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 in 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!
“The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” - Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
She was standing near the flag pole, dressed in her gray salwar kameez uniform. Her eyes, shining with the pride of achievement, visible even from a distance, constantly flitted in a particular direction, as if seeking some sort of reassurance. I followed her gaze and saw a middle aged couple - her parents, I guessed. She was Suman Waghri, a 14-year old student of the AIC Education Outreach Program and the Chief Guest of our Republic Day function at Ashraya. She had been given this honour for her consistently good academic performance at her school for the past 3 years; a feat even more laudable due to the fact that her parents would rather she did things “women are supposed to do.” Despite these hurdles, this 6th standard student staunchly ploughed on, determined to show her parents what sheer willpower and dedication can achieve.
After the function I had a tête-à-tête with Suman, where she talked about her life, hobbies and what motivates her. A student of Agarkar Girls' High School, Suman’s day usually starts with a steaming hot breakfast at the AIC Education Outreach Centre, after which she and her friends are dropped at the school by one of the AIC drivers. She returns to the Education Centre, has her lunch and then starts with her tuition classes which go on till 3, sometimes 4 in the afternoon. After that, she heads home to help her mother with various household chores. With a flair for singing and oration, she also enjoys sketching and dancing, and takes classical dancing lessons at the AIC Education Centre. A girl with a lot of energy and passion indeed! Her zeal was visible in the multiple performances she gave at the Republic Day function that day. Even at school she radiates the same enthusiasm, as the monitor of the class and every teacher’s favourite student (nothing surprising there!). Her favourite teachers at AIC include Ms. Vaishali, the dance and drama coordinator, and Ms. Shweta, an engaging, young teacher who helps her with her academics.
Apart from her parents, Suman has 5 sisters and 2 brothers in her family. Her parents sell old clothes for a living and have a difficult time making ends meet. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising for parents to discourage their daughters from going to school, as the sons are given preference. Even when parents like Suman's do want their children to be educated, there’s the question of funds. AIC, in such situations, acts like a last beacon of hope.
Talking about Ashraya, she said that it has really changed her life, “I enrolled here in the 1st standard and I absolutely love it! Everyone is very supportive, especially MK Didi. My life is so much easier thanks to Ashraya. We get a lot of facilities which earlier we could only dream of,” she said. Talking about her school performance, she said, “I was ranked 1st in class I, II, III, V & VI & stood 2nd in Class IV. But what makes me really happy is that a lot of parents in our slum have enrolled their children in school after seeing me do it. I like that.” She finishes with a genuine note of happiness in her voice. When asked about her plans for the future, Suman is surprisingly clear headed, “Right now, I want to finish schooling and go to college. Someday, I want to work in the finance sector.” A very appropriate goal, considering that the young accountant is already helping her parents keep stock of their tradeable goods!
When asked about where her parents stand on her education, she says her mother has been supportive throughout and even takes pride in the fact that her daughter is doing so well. It’s her father who is opposed to it. That was the reason behind inviting both her parents to watch their daughter hoist the flag as the Chief Guest. “Maybe that would get my papa to realize how important this is to me, when he sees it with his own eyes," she says smilingly with hope in her eyes. Interestingly, it wasn’t her parents who enrolled her, but her bua (father’s sister). “She was enrolling her daughter and wanted someone to be there to look after her. My parents came to know when the entire deed was done. She (bua) took me to the school during the daytime when my parents were out selling. And that’s how it all started.”
Suman's parents were there on Republic Day when she received the special prize from AIC Director of Education Development, Mary Kay Hazel, for her academic performance. Her father at this point stood up and came to where Suman was to stand beside her in front of the audience. Looking at the pride in the eyes of a visibly touched father, I felt hope that Suman would be successful in breaking through this brick wall and all the others that will attempt to stand in her path as she works to achieve her dreams.
Devendra and Ranjana have been two of AIC's students since not long after the Education Outreach Program's inception. They are the oldest two of their parents' four children; Ranjana is 14 and Devendra is 18. Both are still in primary school.
For years, Ranjana and Devendra were shuffled through the mainstream Indian government school system, held back in the same class year after year, because with IQs in the low 40s, their intellectual handicaps make it impossible for them to keep up with their classmates. After the Right To Education (RTE) Act was implemented in 2009, including the mandate that no student be held back or expelled until the completion of elementary education, the schools had no choice but to promote them, yet as their peers learned to write compositions and add fractions, Ranjana and Devendra struggled to write letters and numbers and were generally ignored by indifferent government school teachers. Although they loved attending tuition classes at AIC, had excellent attendance, and participated enthusiastically in activities and extracurricular opportunities, it was clear that they were falling through the cracks in a 'mainstream' school.
For several years, we at AIC have attempted to convince Ranjana and Devendra's parents to allow us to enroll them in a specialized school, so that their needs could be addressed more comprehensively, but fear, prejudice and community misperceptions always stood in the way and their parents refused to grant permission. This year, however, a dedicated AIC volunteer, Rinku, took it upon herself to get Devendra and Ranjana enrolled into a more appropriate educational institution, no matter what it took. After many hours of hard work, including tours of schools, phone calls, counseling Ranjana and Devendra's parents, and running around to line everything up, Ranjana and Devendra were successfully enrolled in Kamayani School for the Mentally Handicapped in June.
Since then, they have truly blossomed at their new school. In the last couple months, Ranjana and Devendra have earned certificates of achievement in maths, handwriting, and class participation, and Devendra was even featured in the local newspaper recently!
Their parents, initially fearful of sending their two eldest children to a school for students with special needs, have seen the transformation since June and are thrilled that they have adapted well and are finally receiving the educational services that they deserve. Ranjana and Devendra are still familiar sights around the Education Outreach Centre, of course, and everyone at AIC is tremendously proud of their progress in these last few months!
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