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Transforming the World... One School at a Time

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Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story.
Jalal Al-Din Rumi, 1207 - 1273 AD

In the heart of the Punjab, an ancient Pakistan province that takes pride in a history of Mogul lords and ancient traditions, and whose culture defines what most Westerners know as "Pakistan," only twelve percent of citizens have a favorable impression of the United States. The U.S. is viewed as an adversary of Islam, a belief often based on ideologies that have alienated youth not just from the West, but also from their own country and the citizens of Pakistan.

In the U.S., almost daily, cable news reports another bomb exploding in Peshawar -- a drone attack along the Tribal Area border -- or, a possible terrorist in Europe or the U.S., trained in a camp in Pakistan. Rarely do Americans hear of the struggles, frustrations, and fears of Pakistan's youth. And equally rare is the opportunity for Pakistani citizens to learn about people in the U.S..

One man, a Pakistan-American, refuses to accept the status quo. "We must try to understand each other. It is essential to recognize our common interests and celebrate our separate traditions." He has created a school in the capital of the Punjab that flies an American flag. The American International School System, AISS, a school filled with eager Pakistani students who are taught by young Pakistani and American teachers, learning about American freedom and democracy -- expanding their vision of themselves in the world, and their commitment to Pakistan.

Historically, a primary role of education has been to transmit culture from one generation to another through a deliberate and planned process, passing forward the values, traditions, and knowledge necessary for the preservation of society. At AISS, teachers instill insights into both Pakistani and U.S. cultures. American values such as equality, individualism, and competitiveness are embedded in the curriculum, while preserving the traditional Pakistani values such as Burkhurdari (respect), Sabar (patience), Ilyhaaz (preserving others' sentiments), and Ghairat (honor).

The challenge for faculty and families is to preserve these values and recognize the power of continuity in the preservation of society, while simultaneously inspiring youth to become agents of change.

But, Pakistan presents a dilemma -- which Pakistan is to be preserved, and what should change? Pakistan has a multitude of political groups, and militant groups, each with its own agenda. Society is fragmented and many Pakistan youth in rural and urban areas are isolated, living a life of chaos, without sufficient skills to enter the workplace or the incentive to prosper, or to voice their concerns.

"Prosperity and freedom and peace are not just American hopes," I said. "They are universal human hopes. And even in the violence and turmoil of Central Asia, we believe education provides opportunities and hope for the future, and the transformation of lives and nations."

Founded in 2007, the American International School System is providing an American-based education to Muslim children. Through education, AISS hopes to help Pakistan become more prosperous, secure, democratic and better able to stand up against violence and extremism while transforming the American and Pakistani relationship, even if it's only one student at a time.

Many of the country's youth are isolated from others of their age, and have little contact with the larger world outside Pakistan. Such challenges require a long-term commitment to youth. If structural change in society is to transform Pakistan, and allow it to be at peace with its neighbors, it must emulate AISS, and begin by reaching out to the youth.

Fifty percent of the population is not yet twenty, and with more than two-thirds not yet 30 years old, they have few opportunities to engage in the community and fewer mentors to guide their development. Only 30 percent of the school children ever make it to high school. Only one-third can read a short story while half cannot even write a complete sentence. UNESCO tells us by 2015 that Pakistan will have the highest number of unemployed youth in the world, and by the year 2050, the world's third highest population.

Within the challenge lies opportunity; Pakistan can redefine its future and the role of education in people's lives. In order to do so, youth must be convinced of their own potential and that of each other, to not only survive but to adapt and learn. There is a growing awareness among provincial youth of the power of education, and, a growing momentum for change that lies with the elite young leaders of Pakistan.

I had said: "We're taking our cause to the chalkboard... to foster a sense of critical thinking and confidence that's required to develop leaders that consider multiple perspectives, value diversity and promote cultural understanding."

Youth want to be educated, to have job skills and be competitive in the global marketplace. "We feel that through education we can get a lot done," says the school's principal Mark Rozic, who is originally from the state of Pennsylvania. "We're demonstrating that the United States is a partner in their efforts to create positive changes in their country. And, we want to show that the American people are good people, hard working and that we are here to help in anyway that we can."

The school's target demographic is both the lower-income class and lower-middle income class. While it is a private tuition-based school, more than eighty-seven percent of students receive financial aid through the school's foundation, The American International School System Foundation. Without this critical help, AISS could not reach and help the children in Pakistan expand their vision of themselves in the world.

"As Americans, we feel that we know the value of education, and sometimes we think it's obvious to everyone else. But it's not," I stated. "We are doing our part not only to educate children at our school, but to educate as many as we can reach including parents, grand-parents and brothers and sisters, even if the only thing we are giving them is knowledge about the real value of education."

The American Education model at AISS offers learning opportunities for both faculty and families that foster sustainable growth through out the AISS school system, while respecting and honoring cultures and traditions. The curriculum is structured just as it would be at a high-quality school in the United States. "We use an American curriculum and textbooks and teach in English," said Principal Rozic. "We will give our kids a U.S. high school diploma, and enable them to go to colleges and universities around the world."

"It's our fervent belief that the work we are doing will strengthen ties between our two countries, not just today, but in the future," I had said.

The American International School System was launched with just seven preschool and kindergarten students. Today there are two hundred students from preschool through eighth grade with enrollment expected to expand to a thousand students over the next five years. Education Specialist, Dr. Judith Findlay, collaborates with AISS to support the expansion of the AISS model of excellence in education. "This is an experiment in education, she states, that is unique in the Muslim World. AISS integrates community life into the life of each of its schools, and empowers students to become leaders and life-long learners. This is a worthy and obtainable goal."

"Right now we are pre-school through eighth grade. Soon, we will be adding a high school," said Rozic.

With a $10 million investment, AISS constructed one of the most modern state-of-the-art campuses in Pakistan. It is the first educational institution to be fully handicapped accessible. The expansive eleven-and-a-half acre campus provides resources for environmental science, agricultural research, sports, and a setting for study of the arts. The campus contains an amphitheater, swimming pool, cafeteria, a hi-tech auditorium, libraries, a main computer lab and computers in all classrooms.

In addition to regular classroom activities, the facilities are used for other advanced educational and civic activities sponsored by the school. These include on-going basic and advanced Professional Development for staff and teachers from the Pakistani school system as well as mentoring programs for children and adults. But, it's what happens in the classroom that's most important to the man who envisioned the American flag, flying each day in the heart of the Punjab.

"I want my students to believe that if they work hard enough, they can become anything and do anything," I noted. "I want to challenge our students, 'If your father is a gardener, then so what? You can still become an engineer, a doctor, a military officer or the leader of your country... That's the American virtue we want to share. It's a truly democratic way of thinking and it's always at the forefront of our minds when we walk into school each morning."

To find out more about AISS and how you can help, go to: aissfoundation.org.