Behind the news of suicide bombings and displaced groups in Pakistan, people in the country are working to foster a generation of young people equipped to solve the country's problems.
Shehzad Roy, renowned Pakistani pop star and founder-president of the Zindagi Trust, which works to improve education in Pakistan, was recently awarded the 2009 Patricia Blunt Koldyke Fellowship on Social Entrepreneurship from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an organisation dedicated to promoting dialogue on global issues.
Roy's goal is to reform the government-run school system in Pakistan. "The discrepancy between rich and poor in Pakistan has always pricked my conscience," he says. "In my childhood, I remember it was always an exciting ride to the airport in anticipation of my cousins who were visiting from abroad. However, the way back from the airport was anti-climactic, as our cousins would pester us with questions of why the beggar boys at traffic lights weren't in school."
In Pakistan, private schools cater to the privileged while the underprivileged masses attend public, sub-standard schools or are forced to work as child labourers. According to Roy, "Quality education is every citizen's right and the responsibility to provide it lies with the state. A paradigm shift is required in the mindset of state authorities, the people and the education system to save our future generations from rote learning and inadequate literacy."
This awareness led to the foundation of Zindagi Trust in 2002 and its flagship project, "I am Paid to Learn". Approximately 10.5 million Pakistani children under the age of 15 work menial jobs to support their families. Using proceeds from Roy's popular worldwide concerts and private donations, this programme has paid 3,000 children Rs. 20, approximately 24 cents, every day to go to school. This small sum amounts to approximately how much these children would be paid if they were working.
After a few years Roy realised that being paid to learn was only a first step toward improving Pakistan's public school system. Reforming the country's schools and their curriculum was essential and soon became the organisation's mission–to promote quality government-school reform, including improving the curriculum and textbooks, one school at a time.
Working toward this end, Roy sought to obtain a transfer of management from the government for Sindh Madrassa Board (SMB) Fatima Jinnah Girls Government School, which has 2,600 students. Considered as one of the city's best government schools, its building was nonetheless on the verge of collapse, stray dogs roamed its corridors, its drinking water was contaminated with sewage water, and teacher and student attendance was negligible.
Although being a well-known singer did give him a platform, Roy recalls the government's resistance, and being asked to come back another time each time he visited them with his proposal to take the school under Zindagi Trust's management.
Zindagi Trust finally "adopted" SMB Fatima Jinnah Girls School–its first school–in May 2007. The first task dealt with the very basics, such as "relocating" the several stray dogs that lingered around classes while school was in session. A complete makeover of the school's building, administration and syllabus followed.
With the aim of nurturing a "thinking individual", the curriculum now embraces individual growth, arts, photography and sports. Thought-provoking, child-friendly textbooks have replaced government ones that were based on a 60-year-old curriculum. A new library, art room, computer lab and audio-visual room have also been added to the school's facilities.
"Our intention is to find best-practices from around the world," Roy says. "I was impressed with the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) programme initiated by the Koldykes in Chicago, where teachers train specifically to work with students in high poverty areas, and work with a mentor teacher in each class."
SMB Fatima Jinnah Girls School is the first and only public school ever in Pakistan whose management has been transferred to a non-government organisation. If negotiations with the Pakistani government prevail, the school could very well become a template for thousands of other public schools in the country, which would serve the country well based on results thus far: within one year of being under Zindagi Trust's management, SMB students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were participating and winning art and rowing competitions with students from the most elite private schools in Karachi.
"They've dedicated their lives to education. We are very fortunate to have this fellowship go to them," said Michael Koldyke, husband of Pat Koldyke in whose name the award is given. "The stakes are so high; these are important and dangerous times in Pakistan. Prioritising education in Pakistan is terribly important for them–and the United States."
As Roy points out, "[This project] reveals how much untapped potential lies in our illiterate and untutored children." The continuing war against extremism is not enough to foster a peaceful next generation; the right education, culminating in economic independence, will hopefully provide a viable alternative to impressionable minds.
* Naazish YarKhan is a writer, editor, public speaker and NPR commentator, and was most recently featured on PBS's Chicago Tonight and NPR's Speaking of Faith. She blogs at literatihall.com and Huffington Post. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).