Akshara Foundation in North Karnataka

A Dynamic Discussion
A dynamic thrust is being given to the preschool programme in Hubli-Dharwad. Shankar Narayan, Head of Operations, and Latha Devi, Programme Head, Preschool Programme, were at Akshara’s office in Dharwad for a discussion with the field team. It went on for three hours, a wide-ranging exercise, with the team’s personal field experiences enlivening the proceedings. Latha commended the Hubli-Dharwad team for Akshara’s imprint and impact that is clearly visible in the anganwadis.
Action to be Taken
The team will train Supervisors to become Master Resource Persons (MRPs) of the programme. The same training to be imparted to Akshara’s team and all 109 anganwadi workers in the programme. LEGO training also to be organised and the LEGO kit distributed to the anganwadis.
Administer pre-tests to all the children.
The team will concentrate on observing the condition of the anganwadis, use the observation sheets when they visit and fill in the columns accurately.
All ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade anganwadis to be visited. The outreach should focus more intensively on ‘B’ grade anganwadis, as there is greater scope for quick results there. Strengthening all anganwadis, whatever their grade, to reach the top will be the endeavour. The grading of all the centres should be reviewed once in six months.
Friends of Anganwadis must be reactivated, or formed anew where they do not exist, and developed into forums that nourish all the 109 anganwadis. Friends of Anganwadis are groups of mothers who support the anganwadi worker in teaching children, relieving her of some of her work burdens.
• Community meetings to be held mandatorily, and in the presence of education officials.
The team is invigorated and has chalked out a work plan, on the basis of which they are visiting anganwadis, which they have always been doing, but now, with complete focus on the action points. During community visits, the team targets parents, self-help groups and the energising of Bal Vikas Samithis (BVS) to make them aware of the need to create model anganwadis in their areas. The team visited 300 households; organised 15 parents’ meetings and met 48 BVS members. They have collected the child tracking formats from all the anganwadis, which will determine the number of children who have moved to school, the new admissions, and the actual number present. 
On Many Fronts
Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, and Shankar Narayan met with Ashok Shetter, the Principal of BVB Engineering College, who extended his support to Akshara and said he would send his students to volunteer for Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP). 
Ashok Kamath and Shankar Narayan also met Naveen Jha, CEO, Deshpande Foundation, at his office in Hubli and got an understanding of what the organisation is currently doing.
The District Facilitator trained 27 private school teachers in Akshara’s Mathematics Programme. The two-day training was well-received by the teachers and they were eager to implement the programme’s methods in their classrooms. 
Angelina, the District Facilitator, held a meeting with Nagaralli, who supports Akshara’s work in Kushtagi and Mundargi Blocks in an advisory role, on how to get data from all the schools in Gadag, Dharwad and Koppal Districts. The District Facilitator of Mundargi Block, Vijayalakshmi, was present. Nagaralli took on the responsibility of collecting the data as soft copy, which Angelina and Vijayalakshmi will cross-verify with education officials. 
Also decided at the meeting was that there would be a concerted effort to enlist supporters for Akshara by visiting all the blocks in these districts along with Nagaralli and persuading the heads of different colleges to join hands.

The Story of Lakshmi’s Transformation

A Picture of Lakshmi
Lakshmi is four and a half years old. There is cautious anticipation in her eyes as she gazes into the camera – a look that conceals more than it says. Still and obedient she stands, a neat, folded, white handkerchief pinned fastidiously to her shirt, well-groomed, and perhaps tall for her age. This strikes a bit of a contrary picture because Lakshmi is known to jump and clap her hands with abandon, even write, hesitantly but with relish. In the backdrop are the children of Anganwadi III, Girani Chawl, Hubli, Lakshmi’s friends, with whom she mixes and mingles.

Abandoned in a Public Toilet

But Lakshmi has a speech impairment that hinders her ability to learn. What she says is incoherent. She is a trier though, and makes spirited attempts to speak and sing. Her story has a long history. It began in 2008 when Lakshmi was discovered by Sushila Narayankar in the toilet of a Hubli bus stand, abandoned and crying. She was a little over six months old and had suffered a grave injury to her head. Sushila had been waiting for a bus and the sound of an infant crying wrenched her. She picked up Lakshmi and went around asking people if the child was theirs. No one knew anything about her. 

Lakshmi was an unknown entity, already forgotten, already written off. Someone suggested that Sushila take her to the police station and file a complaint. There, the police advised Sushila and her husband, Mariyappa, to keep the child with them till they could locate her parents or relatives. 

