Ariel School’s first day of classes were held May 9th.

The all-girls school, in the slums of Dhaka’s Rayer Bazar, was established by Rezwan Hussain, an assistant professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

Rezwan was inspired to start Ariel a little more than a year ago after walking through the area and seeing the appalling situations of some of the young girls living there, many of whom had babies in tow. In particular, a young mother named Brishti was comforting her daughter, Rasia, who was suffering an untreated broken arm. Rezwan got them medical help immediately. He realized that education could be a potential key for helping young girls break out of the prison of poverty, teen pregnancy, and hopelessness.

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Ariel parent, Shanta steps in to substitute teach.

Ariel’s initial weeks of operation raised three main questions for Rezwan:

  1. Would the parents show up with their daughters?
  2. Would the volunteer teachers show up?
  3. How would the girls respond in the classroom?

We asked Rezwan about Ariel’s first three weeks and what insights he gleaned from the experience.

Turnout of Parents and Student Enrollment

“Yes, thankfully, parents did arrive to the school. But less than half of the girls recruited turned up.”

Rezwan says that he was disappointed though he expected some attrition. Residents in the slums of Rayer Bazar are routinely evicted by developers and, in fact, this is what had happened; one of the slums where students were recruited was demolished. Also, Rezwan learned that some parents won’t make the effort to walk the short distance to the school with their daughters. And, for many, Ariel’s 9 a.m. bell is just too early.

These realities considered, Rezwan was set to intensify his recruitment efforts but changed his mind.

Counting with animals. Girls are now animated; attention has improved dramatically.

Counting with animals. The children are now animated; attention has improved dramatically.

“Small numbers of students make it easier to see what works and what doesn’t. For the time being I’ve capped enrolment at 15.”

He adds that a smaller student body gives him time to talk with parents about how important it is to bring their daughters to school on time.

“By our eleventh day, every girl was at school at 9 a.m. Message received loud and clear!”

There has also been the issue of making the environment as stress-free as possible. This means no pressure, no demands, and nothing that scares the girls or makes them anxious. The reason? Stressed minds don’t learn. Rezwan had to teach the mothers of the girls to let go, literally and metaphorically, of their daughters, to not hover or micromanage them, to not glare, scold, or threaten them with violence.

“It’s improving. Trust is building in the mothers. And the girls are paying less attention to their moms anyhow because they’re at school and beginning to focus on learning.”

Turnout of Volunteer Teachers

The turnout of volunteer teachers has been mixed. Rezwan was concerned about staff scheduling over the university term break as the volunteer teachers are students of ULAB (University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh).

“Unfortunately, term break coincided with our first three weeks of operation. So a somewhat unbalanced picture of the student-as-volunteer-teacher model emerged. For the most part the teachers showed. But on day five we were down one teacher. Same on day seven. On day eight neither teacher showed up.”

Rezwan noticed that one of the moms, Shanta, came to Ariel on time, every day, and stayed for the session. Shanta had been working in a garment factory but quit to become a full-time mom.

“I noticed that Shanta could read. So I asked if she wanted to sit at the table and substitute teach. She agreed. And again on day seven. And once more on day eight. Shanta was a natural.”

Before Ariel was up and running, Rezwan envisioned involving the mothers as much as possible, to create buy-in and build capacity in the community. He is considering sending Shanta to train with some preschool teachers at a nearby private school, with the idea that she could become a full-time teacher at Ariel.

The Girls’ Responses

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“This is Anju at Ariel Orientation, May 3rd. I wondered what I might have gotten myself into.” – Rezwan

What about the students, the young girls, the reason Ariel started in the first place?

“Their responses have exceeded my expectations,” Rezwan beams.

He says that during the first week the girls were taciturn, looking for reassurance from their moms, and somewhat sullen. By day six their attitudes had shifted.

“As I was walking back to my car to get something before class started, I bumped into three of our girls racing down the alley to get to school. They were glowing with anticipation and excitement.”

Three weeks in, the girls were no longer following directives about handwashing, eating breakfast, and taking a seat at an assigned table. Rather, they were taking the initiative, self-starting without prompting.

“At the tables they laugh and talk. They are no longer tightly wound shells.”

Rezwan adds that it’s possible the girls will respond even more enthusiastically when the music and phys ed programs are introduced. Curriculum at Ariel is being developed in stages so that the girls and teachers aren’t overwhelmed.

This is the same girl, Anju, May 25 (Day 11). She is grabbing two stools so she can run to her table and start school. She is moving so fast the picture is blurry.

This is the same girl, Anju, May 25 (Day 11). She is grabbing two stools so she can run to her table and start school. She is moving so fast the picture is blurry.

“Handwashing is by now routine, done three times a day, at 9 a.m., after eating, and at day’s end. Repetition builds the habit.”

Rezwan says the girls seem to love this routine and now go to the wash basin with few cues.

“It is interesting because residents of the slums are notorious for not washing diligently with soap and water. But now I can see that it might simply be due to not having running water and wash basins in their homes.”

The next milestone?

“To get the girls to queue at the wash basin, in a straight line, without cutting in. They’re getting better.”

Rezwan says that if he succeeds he might be the first person in history to get ten Bangladeshis to wait in turn in an orderly line.

“I might have to hold a press conference on that monumental day and invite the world media. Sure, they’re only 4-year-old girls. But you have to start somewhere.”

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