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Educating slum children: Shukla Bose shows the way

EducationWorld July 05 | EducationWorld

Once the most innovative woman chief executive in Indian industry, Shukla Bose founder CEO of the Parikrma Humanity Foundation, Bangalore has established several English medium primary schools for slum children which offer the hope of a break with the inegalitarian school system of the past century. Summiya Yasmeen reports

Two years ago Selva Kumar was a 10-year-old who irregularly attended a run-down local government primary school. His alcoholic father ran a cobbler’s kiosk in Koramangla, Bangalore’s plush suburb which houses many of the city’s infotech millionaires. Neither his parents nor his teachers bothered whether he showed up in class. Most days Selva would while away time loitering or hanging out in the local park. And if he was lucky, he managed one meal a day. Though in class III, he couldn’t read or write. 

One day in the summer of 2003 when he was playing truant from school, his life changed. Volunteers of the Parikrma Humanity Foundation (PHF) persuaded him to visit the Parikrma Centre for Learning, an English-medium free school which had just become operational in Koramangla. Two years later Selva is a happy 12-year-old who eagerly looks forward to class, gets two meals in school, plays football, and can read, write and speak English. He hasn’t missed a single class in three months. Thanks to counselling sessions with Parikrma social workers, his father has foresworn alcohol and works a full day. The 12-year-old who didn’t know the English alphabet two years ago, now writes English verse and aspires to become a poet.

Selva is one of the 620 children aged five-14 years who attend three Parikrma Centres for Learning — free kindergarten-class VII schools run by Parikrma Humanity Foundation in Bangalore (pop. 7 million), India’s infotech capital and reportedly the fastest growing city in Asia. On March 30, Parikrma celebrated its second anniversary in the Bangalore Municipal Corporation town hall packed with the schools’ children and their slum-dweller parents who rubbed shoulders with the infotech city’s most prominent citizens including police commissioner S. Mariswamy, the chief guest.

They had cause for celebration. Within two years of registration, Parikrma’s three centres in the garden city (Koramangla, Sahakarnagar, Jayanagar and a soon to be inaugurated centre at Nandhini Layout) have established themselves as model primaries which offer the hope of a break with the inegalitarian school education system of the past century or more, under which the children of the poor and socially disadvantaged were crowded into vernacular medium, indifferently serviced Dickensian-style poor schools affiliated to undemanding state boards.

The differentiating characteristic of the Parikrma schools is that all of them follow the syllabus and curriculum of the Delhi-based Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) board (successor to the Senior Cambridge board) which numbers 1,392 of India’s most well known private schools including the Doon School, St. Paul’s, Darjeeling, Mayo College, Ajmer, Bishop Cotton Shimla and Bangalore, and Indus International, Bangalore as blue-blood affiliates. As the currently kindergarten-class VII Parikrma schools add a higher class each year, in due course they will seek formal affiliation with CISCE to enable their students to write the class X school leaving ICSE examination. As a consequence for the first time, children of the absolute poor are accessing elementary education on a par with the superior English medium education traditionally received by the progeny of the privilegentsia.

“Parikrma Humanity Foundation was promoted as a not-for-profit company with the mission of unlocking the potential of under-served and deprived children living in urban India by providing them with the skill-sets to compete on equal terms with the children of the privileged. For example Bangalore has 1.5 million people who live in more than 800 slums. Their children are born into poverty and don’t have the education to break out of the poverty-illiteracy-poverty cycle. By providing these children equal access to quality English-medium schooling which thus far has been the privilege of the rich, Parikrma hopes to help them break this cycle and transform them into valuable contributing members of society. We provide end-to-end or e2e solutions to all our children. It’s our promise to take full responsibility for each student till he/she starts earning a living. Through its three schools PHF has made a good beginning towards achieving this objective,” says Shukla Bose, an alumna of Loreto Convent, Darjeeling, Jadavpur University and IIM-Calcutta who is the go-getting founder CEO of Parikrma, a unique initiative in delivering quality education to the underprivileged.

Reportedly the highest paid woman executive in India in her last corporate assignment as the chief executive of Resort Condominiums India (RCI, the company which introduced the concept of holiday timeshare villas and apartments to India), Bose began her corporate career as a marketing manager with the Oberoi Group of luxury hotels before taking charge of Dalmia Resorts which built India’s first timeshare resort in Goa. “While many people are aware of my corporate career, few know that I began my working life as a teacher in a convent school in Kolkata and later worked in an army school in Bhutan. All through school and college I worked with Mother Teresa’s volunteers and was involved with Mother’s Shishu Bhavan project for nearly seven years,” says Bose.

