Yekaterina Geldimuradova, a former school teacher in Turkmenistan, was eager to improve the existing education system’s approach to child development. "The conventional system fosters conformist behavior, where children are expected to simply do as they are told, without enough opportunities for self-expression and creativity," says Yekaterina. "This can result in a lack of self-awareness and boundary-setting skills and can even make them feel unimportant." In response to this problem, Yekaterina launched the first Montessori-based education center in Turkmenistan, Perzent Bilim Merkezi (“Children’s Education Center”).
Yekaterina admits she had been nurturing the idea of launching a Montessori center for a long time, but it was too expensive. It was only when she found partners who shared her interest in Montessori methodology that her hope came closer to reality. Even then, she hesitated moving forward. “I felt I lacked the social entrepreneurship skills necessary to further develop the project,” Yekaterina says. Fortunately, while scrolling through social media one day, Yekaterina came across a targeted ad for the Central Asia Youth Leadership Academy (CAYLA), a program funded by USAID's Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) program. She knew that this was her chance to realize her dream.
Through CAYLA, Yekaterina received training in project management, mobile videography, Agile thinking, effective communications, web design, and public speaking. All of the courses later proved, in Yekaterina’s own words, “essential” as she began designing her business plan. Additionally, through CAYLA, Yekaterina gained experience in running social projects as an intern at Yenme Public Foundation. Yekaterina says the practical and theoretical knowledge she acquired through CAYLA has been invaluable in effectively launching Perzent.
When asked why she chose to champion the Montessori method, Yekaterina emphasizes the democratic and holistic approach that it prioritizes. “The Montessori educational method is rooted in the scientific research and practical experience of Maria Montessori, a pioneering figure in children’s development. It fosters independence and love for learning by allowing children to work at their own pace and choose their activities,” she explains. “Even more importantly, the approach promotes all-around development, not just academic progress. It teaches parents and caregivers to listen to the child and acknowledge their needs.”
Yekaterina confesses her initiative was “slow to gain followers” at the start. The idea that a three-year-old can have their own opinion—and that parents should take that opinion seriously—bewildered and even “outraged” some of the parents. “Like any other new approach, it breaks the mold and inadvertently generates backlash, especially from those [parents] who believe children should obey their elders. But I was ready [for that] because I knew the method was new for many parents in Turkmenistan,” she notes.
Currently, Perzent is designed for 250 couples and their children aged three to six. In the future the team plans to establish inclusive groups for children who require specific accommodations. As “an especially vulnerable group,” these children “really need Montessori groups,” Yekaterina says, as they can be subject to bullying. In three years, the team plans to establish inclusive groups with children with disabilities comprising at least 20 percent of enrollment.
Maya is the mother of a child that has attended Perzent since its launch. “I feel grateful for stumbling upon [the center], as it has given me an absolutely different perspective on my child's development process,” she says. “Previously, I would feel irritated seeing my 3-year-old drumming loudly or climbing everywhere he wanted. Now I consider this his inherent need to explore the world and express curiosity, and I want to support him channeling his energy in a positive way.”
Yekaterina highlights the importance of CAYLA in readying her to launch Perzent and forming a vision for her future. "CAYLA was instrumental in realizing my dream to bring a child-oriented approach into informal education, and I am grateful to CAYLA for helping me foster my vision of the business,” she says. “The children of today are our future tomorrow, and I believe we should waste no time sowing the best seeds for our kids’ future.”
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