The preschool programme is one of Akshara Foundation’s most far-reaching initiatives. A flagship programme which, in scale, content and structure, is unique, as it is imaginative and scientific in pedagogy. At the heart of its design is collaboration with government to revive the anganwadi that cornerstone people’s institution, a deliverer of preschool education, social distribution and community welfare, beset by decay and drift. Akshara’s focus is on resurrecting the long-buried education component in anganwadis wherever it can in Karnataka. Setting benchmarks of quality, sharpening the edge, making anganwadis competitive and comparison-worthy.
When Akshara ran its preschool programme for four years in all 1778 anganwadis in Bangalore covering nearly 32,000 children it harvested a yield of successful outcomes. Children ascended a learning curve. Anganwadi workers became more responsible, more committed, and community support systems of anganwadis were strengthened. It left an enduring footprint in that the Department of Women and Child Welfare, which manages anganwadis, has from this year absorbed key elements of Akshara’s preschool programme in Karnataka anganwadis – the innovative teaching-learning material (TLM) for child development, child assessments, and keeping the spirit of the anganwadi worker alive.
Currently, Akshara’s programme runs in 335 hand-picked anganwadis in Bangalore, which it is grooming into centres of performance. It vigorously supports 109 anganwadis in Hubli and Dharwad. And change is sweeping in, in measurable terms.
Now, the preschool programme also has a presence in 51 anganwadis in Malur Block in Kolar District, about 40 kilometres from Bangalore. A new strategy has been forged, experimental but effective. A third worker, an Akshara volunteer, has been introduced into these anganwadis as a force for education. She should have cleared her SSLC or class 10, which is one of the eligibility criteria for selection. Akshara has trained the volunteers in preschool education, classroom management, TLM use and handling children.
Chavenahalli is a small village in Malur Block, remote but not backward. Its people are not poor, they are disadvantaged; deprived of facilities, not unaware. There is this
aspiration-dispersal from the big city next door and people have expectations, not matched by the realities of government dispensation. Anganwadis are seen as inefficient, unaccountable and sub-standard providers of education, and only parents who cannot afford private preschools retain their children there. It is in these centres that Akshara’s programme is bringing hope, energy and new direction.
Chavenahalli Anganwadi is an unpretentious little centre with 18 children. Sunlight does make an appearance, says Firdose Begum, the Akshara volunteer, but the anganwadi could do with munificence. The children could use a fan on hot days. “But they adjust,” she says. The anganwadi has no electricity, no water. There is a toilet, with a damaged roof though. And a single room, which by contrast is resource-rich with Akshara’s TLM, an anganwadi asset.The walls are vibrant with Akshara’s learning charts and the Department’s posters on equality for the girl child and guidelines for the community’s health and hygiene.
The volunteer’s role is that of performance-driver. Value building is what she does in a Malur anganwadi. When Firdose joined seven months ago, empowered by Akshara’s training and an altered prism to look at early childhood requirements, these children “knew nothing.”Neither to play nor to learn, she says. Firdose recalls how Ashwini, 4 years and 9 months, would laugh, largely in self-deprecation, and partly to gloss over her ignorance, when asked to read the Kannada alphabet. Today she reads and writes the letters ‘aa’ to a-ha’ with ease. Ashwini has a foothold in learning and playing. Much like Shahid, says Firdose, who, around the same age, would stand in utter silence when asked a question. No response, no communication abilities, no learning. Today he is conversationally adept, wishes everyone “Good morning,” and understands how to go about what to say and do.
In the two hours that Firdose is there she segregates children and delivers an age-appropriate curriculum. The older children get a reinforced school readiness module. The younger children get grounding, get used to the idea of playing and learning. All of them have plenty of playtime with the TLM,when they pick up knowledge about fruits and vegetables and forms of transport,or develop coordination skills. These children had never seen colour pencils and crayons before, says Firdose, let alone a paint box. Now they happily draw and paint, dabble and splash with Akshara’s art material, intent on freedom of expression. Children are getting accustomed to socialisation processes too, peer interaction, sharing and giving, good conduct and discipline. They line their slippers neatly at the entrance, use the dustbin, queue up for the toilet.
Word about the programme is spreading and the community is reaching out with support. Parents are delighted with the enlightenment they see in Chavenahalli Anganwadi and come personally to register approval, says Firdose. Their children have become storytellers at home, mothers tell her. They communicate a lot and if they are stumped for words they mime their thoughts. Gram Panchayat members gifted a pressure cooker, books and pencils recently and gave away prizes to achievers on Independence Day. Arifa, a Gram Panchayat member, makes sustained efforts, visiting often and staying on to observe the impact the programme is having on teaching and learning.
As for Nagaveni, the anganwadi worker who has been at the centre for almost 16 years, she is a relieved person, glad that Firdose is there to depend on, an ally. The volunteer is trained to supplement and support, not constrict the anganwadi worker. She isan important, integrated, non-intrusive strand in the anganwadi. Nagaveni used to be a harried, pressed-for-time teacher, managing two anganwadis, running back and forth, overwhelmed by all the community work and maintenance of prodigious registers that her job entails. She never had the time to teach. Now she can entrust and delegate. She tells Firdose, “Don’t ever leave.”
Firdose has no intention of doing so. “The freedom to work feels good. And that too for the benefit of children. That feels great,” she says. “I want to be with children, improve them. It will make me happier.” Firdose is 28, her husband is a lorry owner and they have two small children. It is a forward-thinking, supportive family, and a progressive community in Chavenahalli. Her mother takes care of her children when she is away.
Firdose was doing her 2nd year in pre-university when she dropped out. She worked for three years in a private preschool in Malur town. “I knew nothing,” she confesses. “Till Akshara’s training happened I had no idea how to engage with children, or that children need inputs at this early age for their overall development.” It taught her both theory and practice, with which she enlarges her domain knowledge every day at the anganwadi. “The training was a revelation,” she says. “It has also given me confidence and a sense of pride in myself. I like what I am learning all the time. I like expanding my knowledge, learning things. I enjoy working with Akshara. What they are doing in my village is simply great.”