Reading, writing and rockets too

16th March 2012 at 00:00
The International School of Kabul is flourishing - despite the dangers of a war-torn city - and the children love being there. Lianne Gutcher meets the executive director to find out how it works

Schools in the UK regularly carry out fire drills. At the International School of Kabul (ISK), it's a bit different: it carries out insurgent drills. Pupils are "locked down" in safe rooms that have emergency supplies of food, water, toilet paper, sleeping bags and candles, and SWAT teams swoop in from each end of the campus.

Likewise, in among the general school policies on behaviour and homework are also carefully worked out procedures for what happens under rocket attack. Being a foreign school that teaches girls and boys together makes the ISK a potential target, according to John Brown, executive director of the school.

As a result, security is one of his biggest overheads. But a good relationship with the Afghan government - the head of the spy agency regularly checks up on the school - and a pre-emptive approach to attacks mean that pupils attending the school are largely safe. And this produces an unlikely side-benefit. "In other schools, you have to beg to get students through the gates and they don't like to be there," says Brown. "But our students don't like to leave because this is the only safe environment that they have in the city, where they can get together with their friends and don't have to worry about what's happening outside. It's an educator's dream, it really is." The ISK offers education from the early years up to the equivalent of sixth form, and was founded in 2004 to cater for the children of expatriates. However, as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, fewer expats brought their families to live in Kabul, and Afghans now make up 80 per cent of the pupils. Children of 16 other nationalities - including American, Pakistani, British, French, Canadian and Korean - make up the rest. "When the school started, it followed a more traditional private school international model, where you've got more higher-income families. We now have more lower-income families," Brown explains. Pupils pay tuition fees according to their families' income. In addition, USAID - the US government's development agency - gives financial support and the school is planning a fundraising push among private donors. Brown, an American, arrived at the school in 2009. He had been in Afghanistan for two years doing strategic analysis for the United Nations, after a stint teaching at universities elsewhere, when he learned that the director of the ISK at that time was getting ready to step down.

"They were anxious to find a new director and, because of my background - in military, teaching and development - I started talking to the Home Office. When I looked at the school's needs, it was a really good fit. And I love kids." Certainly, he seems to have a good rapport with the children. As he walks around the campus, 10-year-old David walks by and calls out cheerily, "Hi, Mr Brown", and gives him a high five. Recruitment is not a problem generally, Brown says. The ISK's parent organisation, Oasis International Schools - a Memphis-based body that operates 23 international schools around the world - helps in this regard. Brown visited the US in February to attend a recruitment fair and to fundraise. The school currently has 40 teachers and 75 other members of staff. "We've not had challenges with recruitment," he says. "The people that are here, are here because they want to be. We have some husbands and wives who both teach; we have some we classify as local hires - the spouse has come out to work for an NGO and they teach; and we have singles." Most of the teachers live in the ISK compound. Those with spouses who work for other organisations tend to live off campus and are shuttled to school every day. "Compound living - welcome to the fishbowl!" Brown says, who is one of the compound's inhabitants. This year, he has been joined by his wife, who, before she arrived in Afghanistan, had worked for the same university for 26 years. She is currently in charge of the school's human resources provision and is working on some initiatives for the female students. "This is my fifth year in Afghanistan and the first year for my wife to be here. I needed her (to make the decision) to be here with me, rather than me saying: 'You've got to come and do this with me.' Because this is a hard environment and it can get dicey at times, I knew that if she didn't make that decision on her own, it would be difficult."

Capable students

Despite the tense security situation in Kabul and the disruption that comes from moving to a war-torn town, most pupils cope remarkably well, according to Brown.

"The children are so adaptable," he says. "Probably the biggest challenge we have is when a family is repatriating and they tell the children, 'We are going back to visit family', when they know they are actually going back to stay. Then we find the children struggle."

Elaha, an 18-year-old Afghan, returned to Afghanistan from Germany a year ago. Stepping out from her English lesson, where the class is studying Macbeth, she says: "It wasn't easy (coming back), but you get used to it because you don't have any choice. So you just say: 'I'll see the good side' and you try your best. I'm waiting to go back. I think I am going back to Germany for university."

The younger pupils also sing the school's praises. Ten-year-old Ozel started in the school's kindergarten and after a spell in Africa returned to the ISK in Year 4. "I was really excited (about coming back). Most of my friends were still here, so I was very excited to see them. (My friends abroad) are sort of scared for me. They are scared something is going to happen to me. I feel scared most of the time. I have Afghan parents - my mum works in Parliament and my father is a health minister - but I was born in New York. (The school provides) a good education and they have everything we need."

Indeed, the ISK offers pupils access to teaching and facilities that are not available at any local schools, which struggle with a lack of qualified staff, old-fashioned teaching methods (including corporal punishment) and substandard textbooks. The school has, for example, the country's largest collection of English books available for borrowing, and a dance studio. In the West, such facilities would not mark out the school as anything special, but the dance studio's history illustrates just how extraordinary this place really is. It is not easy for girls in Afghanistan to participate in sports and dance because of cultural and social norms. However, US private security company Blackwater - which changed its name to Xe in 2009 after becoming mired in controversy - was extremely helpful in bringing discreetly into the country studio equipment that would not normally be available in Kabul.

There are other examples. Not long ago, Nato General William Caldwell dropped in to read to children at the ISK. The general, who headed the Nato Training Mission in Afghanistan until November last year, delighted the children when he visited the school with his team. "The wife of one of his team is a teacher and she had written a book that (Caldwell) presented to the library. He was amazing with the small children. He really got down on their level and interacted with them," Brown says. Afghan schools are open about 100 days a year whereas the ISK aims for between 175 and 182 days, according to Brown. Local schools teach for just 4.5 hours a day, whereas the ISK gives 7 hours of instruction each day. Religion is not on the ISK's curriculum (this was agreed with the Afghan government), but the school does teach character development with a focus on issues such as the importance of self-respect and respect for others. As well as comparing favourably with local schools, the ISK also compares well with schools in the US. Students graduate from the ISK with a US High School Diploma and can go to university anywhere. The college placement rate is 82 per cent, according to Brown. The average placement rate in the US is 70 to 80 per cent.

"(The children) are getting a high number of student scholarships as well," says Brown.

The ISK faces many problems that are familiar to independent school heads in the UK, including budgetary squeezes.

To reduce overheads on a proportional basis, Brown is intending to increase pupil numbers. Currently, 360 children are enrolled: Brown's minimum target is 700 students and the ideal target is 1,000. The school rents 16 buildings on the same street from 16 different landlords with a total operating cost of $3 million a year. But the Afghan government has gifted the school 16 acres of land for a new school near the American University of Afghanistan and the campus will move there in three years.

After the relocation, Brown plans to start recruiting Afghan student teachers to work alongside and learn from the 40 mainly American teachers on the staff. He is convinced that this is the way the school can start propagating its "DNA" to the rest of the country.

"That way, we can duplicate what we are doing," says Brown. "It's going to take 15 to 20 years to turn this around, but I believe we have the future generation of leaders here."

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