Children at one of the community schools in Uttar Pradesh smile for a visitor. The Foundation for the Advancement of Science in Lucknow offers know-how to help teachers and administrators with curriculum and planning.

Children at one of the community schools in Uttar Pradesh smile for a visitor. The Foundation for the Advancement of Science in Lucknow offers know-how to help teachers and administrators with curriculum and planning.

Quiet revolutionaries

June 22, 2008

DASDOI, UTTAR PRADESH, India — At first glance nothing about these eight people would tell you that they are founders of schools.

They come from the unlikeliest of backgrounds. One was a high-school dropout, another a TV mechanic, yet another a village “doctor.”

Nor is it always easy to guess – at first sight anyway – that what they are running are schools. For example, Ram Vilas Pal, the TV mechanic, shares a property with his brother – part of the land is home to a cowshed, the other part home to the school.

What is common to all eight is their passion for social transformation and their conviction that school is the place for this to happen. Indeed, as the soft-spoken Mr. Pal says, in India people often expect this from a school.

“The community and the family depend on the school to create a responsible citizen out of the child,” he said. “When a child is found misbehaving, people ask him, ‘Is this what your teacher teaches you in school?’”

At a time when many young people leave their villages in search of jobs in the cities, these eight – all but two are in their 20s – have chosen to stay back and help mold the next generation. And they are doing it without large investment and without making tall promises to parents.

Most of them set up their community schools by seeking the help of the villagers for land and basic furniture and by employing educated but unemployed rural youth as teachers. In return, they promise to provide good overall education for very modest fee (for a high school student, for example, it might be 50 rupees, or US$1.25, a month).

For the villagers, this is a welcome alternative to the existing state-run schools which charge no fees but where standards are so dismal that, as one parent put it, “you will find eighth-standard children who cannot count from one to 10.”

Today there are eight of these community schools spread out in villages in the Kakori, Banthra, and Kharagpur blocks of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. They are not far from Lucknow, the state capital.

Some of the schools, like Vinod Kumar Yadav’s Glory Public School with 160 students, are doing well. Others, like Mr. Pal’s Nine Point School in Dasdoi with 73 children, are barely breaking even. Still others, like Brajesh Kumar’s Covenant Public School, are in urgent need of help. (For next year, Mr. Kumar plans to move his school to a different location.)

Assistance from FAS

A mathematics class at New Ideal Academy in a village near Lucknow meets in the open air, while students in another class gather at a table under the shelter. Slideshow
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A mathematics class at New Ideal Academy in a village near Lucknow meets in the open air, while students in another class gather at a table under the shelter.

Helping all of them chart their course and stay afloat is the Foundation for the Advancement of Science (FAS), a nongovernmental organization based in Lucknow.

FAS assists the schools by training their teachers, guiding them through difficult times, and even providing salaries for one or two teachers when the going gets tough. It is also preparing a new, innovative curriculum for use in the schools.

It was this foundation – after years of experimentation with setting up rural educational initiatives that were self-sustaining and self-sufficient – that spearheaded the establishment of the community schools.

“We had worked with many tutorial schools in Uttar Pradesh that were externally funded and that eventually failed. This made us realize that the solution had to come from within the village, with the villagers using mainly their own resources,” explains an officer of FAS.

For the community schools, he said, FAS started out by looking for individuals with the motivation, the vision and the willingness to struggle and persevere. Itself an NGO inspired by Baha’i ideals, it did not take the foundation long to find these individuals among the educated but unemployed Baha’i youth in the villages surrounding Lucknow.

The people working at the foundation knew that the young people were going to face an uphill task in setting up the schools, but they also knew from past experience that such a struggle brings with it a sense of ownership. As one of them put it: “Setting up a school in a village is a difficult job that requires both commitment and great effort. When these youth suffer for the school, their resolve is strengthened and their attachment to the school is intensified.”

Parents’ point of view

A man named Sunderlal, sitting outside his hut, is asked why he sends his son – who is beside him playing with a bicycle tire – to Brajesh Kumar’s school. His answer is immediate: “Because children of his school are good and respectful.”

This becomes a common refrain among parents and villagers when asked about the community schools.

In brief

How the schools operate

A common challenge for the schools is to provide classes for all ages with only a handful of teachers.

Ram Vilas Pal explains how he addresses this at his school in Dasdoi:

"Depending on how many students we have in different standards, we put them into groups. For example, we put nursery and kindergarten in one group, students of 1st, 2nd and 3rd in another, 4th and 5th standard students in another, and finally there is a group of high school students.

“Each group has one teacher. The method she follows is to teach a lesson to students of one level while students of other levels in the same group are given class work to do.… Thus we manage by alternating between assigning class work and teaching lessons.”

Also, he says, they try to balance difficult subjects with easy ones. In the group, when some of the students are working with a difficult subject – mathematics, for example – the others are given something easier so that the teacher can devote more attention to the first class.

Mr. Kumar explains why: “Our whole reason for starting these schools was not just to provide better quality of the same thing that is available everywhere but also to give something new and much-needed in the form of moral education.”

All the schools use a curriculum developed by the international Baha’i community for the moral education of children and young adolescents.

Mr. Kumar, who holds a master’s degree in education that presumably could guarantee him a comfortable job in the city, says: “I could have done many other things that would give me more money and involved less effort. But here I am doing something not for myself but for the village as a whole by bringing about moral, social, economic, and intellectual change.”

The community schools are faced with the same social problems that plague rural India, chief among them the caste system and discrimination against the girl child.

C. Bhagwandin, a member of the gram panchayat (governing council) in the village of Dasdoi, confesses that caste differences initially posed a barrier to sending his daughter to Mr. Pal’s school.

“Since he was of a different caste, I was initially reluctant,” Mr. Bhagwandin says. “However, seeing that his students could really read and write, that they behaved well and since the only other option was to send her to a school in another village, I decided to overlook this fact. And I haven’t regretted my decision.”

Teaching values

In all the schools, the message of equality and the need for mutual respect is instilled from the earliest stages using various techniques, including incorporating the arts into the curriculum.

For example, “we have found that the most effective way to teach these values to students, is through the use of skits and songs,” says Mr. Yadav.

Discrimination against the girl child is dealt with through a more proactive approach, given that these are areas where traditionally women do not leave the home, much less receive an education.

“We visit the homes of parents in the village and talk to them about the importance of sending their daughters and not just their sons to school. And after a period of patient counseling, they understand,” explains Mr. Pal.

Right now, perhaps the most important challenge before these young entrepreneurs is to keep their schools profitable. Problems include spiraling costs, regular defaulting in fee payment, and children being pulled out of school to be used for agricultural labor.

While the owners will continue to seek solutions, FAS remains confident of the overall potential for the schools to become successful educational institutions and to bring about palpable social and cultural change in the villages. Indeed, the foundation already has plans to help 20 more unemployed young people start such schools in Uttar Pradesh.

Article and photographs by Arash Vafa Fazli.