By Suzi Balaban
The Nile River School (NRS), a Neohumanist Education project, was established in 2011 as an informal learning space in the village of Baharwa near El Ayyat, Giza. It is located right on the riverbank in a beautiful outdoor setting for children to learn through exploration, play and art.
The local community has a population of around 2000. There is a high level of unemployment, illiteracy and poverty in the village which lacks even basic infrastructure such as running water and sanitation. There are no government facilities such as schools or clinics. The closest government schools are 3km away, which is a hardship for the children, leading to absenteeism and high dropout levels. This has resulted in high illiteracy rates even among the children attending these schools.
NRS is served by volunteers, both Egyptian and international, who come to work with the children, playing, engaging in art activities, helping with schoolwork and literacy. Also, volunteers and donors have helped the villagers with medical expenses and worked on projects such as painting and repairing homes, supplying water pumps and septic tanks.
A local Egyptian NGO, Manahyaha, who volunteered at the school, and were inspired by Didi Anandarama’s work, embarked on a project to build a small community school which opened in 2016 to provide progressive primary education close to home for the village children. It has one class for each level from primary 1 to 3 at the moment but plans to expand to cover all six years of the primary stage. This is an official school approved by the Ministry of Education.
Partnership with MKA
In October 2017, NRS started a partnership with Masr li Kull Ahlaha Foundation مؤسسة مصر لكل اهلها (MKA) to establish to establish an official pre-school class to prepare 4-6 year old children for entry to the government primary school or the local community school. Two trained teachers were employed, and 24 children were enrolled. After the first year of operation, the decision was taken to invest more in the project.
The Sawa Project
The Sawa project (‘sawa’ means ‘together’ in Arabic) encourages the involvement and participation of families and the local community in the school. The parents are invited to parenting sessions delivered by a professional from Cairo who visits at weekends. These sessions focus on positive discipline, responsive care giving and the importance of the early years in a child’s life to learning outcomes and success in adulthood. We believe that school should be an extension of home, not a separate alien world.
There are many challenges, notably the culture and experience of both the teachers and parents who are accustomed to traditional rote learning, repetition, copying and sitting still, backed up by threats of violence and actual violence (even at KG level). We have delivered training sessions to the teachers and arranged visits to well-known nurseries in Cairo for observation, yet changing mindsets is a long-term process. Recently we employed a kindergarten consultant from Cairo, who has experience in Montessori methods. An assistant, a young girl from the village, was also employed. The intake of children rose to 26 in October 2018 then reached 32 by May 2019.
Curriculum, Training Materials and Outreach
The learning approach of the kindergarten is a mix of learning styles including some Montessori principles. The focus is on the individual child and her/his needs and desires. We foster independent learning, learning through play, exploration and discussion. We have been developing our own curriculum and teaching materials throughout the year, to make learning more fun and engaging for the children.
We plan to produce a robust, progressive kindergarten system, curriculum and training package, based on the development of social and emotional skills, fostering creativity and knowledge production. We hope to expand our reach by promoting this ‘package’ to other kindergartens, private or run by NGOs, as an alternative to the harsh traditional methods that lead to the poor outcomes we see today in our society.
We can judge our success from the enquiries we have received from families in surrounding villages as our reputation spreads for our kind, gentle and joyful methods. We give priority to the local families, but we have accepted three children from outside the village this year. We also have a waiting list of around 8 children. The capacity of the school is around 28 children during our morning session. We are looking into building an extra room, and making better use of the outdoor space to expand our capacity in future years.