After 28 years in the upper reaches of the corporate world, culminating in her appointment as managing director of RCI, Bose took a momentous career switch decision to serve India’s most vulnerable poor: children. In 2000 she accepted an offer of Christel de Haan, the promoter of RCI who after selling the company to the Cendant Corporation for a reported $7 billion (Rs.31,500 crore) had turned to philanthropy, to start Christel House — a free school for orphaned and abandoned children in Bangalore. Within two years of applying her extraordinary leadership and institution building skills which had distinguished her corporate career, Bose established Christel House as a high-profile smooth-running English-medium kg-class IV school for poor and disadvantaged children with an aggregate enrollment of 360. But in February 2003, Bose had a dramatic falling out with de Haan which churned Bangalore’s rumour mills overtime.

Refusing to take issue with de Haan with whom she had worked for many years, Bose says she quit because of incremental dilution of the administrative autonomy of the school and the infiltration of American scholastic culture and administrative norms into Christel House, India. “I have great respect for Christel with whom I worked for many years. But I can’t say the same for some of the people whom she has put on the Christel House payroll,” she says.

Though disheartened by this unexpected setback, but fully involved with her own mission to empower slum children through provision of equal opportunity English language education, Bose immediately set about registering a new not-for-profit company to attain this objective. “My mission is to demonstrate that poor, under-served children in the nation’s multiplying urban slums can be transformed into responsible, productive citizens through the provision of equal education opportunity,” she says.

Within three months of exiting Christel House, Bose together with four other founding members registered the Parikrma Humanity Foundation. Building on the excellent reputation she had acquired as the can-do chief executive of Christel House and thanks to an endowment by resort developer John Spence who runs the Royal Resorts chain of beach hotels around the world (including five in Goa), the first Parikrma free school for 160 Kg-class V slum children became operational on May 22, 2003 in Koramangla. Since then the foundation has persuaded Levi Strauss & Co. to sponsor its Sahakarnagar school which has an enrollment of 230 bright and eager English-speaking children.

Since the promotion of its first two learning centres in Koramangla and Sahakarnagar, Bangalore two years ago, PHF has come a long way. Today the foundation manages three centres for learning with an aggregate enrollment of 620 children instructed by 45 well qualified and mission-driven teachers. And the refreshingly distinguishing attribute of the Parikrma centres is that despite most educationists including those who have drafted the National Curriculum Framework 2005 for schools (see cover story) favouring early education in the mother tongue, they provide English-medium CISCE prescribed school education to under-served children from poor socio-economic backgrounds who have had to make do with sub-standard vernacular syllabuses prescribed by state boards of examination.

Box 1

Parikrma Circle of Life child development model

Within two years of its registration in April 2003, the Bangalore-based Parikrma Humanity Foundation (PHF) has promoted three free kindergarten-class VII schools, which have established themselves as first-of-their-kind primaries offering English-medium education on a par with the best private schools to 620 slum children in the garden city. Determined to provide equal quality education to neglected underprivileged children routinely sentenced to overcrowded and ill-equipped govern-ment schools teaching in regional/ vernacular languages, Shukla Bose, former high-flying business executive and founder CEO of PHF and her four-member team have devised a distinctive ‘Circle of Life’ development model which is receiving widespread encomiums. Salient features of the model:

Education and development. Parikrma schools follow the syllabus of the Delhi-based Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) in the English medium with Kannada taught as the second language. Teacher-pupil ratio per class does not exceed 1:25.

Nutrition. A well-balanced diet is critical to learning in school. The nutrition programme provides breakfast followed by lunch and a glass of protein-enriched milk before leaving school. The aim is to provide 80 percent of each child’s calorie needs in school.

Healthcare. Physical and mental well-being is critical to children learning in school. The Parikrma healthcare programme includes immunisation, regular check-ups, hospitalisation and other medical interventions. Since many children are from families where substance abuse and violence are normative, mental health counselling is also provided.

Community development. An enabling and supportive home environment is crucial to the overall development of the child. Parikrma’s community development programme offers healthcare education to parents with a focus on AIDS prevention and family planning; hygiene and sanitation information; vocational training for older siblings and women empo-werment programmes.

“Meaningful education is not about access but quality. Vernacular medium education prescribed by the state boards places children at a disadvantage right from the start of their lives. The hard reality is that English is the language of business and commerce and to land good jobs, fluency in written and spoken English is a mandatory requirement. We should provide poor children the education we’d like our own children to receive. Hence in Parikrma schools while we encourage the learning of one’s mother tongue, English is the medium of instruction,” says Bose.

Hardly two years into implementation, the Parikrma model for educating perennially short-changed children of the urban poor has received widespread acclamation. Recently Parikrma was conferred the 2004 Derozio Award for Excellence in Human Enrichment and Education by CISCE — India’s most preferred school leaving examinations board. Parikrma was selected from 122 mainstream schools across the country short-listed for the award (instituted in 1999) which carries a cash prize of Rs.100,000.

