SOLA made significant strides towards becoming an accredited college preparatory boarding school for girls over summer and fall 2013. Efforts focused on developing academic affairs,especially curriculum, assessments, materials and recordkeeping. Students learned in Kabul andacculturated abroad while staff increased human resources, outreach activities and funding.
SOLA hired directors of academics and student life and an office administrator in Kabul and apart-time director of study abroad. New support staff included a third security guard and a cook(so students no longer have to prepare dinner except on Fridays). Volunteers were recruited toteach students in person and tutors to instruct online. Job descriptions, agreements and ascreening/interview process were developed to recruit both on an ongoing basis.
Administrative progress included job descriptions, an organizational chart, school infrastructure,material and human resources, and a budget. Registration as an NGO with Afghan authorities proceeded.
Over the summer, 11 students remained in Kabul after 9 left for scholarship programs abroad. Inthe fall, 33 students were taught English, earth science, current events and guitar during the dayto supplement public school courses, and were tutored online at night. 5 students were assisted with applications to school abroad for fall 2014. A small number of incoming applicants were reviewed for the spring term.
With a target of 42 students, the admissions committee evaluated 123 applications and 33 nominations from students in 23 provinces in August and September. After 75 first and second interviews, 40 students were admitted. The school year opened with 26 new and returning boarding students and Sep. 20 convocation was held in newly furnished classrooms in the new dormitory for students, parents and guardians, all of whom signed the honor code. After completing registration and pledging to speak only English, SOLA’s first ever assessments were administered.
SOLA’s student body at the end of 2013 numbered 33 full-time boarding students with 31 girls and 2 boys. Students range in age from 12 to 19 (averaging 15 years) from 5 ethnic groups (principally Hazara and Pashtun) and 14 provinces (principally Ghazni). They attend 13 different Afghan schools at 11 educational levels from 4th grade to college freshman averaging 9th grade.
Curriculum. Classes beginning in September constituted SOLA’s first academic schedule relyingsolely on in-house resources. Syllabi and detailed weekly curricula were developed by staff and volunteers for beginning and intermediate English, introduction to earth science, and integrated earth and physical science. Math curriculum professionals helped chose Connected Mathematics
Program textbooks for winter/spring, increasing continuity and rigor of math instruction. Calendar. The academic calendar was implemented for a 3-month winter/spring and 4-month fall and summer semesters with three additional weeks set aside for midterms and finals. One-hour classes in English, math and science were taught on 1–3 levels twice a day between 8:30–10:30 a.m. and 2:30–4:30 p.m. 5 days a week. All students continued to attend public school for half of the day (until mid Dec.). Classes were followed by reading hour from 5–6:00 p.m., dinner and study hall from 6:30–9:30. Students meet with individual e-tutors during study hall twice a week. Assessment. English language skills were assessed at the beginning and end of the semester according to U.S. common core standards, once for general placement and once for levels 1–5.
Students took the general placement and year 1 assessment in September; those who scored high in both also took year 2. 12 students placed into level 1 English and 14 into level 2. A week-by-week curriculum was developed for levels 1 and 2 to cover 2/3 of the year, and a week-by-week science curriculum for the first full year of science with standards met. A standards-based science general placement test was also developed.
OpenBook reading, writing, speaking and listening software was implemented to supplement live English language instruction. Khan Academy online educational tools are used to supplement math instruction.
Teachers. Summer 2013 opened with a native English-speaking master’s candidate teaching history and health during the day, while in the evening students were tutored. Two Harvard law and undergraduate students interned in academics and student life to help develop curriculum and athletics while teaching geography, reading comprehension and computer literacy in August. Teachers from Brooks and St. Paul’s schools also lectured in August on English and astronomy while evaluating prospects for future institutional exchanges and providing feedback on student assessments.
