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Classrooms of Opportunity

ALA.jpg When you walk the dusty paths between isolated villages in Ethiopia or the slums of megacities in India, where subsistence defines the basic standard of living, it can be striking – even life-changing – to stumble upon a classroom.

Despite widespread malnutrition and inadequate materials, there is something infectious about the enthusiasm of children armed with books and ideas. Their voices rise, their eyes light up, their minds awaken. A classroom in every community could light a path for scores of millions of children, empowering them with the information to consider the realm of possibility that lies ahead.

There are hopeful signs that significant changes are afoot in the least developed regions around the world. There has been considerable discussion generated by efforts such as the $100 laptop program and Inveneo. Rather than focus on the use of technology to catalyze the education of the impoverished, I want to look at the promise of several new efforts that combine social enterprise and educational models and could yield very compelling outcomes.

In the two poorest regions of the planet, there are individuals attempting to import successful elements of the US/UK private school model to create new localized educational ventures. These are nascent efforts, but they could harken a new age in which governments and non-governmental actors leverage education to nurture long-term seeds of leadership to transform their citizenry. Education as an elixir that can uplift the masses and create the conditions to facilitate broader societal improvement.

First, you can find the signs of change emanating from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Long a bastion of progressivism in the region, Nick Paumgarten recently wrote in the New Yorker about King Abdullah and his fascinating work in this field. He and Queen Raina have launched a campaign to reform public school across the Hashemite kingdom, a noteworthy development in a region where 50% of the population is under the age of 18. Yet, the focus of the article is King’s Academy (KA), an ambitious $60 million educational venture launched by the King. The school has been described as “Deerfield in the Desert.” The school is slated to open in September 2007.

Abdullah himself boasts an educational pedigree that would make even George W. blush. He graduated from the famed Deerfield Academy in the late 1970s, a stop between jaunts at Eagleton and Sandhurst. Yet, it was his experience at the posh New England boarding school that served as his most significant formative experience. He particularly admired the school for its egalitarian culture (at least within its four walls) that treasured learning, not distinctions of class or wealth. It was a scholastic environment that sought to expand the capacity of the student to achieve through knowledge.

KA will attempt to replicate this culture in a Beoudin country that lacks a rich heritage of intellectual tradition. While this would seem radical on its own terms, Paumgarten writes that Abudllah has more revolutionary ideas about its prospective student body:

Abdullah hopes that the student body will eventually number 600 and will comprise kids from all over the region, including Israel, and some exchange students from the United States. Thirty percent of them will receive at least partial scholarships. The rest will come from wealthy families, most in Jordan and the Gulf states… There will be girls as well as boys.

These are radical ideas in a region where most countries remain at war with Israel and refuse to acknowledge its existence, where poverty grips a growing underclass and inhibits any education outside the madrassa system, and where girls are donning chadors amid rising social pressures even in traditionally secular countries like Turkey and Lebanon. Yet, Abdullah is a radical with a fervent optimism. He firmly believes that education is the path to right-start his country and the Middle East, a view also shared by other observers of the Arab world who have surveyed the problems gripping the region such as the panel of experts that issued the landmark Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society in 2003. The difference, however, is that King Abdullah is doing something about it.

Obviously KA will not fling its doors open to all prospective students. Despite its inherent elitism, it should be acknowledged for its noble ambition. In the words of the King, the school is an effort to cultivate a class of imaginative secular leadership in a country and a region that would benefit from the result:

In Abdullah’s view, the Deerfield experience could serve as a foil for the clash of civilizations. “I’m sure its going to be a challenge for the first couple of students because of the tensions in the area – as you know, Israeli students are going to be accepted into the school,” he said. “But we need examples like this to show that, actually, we all can get along – and to build a younger generation who can take on the responsibilities of the world with a more open mind.”

