This year as Esol Education celebrates 45 years, the organization’s story is very much the story of its founder, Chairman and Superintendent, Mr. Walid Abushakra. For the STRIDES anniversary issue, we asked him to reflect on his journey and achievements, and his inspiration for continuous progress.
At age 85, Mr. Walid Abushakra is intensely passionate about his schools, which have grown to a network of 11 institutions. Despite his status as award-winning educator, he has no time to rest on his laurels. Dividing his days between Cairo, Dubai, Bahrain, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Lebanon and the United States, he continues to work urgently, late into the night, whether evaluating new project invitations from governments or the private sector, advising his team, or working on refining a small detail he may have noticed at a school campus. Whatever task occupies his present focus, it is always geared towards offering a better educational experience both to his beloved students as well as Esol schools’ host countries.
For one, the ongoing world pandemic only strengthened his conviction that distance learning is the way forward, leading to the launch of The Academy, an online study track at American International School in Egypt (AISE), in record time. “The human race cannot afford to forever keep teaching students in classrooms. You can imagine the cost of roads and freeways for everybody to start school at the same time and get dismissed at the same time! In distance learning, you save so much in the road system, just as one of the economic advantages,” says Mr. Abushakra. Now entering its second academic year in 2022, The Academy at AIS Egypt offers an accredited American program that uses cutting-edge AI technology, paired with 1:1 mentorship and a globally connected campus, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), with dual university credits for High School students. “Eventually, I believe distance learning is going to prevail, it is the system of the future, and when mastered, it will be wonderful,” he adds.
If I were to live my life again I wouldn't change a thing. I love education.
With collaborations with universities such as ASU, as well as longstanding relationships such as that with California State University Northridge (CSUN), foraying into higher education has long been an ambition for Mr. Abushakra. When asked why, he smiles and remarks with characteristic simplicity, “I’ll be frank. I believe we can do it better!” He sees that there is a clear gap that can be fulfilled with the organization’s capabilities, with its unique understanding of international K-12 education, and what its students need to be successful and to contribute positively to their home countries. This wide breadth of experience, and deep insight into the needs of students, has led to meaningful opportunities to create real impact. Three years ago, Mr. Abushakra, upon invitation from a country he loves, was attracted to partner in American School of Bahrain, and subsequently, in The American University of Bahrain. The CSUN association was then cemented into a partnership with The American University of Bahrain (AUBH), in which Esol Education also acquired a strategic stake, working to support the university’s future development.
Throughout the years, Mr. Abushakra’s and, by extension, Esol Education’s unwavering belief in the value of an international and American education has driven the organization’s growth towards being the largest operator of high quality international American schools in the world. The first step was understanding the need to level the playing field for the people of the Middle Eastern region on the world stage, and education was the key. As a 19-year-old teacher in Lebanon, Mr. Abushakra saw that in order to pursue progress, the country’s education system needed to be vastly improved, “I thought that a Mathematics program was the basis for progress, and the strength of the Mathematics programs in Lebanon have today proved to be handy for technological developments.” At the invitation of the then Director General of the Ministry of Education, a call to fulfill “a national duty,” Mr. Abushakra co-authored a series of twelve High School Mathematics textbooks, after completing five for the lower grades. His work introduced the discipline of modern Mathematics in Lebanon, and has had a lasting influence on the country’s education system. Years later in Cairo, while setting up AISE’s first campus for his students fleeing the occupation of Kuwait, one of his goals was to also raise the standards of English language instruction for the people of Egypt.
In the meanwhile, as a young educator teaching within the framework of the Lebanese and British curricula, Mr. Abushakra was also exposed to, and recognized the benefits of, the fledgling International Baccalaureate (IB) program early on. “I loved the International Baccalaureate (IB)! I was with them when they were at the experimental stage,” he shares. He subsequently went on to introduce it in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Cyprus.
The need to teach students critical thinking and analysis also drove the quick adoption of the American standards of teaching, that lend themselves particularly well to the inquiry-based learning approach that forms the basis of the IB program. Esol Education, today has worked with the Office of Overseas Schools at the US Department of State for a number of years, offering its AERO (American Education Reaches Out) Common Core Plus program at Esol schools. Mr. Abushakra states it simply, “I believe in American education because the students are trained to think and analyze so they can cope better with new problems. At this point in time, the mass of knowledge is doubled every six months, making it impossible to memorize. We have to be able to analyze to survive and our graduates are very successful because they are trained that way. Now I think we are ready for the future.”
Esol Education’s growth over the years has always been measured and deliberate, despite the many invitations and offers Mr. Abushakra receives to establish new schools. His stance is clear, “I have never wanted to build a huge chain of schools where we own the campuses and all the money goes into real estate. I wanted the investment to go into educating children. And whenever we admit a student we do our maximum best to do the best for that student and in fact, we are very proud of our graduates, and you find them going to top universities in the world.” He attributes this also, in no small measure, to Esol’s ability to attract the best teaching talent around the globe. “Without good teachers there is no way a school will succeed so, of course, my first goal is to get the best. And better than that, longevity is important, so they have to be challenged and satisfied. Longevity at our schools is amazing and many who leave do return later. With good teachers it becomes easier to provide a better education - the kind of education that our children deserve.”
Having dedicated his entire life to education, Mr. Abushakra is fundamentally still a teacher at heart. “There is nothing more exciting to me than seeing the spark in the eye of a student when he or she understands a concept, especially in mathematics,” he shares humbly. “That is most rewarding for me. I feel that I have impacted the future of a child in a very positive way and that's my mission and my duty. My duty is to help the child think and succeed and so far, I have been very successful, thank God.” His advice to parents is to focus on giving their children the gift of a good education, and encouraging them to be lifelong learners, applying critical thinking to all situations, and facing new challenges with resilience and adaptability. “A good education is educating students with the skills to think and to appreciate fairness and honesty so that we improve the world. If everybody is honest and knowledgeable we'll have no problems!” It is this earnest belief, and deep passion that education can truly make a positive change in the world, that has been the driving force behind Mr. Abushakra’s life’s work, “I have worked hard, and I have done almost everything in education. If I had to live my life again, I wouldn’t change a thing, I love education.”