At AIC we are always looking for amazing opportunities to help us expand our students' academic horizons, which is why we took note when we first heard about the prestigious new Avasara Academy, which opens this year and combines the internationally-recognized Cambridge syllabus with unique mentorship opportunities, extracurricular development, and a partnership with Yale University to "develop the leadership potential of India's brightest girls."
Naturally, when we were invited to send our most accomplished 6th and 7th graders to interview as a part of the application process for Avasara, we jumped at the chance. In April, five of our rockstar girls went for a rigorous round of interviews - written tests, group discussions, parent interviews, etc - and we all held our breath with anticipation to hear the results.
We were elated - but not surprised; after all, we're pretty proud of our girls and knew that they would do well! - to learn that three of our five students were selected for the pioneer class of students at Avasara Academy. One of these girls, Saniya, was one of the first 12 girls in AIC's Education Program at the time of its inception in 2006. Her mother brought her to AIC in July 2006 with a gaping foot injury from being hit by a rickshaw and undiagnosed epilepsy, seeking medical help and assistance with school enrollment. At the time, Saniya was 3, and the youngest of her parents' three girls. Her father was a severe alcoholic, and the family of five lived in a tiny hut in a dangerous slum area, next door to an illegal distillery that reeked of alcohol and was frequented by the area's rowdiest drunks.
Saniya and her two older sisters, Hema and Nandini, quickly began to shine in AIC's new Education Outreach Program. In 2008, when the decision was made to initiate a pilot project to test the waters of English-medium education at AIC, Saniya was one of the three students selected to enroll in a private English-medium nursery school. She then went on to secure admission at a prestigious English-medium primary school nearby, and eventually graduated to secondary school. Meanwhile, her sisters continued to advance in school as well and are now in AIC's college program, while her father quit drinking in 2006 and has been sober ever since. With the additional income from Saniya's father, whose sobriety now allows him to hold down a job, the entire family was able to make the move into a small house in a safer neighborhood several years ago.
The fact that this opportunity has been extended to Saniya and AIC's two other selected students, Payal and Neha, embodies everything that we stand for at AIC: the belief that all students have the potential to benefit from world-class opportunities; the refusal to curtail our dreams for our students because of poverty and other challenges that they face at home; and the focus on each child's individual talents and goals, within the larger framework of overall community upliftment and empowerment.
We are thrilled to be playing a small part in the Avasara vision and are so excited for our girls as they begin this new educational journey. Their reaching this point couldn't have happened without immeasurable donor support and numerous helping hands, and we look forward to continuing to share updates about them as they spread their wings. Thank you for playing a part in their journey!
College can be tough. Being the first member of your family to attend college can be even tougher, especially when you come from an underprivileged background like the children in AIC’s impact communities.
Recently, we sat down with several of the students in our AIC college program to see how they were settling into their new experiences. Talking with them emphasized one resounding point: the kids miss the personal touch of an AIC education that they haven’t found at college. Pooja struggles with the lack of structure, specifically having no one to guide her on how and what to study. When engaging in impersonal interactions with his college teachers, Rahul (Waghri) laments, “I miss the concern and discipline the staff of AIC provided.” Not only do they feel a lack of guidance academically, but also socially. As with many of our students, Umesh comes from a traditional background where boys and girls do not mingle, so college was a shock for him, and it took him a while to feel comfortable communicating with his peers.
The hurdles they face are not surprising due to the fact that no one in their families has attended college (or in some cases, school at all), and therefore cannot provide guidance and advice to help them overcome their disadvantages. Starting a new educational experience in a new place full of seemingly confident strangers is difficult everywhere. Luckily, these students have AIC on their side. The nurturing environment provided by AIC is due in large part to a passionate, skilled support team, headed by directors, Bunty and MK, college counselor, Greeshma, resident counselors, Suchitra and Madhavi, and many others who have supported these students up to this point and continue to guide and mentor them as they spread their wings and learn to fly. Greeshma, in particular, has dedicated herself to the college program and continues to serve as an adviser from whom the college students seek frequent guidance. “Knowing the kids face so many challenges, it’s nice being able to provide any comfort of relief,” she says. “Makes it worthwhile!”
To further bolster the post-education prospects of our college students, AIC has collaborated with multinational gaming company, Ubisoft, to offer job skills and mentoring, and hopes to add additional companies, organizations, and individuals to participate in a more formalized mentoring project in the coming months. Exposure to the different departments in a company and workshops on future goal planning has helped them to begin exploring more options for their future career endeavors.