Not far from the desert plains of Jordan, there is a similar phenomenon on the horizon that could portend compelling change in Sub-Saharan Africa. The African Leadership Academy (ALA) is slated to open its doors to students in fall 2008, but the school already demands serious attention. It has started to receive notice outside of Africa, including a finalist spot at the 2006 Global Social Venture Competition and, more recently, recognition as Echoing Green Fellows, a prestigious distinction earned only by 20 finalists among 950 entries from 75 countries. Like KA in the Middle East, ALA is an effort to use education as a means to nurture a new generation of leadership in its backyard.

ALA lacks the royal lineage of King’s Academy, but its founders also deeply believe in the power of education to create change. It is the brainchild of a team of ex-McKinsey and Company consultants from South Africa who viewed the crises gripping the subcontinent as another complex problem to be solved. Their assignment is not the typical consulting engagement: it’s a bit more challenging to halt political and social conflict and reverse systemic poverty than, say, to develop financial models that promise to drive incremental savings in the cost structure of the manufacturing processes of a multinational company.

Despite these hurdles, a hard-nosed, data-driven approach complemented by their own personal experiences led the founding team to identify education as a means to change the course of modern Africa. These individuals all had received schooling in Europe and the United States, a move engineered by their parents because of the scarcity of comparable educational alternatives available to them in Africa. The founders hope to change this basic fact.

They aspire to make ALA a coeducational boarding school for high-school age students from across the continent, traversing the typical tribal, religious and geographic canyons that alienate large segments of the continent from its neighbors. They plan to reach across economic strata and to select high-potential students from impoverished background, children whose education will be fully subsidized. ALA’s overarching ambition is to develop a generation of ethical, principled leaders to drive the continent forward into the next century. The founders are motivated by a sincere hope that ALA can create a pipeline of leadership by developing a culture of commitment to Africa among talented 15 to 18 year olds who learn through the direct and osmotic effect of a rigorous classroom environment set in a broader background of tolerance and understanding.

Its impact will be felt in a multi-dimensional learning environment that hopes to guide the students through an integrated residential, experiential and academic curriculum. The latter will be based on three primary fields – Leadership, Entrepreneurship and African Studies. With a culture that strives to foster leaders in this fields, it should come as no surprise that the long-term objectives are considerable, to say the least:

The Academy’s ultimate objective is to become an extensive network of ethical, effective leaders linked by their shared values. Together, members of the ALA network will collaborate to drive positive change across all spheres of African society. They will establish and grow businesses that employ hundreds of thousands of people. They will implement innovative public sector solutions to Africa’s most pressing social problems. They will lead movements to end oppression and break down barriers to trade. They will become thought leaders at leading universities across the continent and around the world.

I added emphasis to the text at the end of the paragraph, but did so because the truth could not be more clear. If institutions like ALA and KA can emerge as indigenous centers of higher learning and social purpose in their respective regions, it could have a profound impact on the near future in these countries and around the world. They need to continue to reach across socio-economic, tribal and (ideally) national boundaries to plant the seeds for enduring, systemic change, but KA and ALA seem like an inspiring start.

Indeed, there is nothing more encouraging than to see the winds of change blowing through land masses where extreme poverty reigns and political extremism is the result. I share the optimism of the founders of these schools. If these programs can spawn a trend of locally-trained, progressively minded and home-grown leadership around the world, all of humanity truly will be the beneficiaries.

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It seems a shame to limit children to experiencing ideas in the classroom. Unfortunately many classrooms I have seen, not just in parts of India and Africa but also the UK and the USA, are where children's energy and their initiative are battered down.

See John Taylor Gatto's "Dumbing Us Down" for more.

Perhaps we need to break education out of the confines of the classroom?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 21 Sep 06

I agree that underfunded, debilitated educational programs can demoralize children. Tattered classrooms and unmotivated teachers are often symptoms of a broader systemic failure. Such environments are not the most conducive to learning.

However, schools often provide a centralizing force for communities. They can provide windows to the broader world for children otherwise never exposed to such perspectives. I agree that the optimal education is multidimensional, experential and ranges beyond simply books. But the basics of literacy in math and reading are essential elements for societal productivity and human development. Schools should be at the center of this process.

Posted by: Jonathan on 21 Sep 06



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