Impact Journalism Day 2016 |

A Different School of Thought

Cairo nonprofit Educate-Me believes there is far more to education than the core curriculum, which is why it asks children what they really want to learn.

Ghada Ghaleb
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An Educate-Me education program taking place in Egypt. The nonprofit’s elementary school program has been accredited by the government.
An Educate-Me education program taking place in Egypt. The nonprofit’s elementary school program has been accredited by the government. Credit: Educate-Me
Ghada Ghaleb

The inspiration to start Educate-Me came in 2010 as engineer Yasmin Helal walked through the Old Cairo neighborhood. “Three kids asked me for money and I happened to have three schoolbags with me for an unrelated reason. I decided to give them to the kids,” she says.

“A man then approached me for schoolbags for his children and so I returned the next day, which is when he told me he’d had to take his children out of school because of the expense,” recalls Helal, who was 25 at the time.

After following up on his story, she agreed to sponsor the man’s children and get them back to school. “After that, I went to a local nongovernmental organization and figured out the best way to infiltrate the area. And that’s how we made contacts and started our own project, which we called Educate-Me.”

Since its inception six years ago, Helal’s initiative to get kids back into education has subsequently expanded into an organization that also provides informal education to Egyptian children.

Educate-Me now provides a range of educational services, including preschool education, after-school programs, formal scholarships and adult education programs. In just six years, the learner-centered organization has provided students with the opportunity and freedom to follow their dreams.

From math to fashion design

“In Egypt, there are kids in fifth grade that are still illiterate,” says Aya Yasser, Educate-Me’s business development manager. “So our model is more about developing skills than knowledge, to enable them to learn more about themselves and what they want to become – focusing not only on literacy, but also communication and creative thinking,” she says.

The nonprofit already has a community development center located in Talbiya, Giza, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) southwest of central Cairo. It’s a growing hub where 17 members and over 70 volunteers help young Egyptians learn topics that match with their skills. These subjects can range from math to fashion design.

To fully understand what Educate-Me does, one must first understand its philosophy. In addition to its sponsorship track getting kids back into education, it also has five educational programs: Ask, Cog, Know, Nurture and Play.

“We don’t see education as a means to an end, like a job or college; education is something you do for your own enlightenment and benefit,” says Helal. “Education is also not just academic – the world is not just made up of subjects you study at school.”

After initially starting with character-building programs and activities, the organization – which had extended beyond Helal at this point – decided that instead of choosing what the kids should learn, they would actually ask the kids what they wanted.

“We thought, ‘Who says that what we give them is what they need?’ So we went and asked the kids, all between 7 and 13 years old, what they wanted to do and developed more goal-oriented programs – such as ‘Ask,’ which is about the kids recognizing a goal and mobilizing them toward it,” says Helal.

“We let the kids pick between any of the five programs instead of choosing for them. We understand that if they do ‘Ask,’ it is a longer journey, which is why we integrated ‘Play’ – because many of them simply come for that reason,” says cofounder Amr El Salanekly.

“Know” is about providing exposure to things that are not in the kids’ immediate environment, through activities that promote interaction with the world. “Play,” meanwhile, is simply about releasing energy.

So far, the kids and members working for Educate-Me in Cairo have been meeting on a weekly basis in a public garden in Zamalek, where they can engage the kids in any of those five programs. But the founders say a more permanent space is required. “If we are to use things that require consistency and/or plan activities that use technology, the model needs a physical location where we can meet not only weekly, but daily,” says Helal.

Involving the parents

Both “Cog” and “Nurture” will begin when Educate-Me opens a new community center in January 2017. “‘Cog’ is about developing cognitive abilities and what the kids want to learn, while ‘Nurture’ is about involving the parents,” explains Helal.

Educate-Me has grown from a mostly volunteer-based organization to a full-time foundation with 35 staffers.

Last year, Educate-Me decided to consolidate its focus on early childhood and elementary education by phasing out its after-school program and expanding its preschool program. In addition, it is developing a full-time elementary education program, with accreditation from the Egyptian government, to cover the national curriculum using Educate-Me’s student-centered learning model.

Earlier this year, Educate-Me welcomed its first group of first-graders to its elementary school program, launching with two classes (30 students) in its Talbiya base in Giza.

Educate-Me also hopes to expand beyond the 200 children it sponsors to include 150 parents and 350 kids.

“We used to rely on public relations to get the money out there, but now we’ve started dealing with a reliable donor base to get funding,” says El Salanekly.

Getting the funding is not the difficult part, though, says Helal – the trick is getting people to understand what Educate-Me is about. “The biggest challenge is to explain our vision and philosophy to people. Everything is easier from there,” she says.

This article first appeared in Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

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