In spite of the challenges, AIC’s college kids are enjoying learning new things, both through their studies and about themselves. “College is the only place where I feel free and happy,” expresses Neha, who is currently focusing on preparing for her 12th standard exam in the hopes that her parents will allow her to continue to pursue her dream of working with computers. Rahul (Wagheshri), who hopes to work in the service sector, has become more responsible towards his family and about his future. For Rahul (Waghri), an awareness of his strengths and weaknesses has helped him work on improving himself, particularly his communication skills. Umesh, who explained, “I didn’t know how to talk to people in college, hence would keep quiet all the time,” now feels that the adversity he faced has made him more confident.
It is achievements and triumphs like these that reinforce our belief that we are on an exciting path with the college program. Although still in its infancy, the college program is growing as more and more AIC students graduate from high school with each passing year. We are honored to be able to continue to support these trail-blazing young men and women as they become the next generation of leaders within their communities.
One might imagine that sending a child to school would be a relative easy affair - provide a uniform, pay annual school fees, purchase some pencils and notebooks - sounds doable, right?
However, the factors that affect this child's success (or lack thereof) at school are much deeper and more complicated than that. Problems at home are often the root cause of poor academic performance, behavioral issues, and inconsistent attendance. Ensuring the health and welfare of families is a crucial aspect of providing educational opportunities for AIC's students and we don’t have to search very far to witness the impact of this approach—we see it every day in students like Divya (name changed).
By all accounts, Divya is a sweet and fun-loving little girl. She loves studying English, excels in sports, and never misses an opportunity to participate in any shenanigans happening at the AIC Center. Her cheerfulness is so infectious that you wouldn’t imagine that she had been struggling to stay afloat at school until recently.
Divya and her four siblings live with their parents in one of the many make-shift housing structures in the slum made from corrugated metal and fabric. During monsoon season, unsealed, leaky roofs on these shelters lead to dangerously unsanitary conditions and a variety of health problems for the families that inhabit them.
In Divya’s case, the roof was not just leaky, it was completely porous, made from layers of fabric stitched together and stretched over the metal sides of the building. Divya explained that during the rains, so much water would come in that her family would wake up during the night to change their clothes, but it didn’t help much because the dry clothes would be soaked through by the morning. Possessions, including the children’s books and school supplies, were frequently ruined. Things weren’t much better during the winter season when Divya’s family huddled together to keep warm, with no protection from cold nighttime temperatures. Night after night of sleeplessness caused by poor protection from the elements began to take its toll on Divya's school performance and her teachers were deeply troubled by her tendency to fall asleep in class and resulting patterns of disruptive and defiant behavior.
This monsoon season, AIC staff provided Divya's family with a microloan to buy materials to fix the roof of their home. AIC has also taken an active role to provide counseling services and hands-on support for the family to help them improve their economic conditions and continue building healthy relationships with one another. Divya says that since AIC extended this support, the whole family is able to get a good night's sleep, everyone is in better spirits, and arguments between her parents are much less frequent.
Today, Divya is a wonderfully silly and vibrant 10 year old. She has shown significant improvement in her studies and aspires to become a teacher after college. This school year, we discovered something new about Divya—she is a gifted athlete. This term, she began participating in an afterschool P.E. program at the AIC Center, and her talent and enthusiasm shone through so brightly that the coach remarked that she could be an Olympic athlete one day. True or not, Divya is more focused on playing kho kho (a tag game) and kabbadi (a rugby-type game) with her friends than training for a gold medal.
But who knows—maybe one day.
It’s no secret that active parental involvement in a child’s education enriches the learning experience. This year, one of our big focuses in the Education Outreach Program is to provide more opportunities for parents to partner with us and to concentrate on creating deeper, working relationships that ultimately set a standard of solidarity on which children can rely for support and encouragement in school.
Spearheading our efforts this year is Barnali Bhaduri, head teacher of our pre-primary department, who believes that “parent power and positive involvement in [the] school environment” plays an important role in the success of students. The school year began with a parent-teacher meeting that established the importance of mutual communication, students ‘attendance, general hygiene, and the school’s rules. According to Barnali, the meeting “gave them the idea of [an] inclusive school culture where their concerns [can] be equally respected and heard” and has resulted in such “great rapport with them that they make it a point to call up or personally inform [us] if there is any problem”.
