Looking After the Young and Gifted

Stark contrast between new elite academy and other high schools.

Looking After the Young and Gifted

Stark contrast between new elite academy and other high schools.

Friday, 28 August, 2009

Elie Masouh, 15, has done well in his studies in the northern city of Homs, passing with honours the national examination that marks the end of middle school in Syria.

But Masouh also says that he has a special talent – a gift for playing the trumpet.

He decided to apply for a place at a new government-sponsored academy that promises to be Syria’s first special high school catering for a limited number of outstanding students.

“We are bored of the traditional educational methods,” said Masouh, who has completed the first round of entrance exams for the centre and is waiting to see whether he is eligible for the next stage.

“I was waiting for a chance like this to help me develop my talents,” he said.

The Syrian government inaugurated the new educational centre in Homs in July in an attempt to create a young elite that would later occupy leading positions in the public and private sectors.

“We aim at forming an elite of creative individuals, researchers and scientists who could contribute to the human and economic development of the country,” said Ahmad al-Ibrahim, the centre’s director.

The purpose of the centre is ultimately to train scientists and experts with cutting-edge expertise to serve the state, he said.

He said the centre will “nurture the students’ feeling of national belonging” and will encourage them to stay and work in Syria later.

This centre, financed by the education ministry, contrasts significantly with the reality of schools in Syria, which are predominantly government-run.

Although the government doubled expenditure on education between 2000 and 2005, critics say that high-school education in the country suffers from outdated textbooks, crowded classrooms, theoretical learning and a lack of specialised teachers.

In 2007, official figures showed that there were around eight million students in schools in Syria out of a population of more than 21 million.

With the current high growth rate in the school age population, it is projected by 2015 that Syria will need to accommodate an additional one million students.

The idea of the centre is to provide a small percentage of select students with the kind of hands-on education that is normally offered in western countries.

Unlike most regular schools, the centre boasts science laboratories, advanced computer rooms, a theatre, music rooms, a sports centre and classrooms equipped with projectors.

The centre also promotes interaction between students and their teachers.

“Students will become partners with teachers and together they will develop the curriculum,” Ibrahim said.

Experts welcomed the establishment of the centre as the first break with the prevailing conservative educational methods in Syria.

The problem with the present system is that it trains students who want specific jobs and traditional professions and not the ones who are interested in academic research and science, said Ahmad Salouta, a professor in the education department of the public Baath University in Homs.

Salouta believes that the idea behind the centre is still “theoretical”. He said, however, that this new establishment would at least create a young intellectual elite that Syria is thriving for.

It was important to form a core of young people who think outside the box, he said.

The centre is expected to start its first academic year in September with 200 cherry-picked students from all over the country, Ibrahim said.

A tough selection process started recently with a general knowledge test that covers wide areas such as maths, science and the English language.

More than 1,500 students applied in Homs alone, the director said.

Only students who score at least 90 per cent are entitled to sit the second round, when their IQ level and special talents will be evaluated. The last step is an oral examination.

Once selected, the students are expected to receive a state-of-the-art education for the next three years with the government paying all the expenses, in addition to full-board accommodation and a monthly stipend equivalent to 100 US dollars for each pupil, Ibrahim said.

Seventy teachers were carefully selected nationwide to run the school and then were trained by specialised international experts in advanced teaching methods, he added.

Amara Toahme, a psychologist working as a schoolteacher in Damascus, approves of the idea of grouping distinguished students to help them turn their talents into a driving force for learning and exploring.

But Toahme, who has carried out research on outstanding pupils, said that the centre should have addressed children at a younger age. She said that pupils start showing signs of extraordinary talent at the age of 12 or younger.

“Once they reach 15, talented students tend to be more distracted by hormonal changes that are linked to puberty,” she said.

She said that her research on outstanding students showed that many felt isolated from their peers and some suffered from depression.

It remains unclear how these outstanding students will later integrate into the country’s universities.

Salouta fears that once they reach university, they will be consigned once more to a more traditional type of learning and will lose the special environment that helped them develop their talents.

According to Ibrahim, the centre’s director, the students will have preferential treatment at university.

Each student, based on the skills they manifest at the centre, will be assisted in choosing the college field that suits them best based on their talents and passion, he said.
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