God’s Gift

Till today, no one has come forward to claim Lakshmi, and so she stayed with Sushila and Mariyappa who happily took care of her. For the childless couple, married for twenty five years, this was God’s gift, an answer to their fervent prayers, and they named her Lakshmi. Their recriminations had been endless all those years, directed at a God who had failed them. Now, they believed their Tirupati deity had heard their pleas, a little late in life – Mariyappa is forty eight, Sushila, thirty nine. 

Oh My God”

 As Lakshmi grew the cracks began to show. She had a weak memory and struggled with speech, both of which were attributed to her head injury. Sushila and Mariyappa, a low-income family, peons at Basel Mission School in Hubli, spared no effort to get Lakshmi assessed and treated. They did the rounds of hospitals and tests, but the damage seemed irreversible though doctors held out the hope that Lakshmi would improve with time. 

Sushila and Mariyappa were understandably distraught. “Oh my God,” they despaired. “God has given us a child like this.” They did not have the resources for advanced medical treatment or long-term care-giving. What would become of Lakshmi, they wondered? Sushila and Mariyappa went back to the police station to find out if anything was known about her biological parents. To which the police said, “Why come so late?”

At the Anganwadi

Lakshmi’s faltering development was a big blow to Sushila and Mariyappa but the initial shock, the alienation they felt from their child, soon transmuted to a generosity of spirit and a steely resolve. They began exploring alternative avenues for Lakshmi, in keeping with their means. They noticed that the girl was a friendly child, eager for company her age, with a pronounced interest in school life. Anganwadi III in Girani Chawl, close to where they live, seemed a viable option. Sushila and Mariyappa admitted her there in early 2011 and Lakshmi seemed happy. 

Trouble soon cropped up. It had always been difficult to toilet-train Lakshmi and now at the anganwadi the problem became acute. There were behavioral disturbances as well. Neither Hema Kamble, the anganwadi worker, nor the anganwadi helper were equipped to deal effectively with Lakshmi. Hema would often call Sushila and recommend that they take Lakshmi to a school for children with special needs. Helpless, the foster parents pleaded with Hema to keep Lakshmi in the anganwadi for a while longer. 

Ratna Arrives on the Scene 

It is then that Akshara’s Field Coordinator, Ratna, who is in charge of 26 anganwadis in Hubli, appeared on the scene. Ratna had qualifications that gave her a competent edge in managing Lakshmi – a three-month course in handling children with special needs, a two-year tenure with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), taking care of such children. 

Ratna had been observing Lakshmi every time she visited the anganwadi. She saw Hema’s fraught attempts at coping, the helper’s helplessness, the lack of positivism in the whole engagement. Being one of the 109 anganwadis in Akshara North Karnataka’s preschool programme in Hubli-Dharwad, Ratna had access and acceptability. She began training Hema in how best to tackle Lakshmi. 

The Transformation 

It took time. And then everything changed. The transformation in Lakshmi is nothing short of a minor miracle. She is today toilet-trained. Her socialization processes with her peer group are well-cemented. Her speech has cleared to some extent. Lakshmi asks her teacher for toys to play with and the words are legible, though there is a long way to go yet. 

Lakshmi is happy, never happier, though, than when she is playing with the toys that are a part of Akshara’s preschool programme kit. But there is a special warmth that Lakshmi reserves for Ratna. She is overjoyed when Ratna makes her frequent visits, jumping and clapping with joy, her face wreathed in smiles. 

What will Lakshmi’s future be like? Sushila and Mariyappa contemplate it with some disquiet, even as they acknowledge with deep gratitude the efforts Ratna and Hema have put in to restore their child to near-normalcy. “We worry if Lakshmi will speak properly,” say Sushila and Mariyappa. “We would like her to be a teacher. It is a noble profession.”

Akshara North Karnataka – Part of this Change

 As for the Akshara North Karnataka team there is a sense of quiet achievement. “This is a great positive story for us. I feel very happy to have been part of this change,” says Angelina, District Facilitator. “This anganwadi is in our preschool programme. That is why we could do so much.” 

As for Ratna she is receiving affirmations for her work with Lakshmi. The Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) told her she was doing a wonderful job, while the Department of Women and Child Welfare commended her for triggering change in Anganwadi III, Girani Chawl, and asked if she would join as their Resource Person.

