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Corporates can play a valuable role in bringing quality education to the much-neglected municipal schools

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

- Cesar Chavez, American labour leader and civil rights activist

Poor students in the much-neglected municipal schools in the country can benefit enormously through a meaningful public-private partnership. The Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation has demonstrated how municipal schools can be transformed dramatically with a higher level of confidence and self-esteem in its staff and students. Ritu Goyal Harish reports.

Empowerment through education is a vision that is dear to many. One person who has shared this vision passionately is the former chairperson of Thermax Ltd., Anu Aga. A member of Parliament and the National Advisory Council, Aga has always supported the cause of education for the poor through NGOs such as Akanksha and the Teach For India (TFI) fellowships.

In 2007, after the Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation (TSIF) was established and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities of the company formalized, Aga decided that Thermax Foundation would involve itself in educational endeavours. The foundation decided to run schools for the underprivileged.

Instead of constructing and building a school of its own (which was proving to be a challenge given Pune’s exorbitant real estate), the foundation decided to adopt a few municipal schools and bring quality education to the students of these schools.

In 2007, the foundation signed a formal 30 year MoU with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and the School Board and adopted K C Thackeray Vidya Niketan as its first school.

Supported by the well-known NGO Akanksha’s teacher’s training and skill-based curriculum, the government bodies continued support to the school in accordance with their rules, providing uniforms, stationery, books etc. Thermax Foundation manages day-to-day running of the school, including hiring teachers and support staff, paying their salaries, undertaking training for them, etc.

By 2009, it had adopted three more municipal schools briskly marching towards their goal of adopting 10 schools including a couple under the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC). With four schools by March 2013, the foundation has already reached out to 1,410 children and the number is growing every year.

Learning as they go

KCT Vidya Niketan was their pilot project and according to M N Sanyal, Manager, Outreach programme, in the intervening years it became clear that they would have to alter their model as they went along.

“Vidya Niketans have only selected bright students from municipal schools of the city. We were getting the children in class III, but we were keen to start teaching them from kindergarden itself” he says.

In 2008, another school was adopted in the Bhawani Peth area of Pune that enrolled children from nearby slums as early as junior KG.

The organization began enrollment of students on first come first served basis, but as the school’s popularity grew, they had to opt for a system of lottery for the limited seats and for the sake of transparency.

“We maintain a 1:30 ratio per class which is why the intake is lower than the number of applicants,” he adds.

While at first Thermax Foundation had opted to undertake the maintenance of the school building as part of their first project, soon they realized it was an arduous task. Thereafter, the maintenance of the school premises remains the responsibility of the governing body.

The Schools

The schools are self-governing bodies that are headed by a leader or principal. Budgetary allocations for staff and other requirements are made by the foundation on an annual basis in a participative process.

This writer recently spent a few hours at the Matoshri English Medium School (MEMS) in Yerawada where Principal Madhavi Gavirineni was in a parent class, an initiative in which interested parents are taught English skills, both spoken and written.

Belief and Confidence are the two major factors that show up through the conversations with the staff, teachers and students of the school.

Samriddhi Lawte of class III was unafraid as she recited the Quwaali taught to them for a school function; Gautam Chavan, expressed his desire to become a policeman with certainty. Shy at first, both students opened up and freely discussed their desires and dreams with a complete stranger.

“Confidence comes from exposure” explains Madhavi. “We give them exposure to everything. The more they get to see, to learn, the more confident they get” she adds.

Learning

Learning cannot be confined to books and extra-curricular alone. Substantial and valuable learning happens in an environment where curiosity is encouraged, where imaginations are allowed to soar, where reprimands are replaced with explanations and where children are exposed to choices.

Suju Samuel who has been a teacher of class I for the past three years says, “We give them clearly defined values and ideals; like respect and dignity. We make our expectations clear and also live our words. Children emulate us and learn.”

Teach for India Fellow Arnab Thokder has been associated with the Matoshri English Medium School for the past one year. A techie with seven years in a leading IT company, Arnab feels the sense of responsibility as he manages to learn on the job. Apart from teaching, he also stimulates the children to play football, martial arts, and other sports.

He believes that many values can be taught through sports. “Sports help build character and team spirit, it is not just for fun” he emphasises. “I am learning a lot from them.”

Similarly Aditya Vaishanpaiyan who teaches Math to class I students feels that he has learned a lot by observing the children. He adopts new techniques to ease the challenges of Math for those afraid of the subject. “What I am getting from them is more than I can give them” he concludes.

Community Driven

The focal point for the Matoshri English Medium School, apart from academics and co-curricular growth of the children, is the involvement of the community to which their students belong. This is done through the parent classes, inviting parents to volunteer for school activities, taking children to field trips within their community and so on.

Jharna Bhowmick who has been with the Matoshri School since it started in 2009 talks about her experience with the community.

“When we first started working here we didn’t know what to expect. We had to understand a lot about the parents – how much time they give to the children, their hygiene habits, medical problems etc.” Madhavi calls the field trips Jharna’s brainchild and also lauds her for turning many ‘thumb impressions’ into signatures i.e. teaching many parents to sign their names.

Jharna reveals how they have had to work with restrictions. For example, one community doesn’t let their women (mothers) come to the school at all. “We have to deal with the fathers only during the parent classes and that is sometimes very tough” she says.

The school also tries its best to hire staff from within the community. Pramod More serves as a watchman to the school but never shies from undertaking extra activities. Born and raised in the area, he avers, “This school has changed the landscape of this locality.”

“We also had a teacher from here but she left after she got married” reveals Madhavi explaining, “We want our helpers to become teachers. That is our long term goal.”

Mumtaz Sheikh, who is a helper at the Matoshri School, is being groomed to take on more responsibilities as the years go by. She not only handles the class during group sessions, but is also adept at handling an entire class as a substitute when a teacher is absent.

Focussing on involving the community has also earned the school goodwill from them. “We have acceptance in the community. Ours is a value-based partnership” says Rahul Lokhande, Administrator of the school who interacts with the members of the community including the corporator.

Reducing dropouts

These children come from all strata of society and the presence of a social worker within the school helps bridge many gaps in communication. Says Shraddha Deshmukh, social worker at the school, “Sometimes children go through something at home that the teachers can understand from a change in their behaviour. I call the parents and talk to them. The teachers and I also make home visits to ensure that we understand the background of the children.”

The teachers and staff also ensure regular follow-up for counseling is undertaken. “Consistency is essential” iterates Madhavi. Such interventions help reduce the number of dropouts admits Sanyal.

Achievements

The foundation’s first school KCT Vidya Niketan won the Best Municipal School Award in 2008. However, it believes that the real accolades lie in the performance of their students.

While monitoring the progress of the academic structure on the children, the foundation found that the children have consistently improved over the past five years. “The caliber of the students is very good. They just need the right environment to grow” says Sanyal.

Challenges

According to Sanyal finding good teachers is a challenge. “Even if they are good, we need to have dedicated programmes to keep training them.” Akanksha is Thermax Foundation’s training partner and offers structured and specifically designed programmes.

Since the model is based on adoption of municipal schools, the organization has to work in tandem with the bureaucracy and government organisations. “It is challenging because they are in transferrable jobs, or in elected positions. Every time there is a change of hands, we have to start from a scratch,” admits Sanyal.

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