About the Author: Atul Keshap is the Director of the Office of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.Editor's Note: Atul Keshap visited India in early December. This blog entry is the fourth and final post in a series of his reflections on his trip.
Most people in the United States are familiar with India's great accomplishments in the fields of technology and business. During my travels to India, however, I am also continually impressed by the social entrepreneurship I witness at the grassroots level. My visit to the Naandi Foundation's Academic Support Center gave me the opportunity to see firsthand the innovative methods that one non-governmental organization is using to tackle poverty by confronting education inequality in India.
The Naandi Foundation seeks to bridge the gap between expensive private schools and underperforming government schools by offering after-school programs at 2000 government schools in India (900 in the state of Andhra Pradesh and 470 in the city of Hyderabad alone). The “Ensuring Children Learn” initiative provides children from low-income families quality education that they do not receive in the government schools.
The students attending the Naandi Foundation's after-school programs are first-generation learners. Their parents are often illiterate, and the after-school program is the only opportunity most children get to engage in an interactive, creative learning environment. The program managers hope that their students will become literate in their native language of Urdu and respect education so that they encourage their own children to stay in school. The Naandi Foundation's objective is to effect long-term, lasting change, even if it takes three generations to achieve their goals.
In speaking to the managers of the program, I could see their passion for education. They spoke of the challenges of working with the Indian government at state and national level, and of changing the attitudes of parents who do not always value education. I was shocked to learn that in most Telugu or Urdu government schools, a majority of the female students discontinue their studies between the ages of nine and twelve. Around the time girls begin menstruating, they are often discouraged from attending school and forced to work at home or work as a maid outside the home. Despite this, the young, energetic managers and teachers engaged the students daily, fostering their desire to learn more and hoping to keep them in school.
When I arrived at the school, the students greeted me warmly and one girl presented me with a colorful drawing. The classroom walls were covered with the students' drawings, and the children sat on the floor in groups of four to practice math with fake money and number games.
The innovative methods employed by the leaders of the Naandi Foundation have been recognized and adopted by the government schools. One program manager told me that the Naandi Foundation introduced workbooks to the students to encourage a more interactive learning experience. According to the program manager, the practice was so successful that many government schools, which usually rely on only textbooks, adopted this practice. Widespread poverty cannot be solved quickly or easily, but people like those I met from the Naandi Foundation are truly inspiring. This is where change begins -- with individuals who effect change on a small scale and work tirelessly to pursue the values of democracy and equality.