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Literacy Program at Holy Cross Girls High School

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A young girl takes in her lesson during the afternoon literacy program at Holy Cross Girls High School. A collaboration between Holy Cross sisters and community members, the program has endured for more than 50 years.

A young girl takes in her lesson during the afternoon literacy program at Holy Cross Girls High School. A collaboration between Holy Cross sisters and community members, the program has endured for more than 50 years.

Great ideas often erupt from challenge. Such was the case some 50 years ago when a confrontation gave rise to a flourishing literacy program at Holy Cross Girls High School in Tejgaon, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It was 1972, and Bangladesh had recently won its independence from Pakistan after the Bangladesh Liberation War. Sister Margaret Ann Shield, CSC, a new teacher at the school, had just ushered students out to the schoolyard for dismissal. There, says Sister Margaret, a mother from the community approached her. “She asked me what good this big school was to the people who lived nearby.”

Challenge sparks literacy program

It was true that the school—established well beyond the Dhaka city limits in 1951—drew students from other areas. It appealed especially to families who wanted their children to be educated in English. Feeling the barb but also honoring the validity of the question, Sister Margaret approached school headmistress, Sister Marian Teresa (Gomes), CSC, with the idea of starting an afternoon literacy program for the community children.

The next day, Sister Margaret informed the neighbor that the sisters could not provide material things, but something more lasting. If the woman could round up seven children who were interested in school, Sister Margaret would teach them. The neighbor made good on her end of the bargain, and the deal was struck.

Sister Margaret Ann Shield, CSC

Sister Margaret Ann Shield, CSC

A plan for program lift off

The students, ages 9 to 13 filed eagerly into their classroom that first day. “Appreciating their excitement, I was trying to contain my own,” Sister Margaret admits. As most of the children held responsibilities at home—some also served as domestic helpers or rickshaw drivers—class met for two hours following the regular school day.

The students first learned how to hold a pencil and make strokes within the guidelines on their papers. To practice number concepts they used colored jute sticks. With her 18 years of teaching experience in other Holy Cross schools in the region, Sister Margaret taught them in the Bangla language. They learned reading, writing, addition and subtraction. And by taking turns and listening, students also developed an understanding of self-worth and courtesy for others. Tossed into this new environment together, “It seemed that they were all rooting for each other,” Sister Margaret recalls.

Sister Kolpona Costa, CSC, headmistress of Holy Cross Girls High School, addresses an afternoon literacy class.

Sister Kolpona Costa, CSC, headmistress of Holy Cross Girls High School, addresses an afternoon literacy class.

Education and shared respect creates connections

As the students progressed, so did relations between the school and students’ families. Collaboration around a shared goal—broadening children’s worlds through education—had opened a pathway of mutual affirmation and respect. From there, “A friendliness or neighborliness seemed to blossom,” Sister Margaret says.

A community of varying cultures, sisters and teachers shared conversations on the street and worked together on practical needs. Sister Margaret was even called upon to assist students’ families during grave situations. And that same year, the school transitioned to Bangla as its official language of instruction.

All these new connections spurred community interest. The number of students in the afternoon program increased steadily as word spread about the opportunity and neighbors witnessed partnerships among economically diverse peoples. Soon, what had started as a shared hope between two strangers was borne out within a community.

More than 11,000 students educated annually at Congregation-sponsored schools

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High School still investing in community

Today, the afternoon literacy program operates completely through support from enrolled students’ families. From the monthly tuition fees, 2% is allocated to running the afternoon school—an arrangement started decades ago. The designated funds provide for much-needed supplies but also five dedicated instructors. Grade 10 students also contribute notebooks and other supplies to the program upon graduation.

“The main aim of having this system is to raise awareness among the enrolled students that they need to think of the less privileged students and do something for them,” says Headmistress Sister Kolpona Costa, CSC. The fact that enrolled and afternoon students use the same facilities also reinforces “that they all have the right to education and a good environment for their studies.”

The afternoon curriculum includes reading, writing and math.

The afternoon curriculum includes reading, writing and math.

Commitment to education

Sister Kolpona and her predecessor, Sister Rani Catherine Gomes, CSC, oversee the literacy program, which currently serves around 160 students in grades one through five. But not long ago, that number was as high as 400, Sister Kolpona says. Attendance dropped when COVID-19 put many people out of work, forcing them to seek employment in nearby villages.

“they [students] all have the right to education and a good environment for their studies.”

—Sister Kolpona Costa, CSC

The literacy program provides education for first through fifth graders who can’t attend school during the regular school day. Many hold down jobs to help support their families.

The literacy program provides education for first through fifth graders who can’t attend school during the regular school day. Many hold down jobs to help support their families.

Whatever the number, the intent is to keep this long-standing ministry going. “The students gain a lot from this education,” Sister Kolpona says, “and learn many skills for life.” After the fifth grade, the students move on to public schools, where they complete their compulsory education through grade eight. Where they go from there is up to them. Some pursue vocational or technical training, while others continue their secondary schooling for two more years.

A grand vision

In 2022, notes, Sister Kolpona, 15 students—seven girls and eight boys who went through the afternoon program—earned a Secondary School Certificate. “This certificate has special value for getting a good job,” she says. It also paves the way for admittance into colleges (high schools) and universities.

Confident in the afternoon program and inspired by the history of student success, Sister Kolpona has her sights set on a new goal—a scholarship program for their most advanced students. It seems more than possible given what led Sister Margaret to take on that first group of bright, young scholars: “love of children and hope for the world.”

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This story also appeared in the 2023 Annual Giving Report. To receive the report or inSpirit magazine, use the button below and fill out our online request form. You can also sign up to receive the online newsletter from the Congregation’s Development Office.