In the fall, a teacher’s assistant from the University of Vermont with experience instructing college-level environmental science taught earth science and English. English was also taught daily by 5 short-term fluent-English speaking visitors for a total of 13 weeks, and weekly by 2 Kabul-based professionals Nov.–Dec. Winter/spring term will welcome 7 new and 1 returning resident volunteer teachers from India and the U.S. They will teach for 29.5 months combined, averaging 3.7 months each, to provide 2,788
hours of instruction (at 3 hrs./day). The teachers will be joined by 5 short-term visitors for 11 weeks total. Subjects covered will feature English/ESL as well as literature, math, environmental and earth sciences, biology and history.
Patchworked beginning English instruction did not result in quick progress for students with minimal English or nonexistent English. Twice weekly sessions have been scheduled for all students in need by pairs as of early January. Returning and other more advanced English speakers progressed speedily but also will benefit from dedicated English teachers.
The first earth science units on scientific reasoning and astronomy were completed, with reasoning proving very challenging as a crash course in a whole new way of thinking. Students were given 2 weeks to grapple with a method of learning and investigation covered progressively over 7 years in the west. Next units will build on these critical thinking skills. Astronomy unit progressed more smoothly, with 13 of 16 students earning A’s on a cumulative assignment consisting of 47 short answer questions, showing promise for the next test in January.
Civic engagement. SOLA/GNG’s joint Global Citizens in Action virtual exchange program connected students in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan through cultural exchange, media literacy and global citizenship curriculum. Students investigated how to engage their communities to create positive social change with 21st century learning skills.
Afghanistan Now & Tomorrow, a new roundtable discussion series on civil society provides role models and perspective to Afghanistan’s future leaders. New York Times reporter Luke Mogelson launched in December on refugee issues. The seminars build on existing partnerships within the Kabul community and will culminate in presentations by students on independent research before a panel of previous speakers. Students will complete surveys and present monthly on current events in Afghanistan such as the November Loya Jirga (Grand Council) meeting to stay informed and practice public speaking skills before their final panel presentations.
Student interaction with local and international dignitaries included Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, NATO’s first female Assistant Secretary General, and Cathy Russell, U.S. Special Representative for Global Women’s Issues. U.S. Embassy support continued to include student tea and video sessions at the embassy. Other international visitors included Ambassador Peters of the Netherlands, acting British Ambassador Dickson, EUPOL Rule of Law Training Adviser Cuenca, and UNDP consultant Wilson. Grabar, Russell and Dickson published online commendations of the girls afterwards. A number of international organizations including Seeds of Peace and Afghan Scouts program visited SOLA to offer activity and scholarship opportunities.
Students were also invited by the U.S. Embassy to tap into a symposium for Afghan women at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. on Nov. 15 to hear Secretary of State John Kerry, former First Lady Bush and former Secretary of State Clinton. Students were highly motivated by seeing SOLA president Shabana on stage with them and four other Afghan women.
A student proctor system to develop leadership skills was implemented, helping new students adjust to life away from home and new-found independence, counseling to build a sense of community and enforcing residential rules. 3 students are selected each month based on written expressions of interest. Students are encouraged to take the lead in supporting co- and extracurricular activities such as the library, service learning, social entrepreneurship, first aid, computer lab, mathematics, sports (volleyball/badminton), photography and cooking. Students are also designated big sisters to assist new students in and outside of the classroom. Students presented, many for the first time in English, on SOLA’s 5th anniversary to local and international supporters, including an Afghan presidential candidate and the acting British Ambassador to Kabul.
SOLA continues to build connections with schools around the world interested in female education and leadership. Students discussed cultural differences and similarities with students from Våmhus Skola in Sweden; and with the Young Woman Leadership Network in New York through hand-written letters and a filmed discussion. Similar cultural exchanges are under development with schools and clubs on topics and genres aligned to SOLA’s curriculum with Bellevue High (Seattle, WA), Dauntsey’s (Wiltshire, U.K.), Lick Wilmerding (San Francisco, CA), and Westover (Middlebury, CT). An art exchange is in the works with Sonoma Academy (Santa Rosa, CA). SOLA partner or sister schools now number nearly 50.
