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Spreading literacy: A school in the hills

July 16, 2011

- Disciplined students of the school

Social entrepreneurship in education may be a challenge but Nazir Ahmed’s passion, persistence and discipline has made the imposible possible. Today he is chairman of the Himalayan Development Organisation, a local NGO that initiated a school, named Himalayan Children’s Academy, in 2005. The school has a mission of spreading education for the long-term development of this region, the Kushnat Village in District Astore of Gilgit-Biltistan.

The school mainly serves students from the low-income households in the region. It has a modern infrastructure with sufficient facilities for learning and development and offers quality-education for nominal fees.

Having received his higher education from Karachi University and the Azad Kashmir University, Nazir Ahmed returned to his village to find a job as lecturer at a government college there. Subsequently, he received encouragement from some wise people from his community to set up a private school in his village that would cater to both girls and boys. At the time, the only schools providing decent education in the area were located at a distance from Kushnat, in Astore and Gilgit, and sending children, especially girls to study there while staying in hostels was very impractical or not feasible anyway.

Nazir too like the youth of his village who migrate to urban areas for higher education and later prefer settling in the big cities could have opted for the same but he opted to take up the mission of educating the underprivileged students of his village.

He took on a big challenge by starting the school in an area where the illiteracy rate among mothers is 99 per cent. “I have since then been motivating the mothers here to send their children to school. And that is how slowly and gradually the enrolment has increased here,” says Nazir Ahmed.

The school started with 38 students in elementary classes in 2005 and the enrolment has increased to 235 this year. The school has grown in terms of infrastructure, resources and teachers as well. The tuition fee is nominal. Also the school offers free education to some 15 per cent students who are orphans and unable to pay the fee. The rest belong to the low-income class. Most of their parents are associated with agriculture and farming.

The area with a population of 4,000 didn’t have any schools that offered classes to girls at the middle and matric level. The Himalayan Children’s Academy was the first school in this locality offering classes to girls at this level. It is affiliated with the Karakoram International University Board.

Emphasising on maintaining local cultural values in teaching as well as in the behavior of students and teachers, the school has the children standing up to welcome their teachers by collectively wishing them all a “good morning” or “good afternoon” the moment the teachers enter a class.

Although co-education, it also has separate classes for girls. The students here also celebrate many universal events such as Mother’s Day, Earth Day, etc., and this is how they become a part of the global community without having to give up their local tradition.

The observance of Islamic tradition in dress and deeds is an integral part of this society and the school observes similar customs.

One of the English textbooks of grade seven has a complete chapter on the 2005 earth quake that severely hit the northern areas of Pakistan. Reading about the natural calamity helps the students maintain a link with their geography while also preparing themselves to deal with any such natural disaster in a better way.

The social studies syllabus broadly focuses on the topography of this region. It includes glaciers, valleys, mountain ranges, rivers, and bridges and comprehending the text, the students feel a kind of personal integration with their environment and infrastructure.

The wall posters and charts hung on the classroom walls include the academic calendar with the selected days for holding events. One chart sent by the education department of Gilgit-Baltistan denounces corporal punishment. It says that the teachers and school authorities should focus more on counseling the difficult students rather than resort to drastic measures. There is a policy of helping the children “learn without fear” at the school.

The school building and classrooms are made of concrete and cement. The students get to sit on proper wooden tables and chairs. The classrooms have a modern white board, the science and computer labs are all fully equipped with the tools of modern education.

The school has a philosophy of education based on innovation. The educators here have to develop “tailor-made teaching materials” as the school adopts a result-oriented approach. It believes in the continuous increase in knowledge and character building. Debates are regular events here.

Positive contribution from the teachers also doesn’t go unnoticed. There is the “Best Cooperative Teacher” award for them to vie for. Outstanding students, too, receive regular awards for their good performance and conduct. In order to encourage the participation of mothers in education and the training of students, the school also has the annual “Most Cooperative Mother” award.

The faculty is sufficiently educated to teach. Most of the teachers are enrolled in higher education while focusing on developing their skills through teachers’ training programmes. They are also encouraged to read books and come up with ways to increase the level of students’ participation in the classroom that goes a long way in developing leadership skills in them. The administration, teachers, mothers and students come about as a team in the education process.

Donations are also encouraged as books, uniforms, notebooks, shoes and other material is offered free of charge to the poor students of the school. And that is how this institution of learning serves as a model for the educated youth of rural areas who may carry a desire to play a leading role in community development.

The writer, a research analyst, teaches management sciences at the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of Pakistan, Karachi