Vidya Gyan (Vidya = education and Gyan = knowledge) believes that 'Every Child Matters' and s/he has the potential to excel given appropriate opportunities, environment, and learning tools. Accordingly, Vidya Gyan's mission includes education, health, and overall development of children, with due emphasis on girls. Vidya Gyan prides itself working with the government primary schools in rural India. What follows is a summary of why and what initiatives are underway for improving learning environment. Why Government Primary Schools? Every village in India has a primary school (grades 1-5) which serves the foundation education needs of the most under-served children. Even today, man... read more Vidya Gyan (Vidya = education and Gyan = knowledge) believes that 'Every Child Matters' and s/he has the potential to excel given appropriate opportunities, environment, and learning tools. Accordingly, Vidya Gyan's mission includes education, health, and overall development of children, with due emphasis on girls. Vidya Gyan prides itself working with the government primary schools in rural India. What follows is a summary of why and what initiatives are underway for improving learning environment. Why Government Primary Schools? Every village in India has a primary school (grades 1-5) which serves the foundation education needs of the most under-served children. Even today, many poorly educated parents with economically disadvantaged background do not fully appreciate the importance of education. About 4 years ago, when Vidya Gyan started, the schools were often in dilapidated state and poorly cared for/managed. Fortunately, it is continually changing for the better. Generally, the teachers are qualified and well compensated but many lack motivation and commitment due to seriously deficient accountability measures. It is not uncommon that children miss classes frequently; schools are understaffed, the unaccounted absenteeism of teachers and/or teachers often called upon to do other government mandated tasks making education a lower priority. Thus, the government schools have the reputation of offering poor quality education which is true at least in part. An unspoken truth about most things labelled "government" are neither valued nor cared for by the community at large and thus people hardly take ownership in the schools. Vidya Gyan's initiatives under the broad umbrella of PROMOTING EDUCATION AND EMPOWERMENT IN RURAL AREAS (PEER) are aimed at building pride and restoring ownership in the schools. ADOPT A SCHOOL: Changing the school culture has many facets- improved writing and reading and creating an overall environment that is conducive to learning. Under this initiative, we nurtured a smart partnership with the Pradhan (the elected head of the village) to provide classroom furniture with shared financial commitment and transform environment. The effectiveness of this initiative is summarized by the children themselves: I like sitting on the furniture; never liked sitting on the floor. My writing has improved. Can put books and notebooks on the table for reading and writing. Other children cannot kick me. Don't have to remove shoes. Have a place to store my bag. Feel as if I am in a private school. Come to school every day since we have the classroom furniture. Enjoy reading more than before. Classroom looks beautiful with furniture. While, happiness is the state of mind, the small gestures are already resulting in positive attitude for about 1500 under-served children in 20 schools in rural areas The Partnership has broader impacts such as secured entry door, painted schools, toilets, and other repairs. The project is making Pradhan think about the school in their community, and the plain and simple spirit of competitiveness among neighbors is beginning to take root. If the 'small gesture' of furnishing classrooms is transforming to include motivation, improved learning, engagement, and empowerment, what is it if not a 'big impact?' This year, we are asking schools to promote the slogan: Our School Our Pride to engage all stakeholders. LIBRARY FOR LEARNING: The books are our best friends yet most children in rural schools have access to only the curriculum books given by the government. Therefore, Vidya Gyan decided to develop small libraries- a steel cabinet as part of the classroom furniture and initially a set of about 100 children story books in Hindi and English (chosen by the teachers). Our expectation is that teachers take children from each grade to the library at least once a week and let them touch, feel, read, and/or borrow the books. They will begin to enjoy reading eventually. We developed libraries in 15 schools in the initial phase in 2018. More books will be added in 2019. PENCIL TO POWER: Simply put, this initiative is to empower children through writing which fewer are doing in the rural schools because they don't have notebooks and pencil. Therefore, we distributed tens of thousands of notebooks, pencils, and erasers, the most basic needs for writing, in 2017 and 2018. We reached ~40 schools and as many as 5000 students. The notebooks for 2019 are already designed and special ordered for Vidya Gyan to be distributed in July. We have asked teachers to reserve one notebook in grades 3-5 for students to write short stories, essays, poems about the national holidays, festivals, prominent public figures, etc., and make sketches. It is making the difference as planned and teachers routinely share student work via Whats App. Bridging the Cultural Gap: In January 2019, we engaged a primary school in our neighborhood to focus on handwriting for completely different reasons. The technology in the U.S. has become so pervasive that the children are engaged in the social media and using the keyboard with very little writing by hand. At our request, the 5th graders wrote an introductory letter to their (unknown) counterparts in India and asked what they were curious about. These letters were physically taken and shared with children in several Indian schools. We have the letters from Indian children, both in Hindi and English, to be shared with students in the local school. Clearly, the letters in Hindi will be the first introduction to the new language and its characters which we will translate. We will further assess the project viability as a bridge to promote better cultural understanding among children in both countries. We hope, this to be an interesting and curious learning experience about people, customs and culture 10,000 miles apart. SAVINGS TO SECURE: This initiative, only for girls under 10 years of age, is aimed at providing them some level of financial security while encouraging continued education. Vidya Gyan coaches and offers incentive to parents to participate in a special saving account yielding an interest of ~8%, at present. The parents can open this account for their daughter with as little as Rs. 250 (~$4) which is supplemented by Vidya Gyan, initially for five years, to financially secure their daughter's future within their personal financial means. It is a partnership with parents. We are thankful to teachers for serving as anchors and explaining parents about the benefits of this account. The most valuable features of the account include (a) Money belongs to the daughter (b) She can withdraw one half of the funds for education or for her own marriage when she is 18. Thus, the saving account offers opportunity to continue education and is a call not to marry girls as young as 13-14 years, not uncommon in rural settings even today. The accounts are opened in the post offices, backed by the government. Vidya Gyan has helped start about 800 such accounts some of which have as much as Rs. 15,000 (>$ 200) in 3 years, a respectable saving in the name of the daughter. This initiative is certainly transforming the thought process and empowering girls. COMPETITIVE ACTIVITIES: In a Memorandum of Understanding with the District administration,Vidya Gyan has committed to sponsoring competitive activities across government schools.The activities may include, Spelling bee, General Knowledge bowl, Posters/drawings, Mathcount, Geographun, Science Olympiad, Social Studies, Writing, etc. While the full implementation details are still being worked out, we have seen examples of such activities in some of the schools in Vidya Gyan network.
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