The library was reorganized and inventoried by student assistants, and restocked with books for all levels, from early readers such as Where the Wild Things Are, to high-school classics like To Kill a Mockingbird. Students maintain logs of books as they read. Newly developing co- and extracurricular electives and offerings include expressive arts and online communications. Student computer skills improved greatly as have guitar and photography skills, through practice, instruction and a workshop respectively.
All students with English skills participate in a weekly online workshop with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. AWWP tutors help develop student voices and personal narratives while strengthening their English and computer skills. Weekly fall assignments focused on short autobiographies about family, childhood and hopes for the future.
A daily exercise regime began in the fall from 6–7:00 a.m. interspersed with occasional Attan (traditional Afghan dance) sessions. To improve student access to sports, SOLA started working with Skateistan for skateboarding lessons and educational programming. Rotating through, all students participated weekly in one hour each of exercise/skateboarding instruction and themed discussion on issues like nutrition and gender. Similar options with the Afghan Mini Mobile Children’s Circus for storytelling and an annual mock parliament are under consideration. Monthly excursions to explore local cultural and civic institutions and sites included the Kabul Museum and Bagh-e Babur gardens.
Most students in Kabul were paired with two volunteer online tutors, increasingly experienced in teaching ESL. A volunteer coordinator in the U.S. was designated to recruit, screen and schedule tutors, and test videoconferencing technologies. A private online discussion platform was implemented for tutor/student/staff communications. New students were assigned email accounts and Skype identities. Tutors were given access to weekly English curriculum taught in Kabul, as well as additional materials focused on writing and either grammar or reading.
The number of experienced educators increased to 30 with ages ranging from undergraduates to retirees, continuing at about 80% women. Over 25 e-tutors are located in the U.S. east coast, 9 Pacific coast, 5 central and mountain, 5 Europe and England, and 1 each Peru, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE and India. Skilled professionals from the Alliance for International Women’s Rights are conducting a pilot program with 5 students.
SOLA’s first volunteer e-tutor coordinator focused on structural design and implementation.Candidates complete an online application before interview via Skype. Once paired, tutors are introduced by Kabul staff or a teachers to their student who then help monitor attendance. An online forum provides updates on classroom curriculum and discussion boards. Tutors check in with the coordinator monthly; since Nov., 52 tutors have reported 202 teaching hours. Tutors also assess student progress every 3–4 months, with 26 assessments for 20 students in to date.
In June, 8 outgoing students participated in a 5-day orientation program in the U.S. with 4 SOLA staff, 5 e-tutors/mentors, 6 host families, and 3 existing SOLA scholars. Students signed a pre-departure agreement to affirm commitment to returning home and to reaffirm the honor code.
Most SOLA students in the U.S. and elsewhere resumed academic programs in September, while 9 students adapted to new academic environments. All new students were matched with host families with whom they spent long weekends and vacations. 4 students spoke at 3 events promoting SOLA and advocating for girls’ education; 3 taught international peers about Afghanistan at college world fairs, and 1 coordinated an online discussion between a U.S. school and students in Kabul. 4 students graduating in May spent the fall applying to and interviewing at colleges and universities in the U.S. Over winter break, 6 students in the U.S. gathered at the director’s house to bring in the New Year together.
15 SOLA students in Kabul were evaluated in November on school readiness for next educational steps. All were found academically strong, emotionally capable and eager to learn. 4 were invited to apply for scholarships to schools in the U.S., 2 to the American U. of Afghanistan, while the others were encouraged to continue to improve their English skills.
As of December, 28 female and 2 male students were enrolled in U.S. schools, half in college or university, half in boarding and 1 in primary school. 6 students attend schools in Bangladesh,Canada, Jordan and the UK. All U.S.-based students are supported by host families andoverseen by the U.S.-based director. Students participate regularly in special events to sharestories and advocate broadly for educating Afghan women, increasing their will to return home.