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Bangladeshi visitors agree, Conference wonderful

"It was wonderful," said Shakeen Akter in reference to the 2005 Joint Annual Conference. "We learned so much here that we can transfer to our schools in Bangladesh."

That observation was echoed by other members of the Bangladeshi delegation of 12 rural elementary school leaders visiting the United States for a three-week professional study tour. Three interpreters traveled with the group, although it turned out most of the visitors did speak English, and some were surprisingly familiar with America.

"Chicago has a familiar ring to many of us because of its importance in the women's rights movement," explained Tasneem Athar, a former English teacher. Athar notes that her country has only begun to include girls in its system of education since 1970, the year the U.S. ally declared its independence from Pakistan.

Thus, while few girls were enrolled in her nation's schools in 1977, by 1986 there were nearly half as many girls as boys. Today the net enrollment of more than 17.6 million students is about equally divided between boys and girls, according to Athar.

The group of 12 Bangladeshi visitors launched their Conference experience by joining the Chicago Schools Tour on Friday morning. "Children are more disciplined here," observed Shaheen Acter, a senior research associate with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a nongovernmental development organization that runs many of the country's rural schools.

Acter, who researches primary school learning materials, said she was also impressed by the usefulness and beauty of the classroom decorations. She noted Bangladeshi elementary classrooms are simple and unadorned, often with students seated upon straw mats on earthen floors.

"We learned ideas for decorating classrooms at little or not cost," Acter said.

Typically the rural schools of Bangladesh are situated in the center of crowded villages, and the timing of lessons is determined by parents and teachers, she said. Lessons may start as early as six in the morning or as late as ten. Some schools have two shifts per day, depending on the number of students in the area, with typical student-to-teacher ratios of 60 to 1. The flexible schedules, however, ensure that schools are compatible with their rural communities, Acter said. The community gets involved in agreeing to those school timetables, she said, as well as in choosing a site for the school and providing labor and materials to build classrooms.

She believes that were it not for BRAC, most of the children in rural Bangladesh would never learn to read and write, mainly because almost half of the population lives below the poverty line. Despite progress in expanding education over the past few decades, the poorest of the poor are likely not to make it to school or to drop out in the early stages

Several Bangladeshi visitors noted that parents can be either a help or hindrance in getting their children educated. People there say they believe in the importance of education. Yet children are needed at home or on the farm, and the value of schooling is seen primarily in economic terms. "Parents like to know that their children's education can lead to a job or to some useful skill," Acter explained.

Little wonder that the main aim of the Bangladeshi delegation in visiting the Conference as part of its three-week study tour of the United States was to find ways to increase parental involvement back home.

Massamat Shahanaz, a rural primary school teacher in Kochi Kacher Mela, said she "liked the idea of parents and teachers being close, and the way parents are instrumental in getting students to arrive promptly for school.

"I am from a rural education system. When we get too close, parents don't like it. But I have found that if I am friendly with students, we can teach them more," she said, noting that she picked up some ideas for doing this.

The Bangladeshis had begun their U.S. tour with an introduction to American education in Washington, D.C. They visited the Joint Annual Conference to attend sessions on improving governance, advocacy, and community outreach.

After their trip to Chicago, the group planned to visit schools in Freeport, Ill., and in Cincinnati, Ohio. The delegation also planned to visit the Ohio School Boards Association's annual conference and then to reunite in Raleigh, N.C., for meetings and discussions prior to a U.S. debriefing and evaluation session.

A small group of U.S. trainers and educators will visit delegation members in their country next spring to review activities and provide guidance on future activities. One or more IASB staff members may be among those return visitors, according to IASB Executive Director Michael Johnson.



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