When Taha’s school principal asked us to start thinking about alternate arrangements for him, it sounded like the end of the world. For six years Taha had been part of a main stream school in Karachi that gave him friends, a social circle, loving teachers, a day to look forward to and decent education for a child with special learning needs. To think of a life for him outside that school, outside of school friends that had taken care of him ever since Taha stepped inside those walls, was simply unthinkable.
Forced by the unthinkable we did a round of Karachi’s school as parents of a special needs child. While we saw great work being done at a number of school, the challenge we faced was very simple..
A commercially run school can simply not give a special needs child the attention that he or she deserves. To do justice to such a child you need to run a school on what the normal world would consider non commercial basis. While special needs children manage to work well in main stream school till grade three, the gaps in a schools commitment to the child and the attention given to him and her starts to show once they start grade four. Foundation materials require alternate teaching approaches, assessment requires one on one attention, teachers need to devote time that they do not have, logistics and coordination become an issue. Surprisingly class teachers and children ultimately make adjustments and accommodation. It is school Principals and senior management who give up on working with a child rather than make the effort required to make the school work for the child. Their primary fear; if we make an exception for one, we will have to do it for everyone.
Since we (me and my significantly better half) have both taught a mix of computer science, finance, project management and entrepreneurship for over two decades now, the craziest and brashest thing that we could do was start our own school. We thought we would call it Taha’s school. For now, while we figure out a more pleasing and presentable name.
We had never taught very young children, let alone special needs children but Fawzia had been working with Taha for the last eight years and the idea appeared to have some merit. I had some exposure teaching Scratch to grade 6 and 7 but wasn’t sure if I was even qualified to venture into teaching a subject other than computer science to young minds.
Still when we first thought of it, out loud earlier this year, we both wrote it off as something that was too far out to be real or even acceptable. This is our worst case option. There must be a better option available, we said. There must be a school that will be able to see the potential of our child, to give him the future he deserves and needs.
But by March this year, it was obvious that our search was quickly going to hit a wall. The crazy, brash, unthinkable idea, was becoming the only option rather than a distant backup.
Taha is on the autistic spectrum. He is a bright loving child that has come a long way with the help and support of his teachers, his therapists and his school. We just needed to figure out how to help him move forward.
That is how Taha’s school started. A school built from the ground up for the learning needs of one child.
A learning environment where he will learn to work with numbers as well as remote control helicopters; spend time animating stick figures using scratch and struggle with table tennis paddles, camera lenses and brush strokes. A school that is driven by a desire to give special needs children in Karachi a main stream future. One child, one life at a time.
It is an unthinkable goal that only mad, inconsiderate, over-educated, pushy, troublesome, impossible, difficult parents can ask for. We certainly fit the bill.
Work started on the project in late March. The construction and building work is finally done. We are just waiting for the last of the glass partitions to be fitted. There is a reasonable chance that it will get done this weekend with scattered showers (fingers crossed). The 29 inch widescreen workstation, the 40 inch Khan Academy Samsung screen and the chrome cast dongle came in today. Tomorrow, once the glass partitions are in place, the air conditioners will be installed. Monday is our soft launch with first week of August set as the formal opening day of Taha’s school.
Four volunteers started work this week on Taha’s curriculum for the next 8 weeks. Trying to figure out an engagement plan for Taha that feels more like play and less like work.
Their goal is to teach him programming with Scratch, play table tennis, learn to shoot and download pictures with a canon lens, buy books and chips from the library and the school canteen using real money, cover a term’s worth of videos from Khan Academy and go shopping at Naheed store. A second team of volunteers will start exploring incorporating Minecraft within Taha’s curriculum. While a third is thinking about working in music, storytelling and art based activities for Taha. The idea is to focus on skill based learning without giving up the traditional educational road map.
When we thought about Taha’s school we thought about giving him an environment that was soothing as well as refreshing. Make it green, she said. Put in lots of plants, said he.
The end result is a work space that we think will make Taha look forward to coming to school every day. A place where he can be with friends who teach him by playing with him and showing him how to play with them.
It is a start. We don’t know whether it will work or not. But as parents it is the only option available for us. We have taken the first steps with Taha. If it works, we will open up the school for other children facing similar challenges. We hope that with luck, prayers, commitment and lots of hard work, we may be able to do what many mainstream schools have failed to do.
The fact that we are here is itself a testament to the love, care and support two sets of Taha’s grand parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings have provided. Without them this project wouldn’t even have taken off the sheets of paper, it was originally conceived on.
If you would like to help, help us identify great loving teachers who believe in giving special needs children a mainstream future. If you are a teacher, take out some time, come and see the school and help us create a brighter more colorful future for Taha and his friends. If you are a student, come for a play date and play a game of table tennis with Taha, do a few Numicon exercises or help him shoot the Koels in the garden with our canon lens.
We need as much help as we can get with curriculum development, benchmarks, assessment, milestones and tasks. Assistant teachers and permanent volunteers too. Come run a session once a week with and for Taha.
Drop us a line and a note and will jot you down for a play date.