Historically in the family networks of most of the children in the program, it has been (and continues to be) difficult for parents to become involved at the school due to work hours. The majority of parents are daily wage earners whose days offer little flexibility, and cannot leave work to attend school functions or help as much as they’d like at home due to other responsibilities. Keeping these challenges in mind, Barnali has been working with the parents to organize activities that are as mutually convenient as possible, to give them a chance to enjoy the experience of learning with their kids once every two months.
During the holiday of Rakshan Bandan on August 12th, a day that is usually dedicated to the declaration of commitment between brothers and sisters, Barnali organized the center’s first ever parent-student activity event with the help of the other teachers and administration, which gathered almost 90% of parents and their children! Pre-primary teachers Shital, Shampa, and Vaisali oversaw experiential learning and craft activities that helped parents to understand the daily learning process that occurs in the Ashraya classroom, and event aides Sonal, Shobha, and Rekha flitted from room to room, helping where needed. At the end of the event, parents, teachers, and students each made a symbolic commitment to their partnerships in education by tying rakhis, red bracelets, around each other’s right wrists.
Reflecting on the event, Barnali shared that in her conversations with parents that “some of them admitted that this was the first kind of event in their life when they were so relaxed and enjoying the moment. We know what economical and mental trauma they undergo in day-to-day life so this event was like fresh air for them. Their smiles, their joy during the activity, parents interacting with each other, getting friendly…countless achievements were there during the event.” She continues to say that by involving parents in these learning experiences with their kids at the school, “they begin to see why their kids love to come to school and why they should be in school and how learning can be great fun”.
It is an overall aspiration that organizing events like this one will encourage parents to place a greater emphasis on the importance of their children attending school consistently and for more years than they may traditionally have in the past. By seeing the value that school adds to their children’s lives, parents can make these small incremental changes that will, over time, make a real, positive impact on their community.
We owe much gratitude to Barnali Bhaduri for her initiative, teachers Shital, Shampa, and Vaisali for overseeing classroom activities, aides Sonal, Shobha, and Rekha for their assistance during the event, Bunty Pai and Mary Kay Hazel for their support, and Vidya for organizing all the resources needed for the event. Thank you all for your hard work to make events like this possible!
As the school year came to a close last month, the AIC Pre-Primary School children were treated to a field trip at Pune's historic Empress Gardens to celebrate the hard work of all of our students and teachers this year. The children were thrilled to have an opportunity to trade the crowded, slum environment of urban Yerwada for the lush, green landscapes of the so-called "Jewel of Pune." On the morning of the outing, they were so excited that they even began lining up at the AIC Education Outreach Centre several hours before the bus was scheduled to depart!
Following a bus ride that can only be described as "rousing" (lots of singing, nursery rhymes, bouncing up and down in seats!), the children could barely contain their excitement as Bunty didi sorted out tickets and they were allowed to walk through the entrance gates. Once in the garden, the teachers and caregivers divided up the children and let them loose on the playground, where they spent the next hour enjoying slides, swings, balance bars, climbing ropes, and merry-go-rounds.
When the mid-day sun started to get hot, the children tromped through the stream that flows through the garden, cooling off briefly before taking rides on the miniature train that runs through the sprawling lawns. Judging by the kids' delighted shrieks as the train rounded each corner, this ride was definitely among their favorite parts of the trip!
Finally, the time came for a picnic lunch! The children and staff settled in under the trees and unpacked a special lunch of idlis, coconut chutney, chips, and juice boxes. Everyone had certainly worked up quite an appetite by this point, and the children polished off the food in no time.
Eventually, the time had come for AIC teachers and caregivers to herd the children back to the buses so that everyone could head back to the Education Centre. Since the picnic, the children have been talking non-stop about this fun-filled excursion to one of Pune's most beautiful historical sites and the memories they made on this day. Since most of these children rarely leave the streets and slums, we at AIC look for every opportunity to provide exposure to other environments and experiences. We greatly appreciate the support of our donors in making this field trip possible for AIC's youngest and most impressionable pupils and would also like to convey our gratitude to Sapling Nursery (http://www.saplingnursery.org/) for so generously donating the use of their buses to transport the AIC children to and from the gardens. Thank you!
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