CAIRO: Receiving a proper education seems to be one of the biggest challenges facing Egypt’s underprivileged, but a few metro stations and a bumpy tuk-tuk ride away lies a beacon of hope in the form of a colorful basement in a dilapidated building.
It started when Future Lights for Development Organization (FLDO) approached Alfanar Foundation three years ago to develop a model day care center based on the Montessori curriculum. Later, the Early Childhood Development Program was launched.
Through the introduction of the Montessori curriculum; teacher training and involvement of other stakeholders such as parents (and even school janitors), this project developed a holistic approach to address the problem of poor early childhood education in Egypt.
The program includes introducing the Montessori method in existing day care centers, developing them from simply being a baby sitting service where parents leave their children while they head to work. Curriculums at day care centers, if available, usually revolve around learning the alphabet only.
Instead, the Montessori method is about learning through fun activities, about using all the senses as it is a method of educating young children that helps the development of a child’s own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play.
FLDO originally developed a model day care center where teachers from other centers around Cairo received their training on the Montessori curriculum. The program has been yielding very positive results and growing impressively as it is now applied in 10 different day care centers across Cairo, in places such as El-Khosoos, Ezbet El-Nakheel, El-Sayeda Zeinab and Madinet El-Salam.
“We have been working in a very primitive way teaching children the alphabet and numbers but after the training we now have a curriculum to follow which organized everything for us and it made us stand out in the area,” explained Samia Kamal, Nour El-Iman Day Care Center at Ezbet El Nakheel, which accommodates around 50 to 60 children.
Furthermore, the Early Childhood Education Program works with the teachers on developing relationships with the children’s parents, ensuring that the education they receive at the day care center is in sync with the education they receive at home.
“We hold awareness sessions for the parents on a variety of subjects such as child nutrition, child psychology, health,” said FLDO Managing Director Sameh Edward.
“So we work on changing the mindset of the teachers through the training then the mothers when we bring them in once a month for the awareness session,” he added.
Since parents in these impoverished areas don’t have access to information, they are very receptive in the sessions and are keen on learning new things, he said, even suggesting topics to be discussed in upcoming sessions that are sometime not even related to the children but for women, for example reproductive health.
The training for the teachers is conducted over 18 to 22 sessions, divided over a time span of three years. The trainer also pays weekly visits to the day care centers to make sure that the teachers are implementing what they learned in the classroom.
“We have noticed a major change in the children after we started implementing the Early Childhood Education Program, instead of crying when they come in and would only want to play on the seesaw, they are now eager to discover and learn new things through the different activities we have introduced,” she explained.
Kamal pointed out that the awareness session for the parents have been really successful and people are always coming in, even when there children learn and go on to school. “The day care center is no longer a break for the mother from their children but a way for both of them to learn new things and develop themselves,” she said.
Furthermore, the program works with the teachers on how to transfer knowledge to their colleagues.
Given that the Early Childhood Education Program targets poor, disadvantaged communities, the day care centers are completely committed to a low-cost model, creatively developing low-cost materials.
The funding of the Early Childhood Education comes from the private sector real estate developer SODIC, which has allocated more than LE 200,000 for the program during the academic year 2009-2010 and plans to fund the upcoming year as well.
Future plans in the upcoming academic year are to integrate children with learning difficulties into the classroom and train the teachers accordingly.
FLDO is working with Alfanar, a charitable foundation which was founded in 2003 by Libyan-Palestinian Tarek Bin Halim. It is based in the United Kingdom, where its founder resided, however it activities are in the Arab world with an office in Cairo and one in the works in Lebanon.
Alfanar’s initial funding came from Bin Halim, however he raised money from around the world, especially the Middle East, to fund the foundation.
“Our objective is to link resources from around the world to the Arab world as we felt that there are a lot of NGOs in this part of the world that are doing great work but are either not getting enough funding or are too dependent on foreign funding,” Alfanar Egypt’s Director Nada Mobarak said, “So what we wanted to do is set up a foundation that helps organizations become more independent,” she explained, pointing out that a program might not necessarily be able to implement its own agenda if it doesn’t have the flexibility of its own funding.
Alfanar set out to identify organizations working effectively towards a certain cause. “They are usually young organizations that are daring, creative and doing something different,” said Mobarak.
“They are not charity-oriented but more development-oriented and rights-based, so it’s not handing out a system but working with its respective community on long term changes, not short-term charity solutions,” she added, noting that they don’t specify a sector to concentrate their work on.
NGOs apply to Alfanar and after the approval of the board of trustees, the foundation works with the NGO closely in designing the project, implementing, monitoring and assisting them in whatever obstacle they may face, a model known as venture philanthropy.
“We venture capital to [achieve philanthropic goals] so you’re not only providing your partner NGOs with funding but you’re also providing them with a strategic mix of social and non-financial support,” explained Mobarak.
Alfanar’s projects in Egypt include a project in Minya to combat child labor through micro-lending program and another project in Helwan that has a variety of activities which all focus on women, such as a health care unit and awareness for women who are victims of violence.
The Montessori method is about learning through fun activities.