The ABC’s of education in Afghanistan

Marine reservist Nina D’Amato used to teach in East Palo Alto as part of Teach for America and served as assistant principal at AP Giannini Middle School in San Francisco. But more recently she worked in Afghanistan helping to build “tent schools” where there were none before. She coordinated education infrastructure development programs with the Afghan government in Helmand Province, an agrarian farm region, long-controlled by the Taliban, which has been a huge center for the opium trade. KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with D’Amato and asked her what education looked like in Helmand before the Marines got there.

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NINA D’AMATO: Previously, they had leftover curriculum from the Soviets, which had all sorts of strange pictures in it – how to recognize a Soviet soldier, what an AK47 looks like…

BEN TREFNY: Seriously.

D’AMATO: Oh yeah. That curriculum was still leftover. They had Taliban curriculum in some places, which was just the Koran, reprinted. That was still leftover.

TREFNY: So these are in these schools just on shelves – like, “Hey, we need to get this worksheet for somebody, let’s just grab the one with the pictures of the AK47.”

D’AMATO: That’s right. And we’ll develop literacy around that. So, all of that had to be … we had to have discussions with the community, and once the community understood that what really needed to be taught to their kids was basic alphabet, how to develop sentences and basic paragraph structure to make these people literate – they embraced that immediately.

So the curriculum … the Minister of Education has decided to centrally control everything with their education system because it’s been co-opted and perverse so many times, which I absolutely understand. So the Japanese government paid to have new curriculum developed…

TREFNY: Japanese government?

D’AMATO: Yes, five or six years ago. And that curriculum needed to get out of the Kabul warehouses and down to the southwest province. So we would utilize resources to bring that down there, and once it got there, we would distribute it to schools.

Additionally, there was training that had to go along with that so the teachers understood how to use the curriculum, and it was very simple – just workbooks that focused on basic literacy and numeracy for mathematics. So we just had a slow start. And once they begin creating that cycle of learning, ultimately we intend to hand this off to the aid agencies, who are much better in the long-term development game than the Military is. So that would be the UN, UNICEF. That would be U.S. Agency for International Development. All those agencies will come in and take the reigns and continue the process.

TREFNY: So you were working largely on an administrative level trying to coordinate a very broad program and make it work in a lot of different schools. Were you able to go into any schools and see it in effect?

D’AMATO: Yes. Once a month I’d get on a helicopter and go down to one of the schools that I’d been reading about in one of the reports and see it for myself. One that I’d like to talk about is – in Garam Sir, which is a southern district in Helmand. Agrarian, families just focused on subsistence living – there was a school that the coalition forces had financed and had built, and the Taliban had burned that down. And the next day, the community went to the local forward operating base and asked for tents, and of course the Marines provided tents. And the community put the tents up, had the teachers teaching by noon that day, and all the kids had come to school. So it was evident that once they understood that it was safe to teach their kids, there was nothing stopping their progress. They were going to make that happen for their children because they never had the opportunity to do any of this. So that was really encouraging. And that tent school I went to go down to see – that was nice. It was always busting at the seam with kids.

And if you can imagine, you have Helmand … a snapshot would be America, 1850s in the middle of the country. So the one-room schoolhouse at this point, and all ages sitting in there, but all learning primary literacy skills. So you had little girls on one side of the room and boys on the other, and then in the back you’d have these tall guys – they must’ve been 16 or 17 years old, just intently listening, trying to follow along, just like their little brother in the front who is five or six years old.

TREFNY: Because they’re getting first education for themselves too.

D’AMATO: That’s exactly right.

TREFNY: Are you aware of any similar education issues there as you found here, say in San Francisco? Learning differences that kids have and how those might be accommodated for?

D’AMATO: Well, our learning education system is so sophisticated at this point that accommodating learning differences is not something that Helmand has quite come to appreciate yet.

TREFNY: Behavior issues at all? I mean, they’re kids.

D’AMATO: Yeah, there are behavior issues, but there’s no … teachers don’t hesitate to either warn them, “I’m going to tell your parents,” or you know, grab them by the ear and pull them across the room. They have no hesitation. And they’re supported by the community; they’re very well respected in these communities. So generally whatever the teacher says, goes. But it’s also at its nascence – it hasn’t developed into any sort of system yet. Except that they know that they have to be there every day for four or five hours a day.

An additional challenge was girls in education in Helmand because the province is so conservative, they barred girls from school, the Taliban did. So consequently, there are no female teachers to teach these young girls once they reach a certain age.

In Helmand, kindergarten through sixth grade, you can co-mingle, and you can sit side-by-side your male counterpart. But once you reach seventh grade, which is the age of marriage in Helmand for girls, that’s 12 or 13, there are no women to teach these young girls because they were part of that generation that never got educated. So you’ll see this precipitous drop out rate of about 70% one they reach their teenage years. And generally, girls will either be married within 24 months, or they’ll be at home helping the family with the farming and all the chores. So we also worked to target that data. So any time we could focus money on developing a girl or a woman and encourage her to become a teacher, we did that.

So we were at the point where we were willing, and so was the Afghan government, willing to train young women, like 17, 18 years old to become teachers, because that was important. And they could really cover that gap that’s been created.

TREFNY: And that would be Pashtun women as well?

D’AMATO: Yeah, it could be Pashtun women.

TREFNY: Who were married and perhaps had children? That must be very difficult culturally if there’s no real precedence within a generation or two to make that lifestyle choice.

D’AMATO: Yeah, very challenging. So you not only had to find that person, you had to ask permission from the parents, specifically the father. And you had to make sure that her being educated didn’t affect the family’s economy. Particularly the ones that weren’t married – that’s who you would look for. The ones who had reached 16 and weren’t married. So then there’s the opportunity costs – if we take her away and we send her to school, who’s going to do these specific chores, and how are we going to cover that piece in the home? So you’d actually have to pay the family to send her to school to cover the costs of her being gone.

So it becomes incredibly complex just to have one girl become a teacher.

TREFNY: But over time as more education develops, then the plan would be for there to be more understanding and probably more teachers, more of a pool to pull from, and it would be self-sustaining. It wouldn’t require as much involvement from aid or the Marine groups.

D’AMATO: Exactly. So that probably is, I would say a generation away.

Listen to the full version of this interview, including a discussion about how local Afghanis have taken to the Marines presence in Helmand Province, here.