are giving them the chance of a lifetime," says Assem El-Tawdi, an AUC graduate who landed his first teaching job at SCLS. He emphasises that the luxurious facilities, which include air-conditioned classrooms shared by a maximum of 20 students, are not the most important feature the school has to offer. Instead, he talks enthusiastically about the system of teaching, which he says aims at "raising a different generation of children who don't learn things by heart but learn to argue, discuss and have an opinion."
"Building a whole person is our top priority," agrees Yassin. The school has a psychology department that assesses each student at admission in order to determine, and later on deal with, any learning difficulties or advantages a child might have. Educating the parents through workshops and coffee evenings is another strategy because "you cannot have a good school and a bad home and expect good results," says Yassin. Interested parents are also provided with English language courses after school. There is an especially strong emphasis on the English language, but otherwise the school follows the national curriculum.
Because most of the parents come from conservative social backgrounds, they found some of the ways of the school too modern for their taste. Some parents did not like the idea of contact between girls and boys. Gradually, however, they have mellowed, according to Yassin. "You should have seen the mothers in their track suits on sports day," she adds enthusiastically. Tolerance and understanding is exercised on many levels. Religion classes are given to Muslims and Christians; academic and administrative decisions are taken on the basis of discussion among all parties concerned. "We cooperate on everything and we take decisions together," says Mettanawi.
Yassin explains that she recruited the teachers on the basis of their personality, not their certificates. The staff is mostly young, energetic and full of enthusiasm.
Rachel Nasrallah is a Filipino nursery teacher married to an Egyptian. At her job interview, it was made clear to her that this was going to be a pioneer school. "I felt like I was going to be a missionary," she says, explaining that the idea of helping children of poor families get a good education appealed to her immensely. For Arabic teacher Mohamed Imam, the appeal came from the fact that he was given "the freedom to teach as I like." Imam has written a book on Arabic language for children, where he presents grammar rules in the form of a play. His classes feature alphabet letters running after each other, enacted by giggling students.
Next year the board expects to enrol 153 students. Yassin is not worried about growing pains -- as long as the funds keep coming in. She is also confident her staff can handle the increasing numbers. "The present teaching body is our nucleus," she says, "they know our vision and anyone who wants to join us must have the same vision."
Yassin has worked with different charities since she was a girl. "I was brought up in a home with a very religious father, who was not at all fanatic," she remembers. "He told us to help the poor because we could afford it," but she is quick to add that donating money to charity is not enough. "That's easy when you have the money," she scoffs, "the hard part is to work for charity and community projects." That does not leave her much time to socialise, but she believes that, "if you have the education and the money, then you should not waste it. If every able person in Egypt volunteers one hour of his time [for charity], see how many hours of work we can get." With characteristic optimism and resolve, she says: "You set an example and it is good if people follow you."
photos: Emile Karam; Randa Shaath; Nour Sobeih; Mohamed Wassim; Khaled El-Fiqi