Guest Post – Tooley and his Caricatures

This is a guest Post by E.S. Ramamurthy who is the Founder – Chief Mentor of Sikshana
James Tooley is well known for his book ”A Beautiful Tree” . In fact the publication is one of the most widely quoted by all those who stand for privatization of the public schools. One of the underlying themes of his thesis is the overwhelming apathy of the teachers in the system vis-a-vis those in the private stream. A close reading of the book will show to anyone how many schools and teachers he had worked with and for how long before he reached his conclusions. I have no comment to make on his acquired expertise; I could only offer my credentials in this context: I cover routinely more than 1200 schools and interact with 6000 plus teachers individually and in groups. Based on this, I find that the scenario in the field is nothing like what it is made out to be- in books of this type and/or the media.
The dedication most teachers in the public schools show to their work is really amazing, especially when seen in the light of the extremely frustrating and negative environment in which they operate. Showing individual attention to the weak kids and making home visits in the evenings or the weekends are a routine part of their professional lives and schedules. They get very little credit for all that they do even from the society, let alone the media. I thought I should break this tradition of denigrating them with very little data and no justification.
I would like to narrate two specific anecdotes, which came my way during the course of just one week. The High School program of Sikshana focusses on the so-called weak students in 10th Std and getting them to pass the final examinations. Kiran (Name changed) is one such kid whom I came across in the corridors of a Government High School near Ramanagaram; he was  waiting to get into a classroom. On queried he said he had failed in the examinations of last year and he is going through schooling in 10th a second time. That surprised me since there is no such provision for readmission of a failed student in the school; in the normal course he is supposed to prepare himself on his own and reappear as a private candidate at the next available opportunity. We talked to the teacher in charge of 10th and he had an interesting story for us.
Kiran is the younger of the two sons in the family; his father trades in vegetables in the local market making a decent income. He wanted his two sons to study well and aspire for a better career than his own. Unfortunately his first son showed no interest in studies dropping out after completing 9th; he has since joined his father in the market. Kiran showed similar inclinations until last year; though bright enough to complete schooling with minimal effort he was irregular in attendance missing classes in spite of personal attention and home visits by his Teacher and ended up with an F Grade in the final examinations. In the following weeks, he started visiting the market with his father and brother. Soon he started realizing how tough real life is and how limited the scope for his advancement would be in the absence of good education. He promptly came back to the school and pleaded with the school to take him back and coach him to pass 10th. The Teacher, who was in charge of his class earlier, responded to his plea. Breaking the rules of the Department, he re-admitted the boy unofficially taking him back in his class. Since he was not on the rolls of the school, none of the facilities offered by the state could be made available to him. The Teacher is presently bearing out of his own pocket all expenses that Kiran could not afford so that he does not have to drop out for economic reasons. Both the boy and the Teacher are convinced that they would make it successfully in Mar 13!  The grit and determination Kiran showed while talking to us was truly amazing! All the credit goes to his Teacher who had shown exemplary dedication to his work- at some risk to his own career. (The reason for blocking the name of the student, school and the teacher would by this time be obvious).
Incidentally, the students have to pay a fee for the final examinations – which some of them do not afford. It is routine practice in every Government school for the class teachers to bear this expense from their own resources- even in cases where the student’s performance is so low as not to merit the attempt. This is in stark comparison with private schools where ‘weak’ students are invariably shown the door with a Transfer Certificate!
This difference in approach was even more evident from the second anecdote in a High School near Hubli. We were discussing the possibility of ensuring a 100% pass in the final examinations of ’13. The talk turned to the performance of last year; they had four students failing at the end. In all these cases, the HM had a valid reason for withholding the admission ticket; the students were irregular in attendance and did not meet the minimum stipulated requirements. This would have got the school a 100% pass rate and fetched him laurels. This is in fact what every private school invariably does to ensure good results. The HM said that turning them away may end up in their dropping away for good; on the other hand, if they are allowed to take a chance, they may pass in a few subjects making it easy to get through the remaining ones in a second attempt. It is an amazingly humane approach to the problem; here the HM is placing the welfare of the student over his own! A comparison with schools in other streams here too becomes inevitable.
One could justifiably say that two anecdotes do not make a point; but then I do not see more evidence in Tooley’s book either. Both assertions deserve a dispassionate and independent study; in the meanwhile damning all the teachers in Government schools should come to a stop. That is the least we could do to restore a balance in this highly unequal debate.