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Education for all

Almost a decade after a group of friends began tutoring kids in their neighbourhood, they’ve started their own school

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PUBLISHED February 13, 2022

Next to the Jamia Baghdadi Masjid in the middle of a narrow street of the Martin Quarter in Karachi, sits a primary school with a surprising genesis story. The school was started by Najam Soharwardi, the son of the Imam of Baghdadi Masjid, when he realised that families in his neighborhood were having trouble sending their kids to school.

Soharwardi and his friends had been tutoring students in the area for years to help them pass matriculation exams. But when the pandemic hit and young people in the area started missing more and more days of school, he realized that wasn’t enough. “It was after lockdown that we realised that students are struggling with studies while parents are struggling with managing fees,” Soharwardi said. “Most of the people living around are marginalized and do not have many resources to educate their children. The majority cannot afford good schools.”

In August 2021, he decided to open a school next door to the Jamia Baghdadi Masjid in a building meant to be used as a madrassa. Initially, Soharwardi’s father was skeptical of Najam’s idea of establishing a school in a madrassa. Since he is the Imam there, he worried if anything went wrong, it would hinder his many years of peacekeeping as a community member and religious leader.

The school is situated in a three-story building which was built as a madrassa. Nazra and Hifz classes are taught in the mosque. “Initially the idea wasn’t very welcoming, but the committee of the mosque knew our intentions and realized that using it to educate can only help the community,” Soharwardi said. “The real meaning of Madrassa is Darsgah and school is [not] different.”

School structure

Since the area’s residents are mostly from low-income families, some people were skeptical of whether the school could generate enough funds to become a sustainable project. They also worried about potential harassment cases in a co-educational school. "Given the situation around us, we had to be super protective regarding complaints,” Soharwardi said. The school addressed fears in the community by beefing up security and installing security cameras in both the madrassa building and in the mosque.

The school charges a nominal fee of Rs100 per student but they also accept any amount that parents can afford. The school can accommodate 150 to 200 students at a time and holds classes in three shifts throughout the day – the first shift for primary school students starting early in the morning, followed by kindergarten and upper grades in the afternoon.

The school also arranges several other courses on the weekends, including content writing, graphic designing, storytelling, new media, web development, editing, video making, and languages like Arabic, Persian, Turkish. These courses have a similar cost structure to other classes.

Soharwardi also established a studio to give students hands-on experience handling a camera, shooting, and editing – skills he hopes can later help them make a living. “The reason to start graphic designing, programming, [and] different languages is to make it easy for children who could not complete their education due to resources,” he said. “Now with some help, they can get a decent job. Soharwardi said building the studio is part of a long-term plan to create an online library for students who missed classes or for those the school can’t accommodate when it’s at full capacity.

The school also has resources to help teach students who are autistic, differently-abled, or have any speech disabilities. Most conventional schools wouldn’t consider admittance for these students. “We have hired a separate teacher to teach such children,” he said.

Although the school caters to students from marginalized families, anyone can apply; A simple test is conducted to understand the child’s ability, and admission is based on merit. The school doesn’t differentiate between caste and ethnicity and Soharwardi said students from every background can come study. “We aren’t any trust or agenda-driven school, we are just working on donations,” he said.

Community support


Soharwardi, who works for a private edible oil group became a manager of the school, which he now runs along with his friends and fellow teachers. Classrooms in his school are well-equipped with projectors, computer labs, whiteboards, and other studio equipment including cameras and lighting. Along with teachers’ salaries and other materials, the monthly amount to run the school is colossal. The costs are mostly covered by donors and support from family and friends.

“To be honest there is no concrete plan of what will happen once the biggest donor backs off,” he said. The school has considered creating a payment plan for extra classes such as web design and video editing, with a fixed subscription fee for video tutorials of classes that are recorded in the studio.

For now, many of Soharwardi’s friends who are teaching alongside him at the school are working for free. Meanwhile, teachers that were hired to teach at the school are receiving salaries on par with what other good schools pay. We are also working on establishing a learning management system so that students who want to join our school but due to restricted seats we cannot accommodate them so they can watch lectures online and learn at least,” he added.

The school doesn't only to educate students by teaching them conventional skills, it also wants to make them feel confident in their ability to educate themselves. “I know that the child living in this locality already have very few options and then lack of confidence can only make it worse for them which is why they need this push to conquer the world,” he said.

To help the students learn even if they can’t come to the campus, Soharwardi said the school is using its studio to record small 2 to 3-minute videos on several topics that children can view remotely. “Most of the videos are recorded by young teachers who recently completed [the] intermediate [course] as they can explain well and also understand students’ minds rather than an old teacher who will teach in the same conventional way, which can be boring,” Soharwardi said.

High-tech teaching

He said the studio is well equipped and professionals from the industry were called to instruct teachers on how to use lighting and recording equipment to make classes interesting and conversational. The response to the school has been overwhelming. Half a year after opening, the school is at full capacity.

“Three of my children aged between 13 and 6 years are studying there and I have never been so satisfied with their progress,” Naeem Azam, a parent of three children at the school said.

His fourth child is on the waiting list for the school. Azam, who lives near Tariq Road, drops off his children at the school daily before going to work. He said his children were previously studying at a private school, but due to Covid-19, it became difficult for his family to afford tuition.

Azam said his children are very happy at the new school. They used to cry when it came time to go to school, but now they even insist on going to school on the weekends, he said. He said the children enjoy the interactive nature of the classes which use videos and other tools to keep them engaged. He said mural painting and other activities also “make children interested in school and studying,”

Another parent who has admitted all six of his children to the school last year said he is also satisfied with his decision to include them. “I wanted my children to learn something and be a better person and at least they can be educated enough to do something for themselves and the school is helping them a lot in those terms,” Raja Charan said.

One of Soharwardi’s friends and teacher at the school Omama Ansari said he remembers how their coaching center started as a make-shift studio with a cheap microphone, and mobile cameras. Now, the project has flourished into a functional school with a capacity of 1,500 children and a fully-equipped education-tech studio. Ansari is also an engineering graduate from NED University and a manager of digital products at a private bank.

Intending to expand to different spaces with a similar idea, Ansari said that they are trying to make the school into a Khan Academy of Pakistan where they can set subscription fees for lectures to generate funds for the school.

“We realised that this generation is TikTok and snack video users which is why the attention span is also less so the main idea was not to record hour-long lecture but to work on small videos of 1 minute,” he said, adding that the idea is to get the idea of the topic across, not to substitute a full lecture. With classes taught in Urdu, he said teachers can help students understand the topic better since the local conversation style is bilingual.