The education and development model followed by the three Parikrma centres which impressed the CISCE jury, comprises a high quality academic curriculum and nutrition, healthcare and community development programmes. Since almost all children are first generation learners with no previous schooling, upon enrollment they are put through a fast track three-month English speaking and writing programme. The curriculum is largely experiential and is supplemented by life skills learning including toilet and personal hygiene training. Given that Parikrma enrolls children from the base of the socio-economic pyramid, painstaking attention is paid to nutrition and health. All 620 children across the four Parikrma centres are provided with a free breakfast, lunch and a glass of protein-enriched milk before leaving school each day. Moreover they are immunised and given regular health check-ups.

“Given the reality of widespread deprivation slum-dwelling children suffer, we offer nutrition and healthcare services in addition to academic instruction. Moreover our children have the freedom to explore and excel while teachers are encouraged to become friends and mentors of students. Co-curricular education comprises life skills, music, art, dance and various sports programmes. We are only too aware that a hungry child cannot learn and hence provide 80-90 percent of each student’s nutrition requirements during school hours. This is what we mean by holistic education,” says Kalpana Singh, a founding member of Parikrma and head of academics of its four schools who has 17 years of teaching experience including a nine year stint as principal of the Vidya Dayani School, Hyderabad.

Of the 620 children in Parikrma schools, 210 are between 10-14 years of age with most of them being first generation learners. “To help us test the learning capabilities of this group of children we asked the psychiatric and counselling department of St. John’s Hospital in Bangalore to prepare a school readiness test. This simple test helps us group children according to their capabilities,” explains Singh.

Thus 210 children — 85 in the Koramangla branch and 125 in the Sahakarnagar Centre — have been identified as a mixed group with each child possessing a different learning level. Since mixed group children are those who missed the crucial early years of schooling, they are separated from the younger lot and follow Parikrma’s specially designed fast forward programme.

“Because they have either never been to school or have had very sub-standard early education, they display marked differences in learning capabilities. Mixed group children require special attention so they can catch up with the rest who tend to be younger. Therefore we have prepared a special fast forward learning programme for them which is concept-driven and hands-on. Teachers have been specially trained to help these children accelerate their learning. I’m happy to say that during the past year the learning achievements of the mixed group children have been very satisfactory,” says Fracisca Van Haandel, a Norway-based teacher trainer with over ten years of teaching experience. Van Haandel has been working as a volunteer in Parikrma for the past year.

An important feature which distinguishes Parikrma schools from government and others is its mental health programme. Under this programme, devised with inputs from well-known child psychiatrist Dr. Sekhar Seshadri (NIMHANS), St. John’s Hospital and Dr. Ali Khwaja, a renowned counsellor and founder of Banjara Academy, Bangalore, teachers maintain a behavioural diary for each child, prepare strength and difficulty questionnaires and record the progress of each child’s mental well-being through the year. Children with persistent behavioural problems are referred to an in-house child psychiatrist for appropriate intervention. Additionally Parikrma conducts training programmes for teachers and invites child counsellors to interact with its children.

“Most Parikrma children are from dysfunctional families where they witness continuous violence and substance abuse by their parents. In some cases they also experience sexual abuse and other physical trauma. The objective of the mental health programme is to help them overcome their psychological traumas to enable them to absorb academic inputs. In our book emotional and mental stability is the prerequisite of good learning,” says Suhrita Bagchi, head of Parikrma’s mental health programme, who adds that Parikrma is one among only three schools in Bangalore (others: Mallya Aditi International and George Foundation School) to offer a full-fledged mental health programme.

In sharp contrast to indifferent government and state board affiliated schools which totally ignore the reality that the overwhelming majority of slum children tend to be first generation learners with illiterate, poverty-stricken parents driven to alcoholism and domestic violence by wretched living conditions, Parikrma extends its education services beyond school walls to students’ homes through its community development service (CDS) programme. This programme is designed on the premise that to be able to impart quality education and ensure the child makes best use of this education by attending school regularly, it’s important to create a stable and nurturing environment at home. Parikrma’s CDS programme includes provision of healthcare education to parents with special focus on AIDS and TB prevention, alcohol de-addiction, family planning, hygiene, vocational training for older siblings and household income augmentation through women’s empowerment.

“Since the great majority of children in Parikrma schools are first generation learners, their learning is intimately connected with supportive home environments. Therefore community development or family care is integral to ensuring that Parikrma students attend school regularly, concentrate in class, and feel emotionally secure. We train social workers who are from within the slum communities we serve, to advise Parikrma parents in the areas of health and hygiene, substance de-addiction, women’s empowerment and vocational training. This has helped build strong relationships with parents. A 95 percent parental presence at our PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) meetings, held every four months is testimony to that. Interestingly most parents give up their daily wage to attend PTA meetings,” says S. Samson, formerly with World Vision who heads Parikrma’s CDS initiative.

The holistic Parikrma ‘Circle of Life’ model for educating under-served children, which includes a hands-on curriculum, nutrition, mental health and family care initiatives, is already showing results. Class attendance averages 98 percent with less than 1 percent dropping out. This compares well with government primary schools where 76 percent of students drop out before they reach class VIII. Consequently the Parikrma model is a ready-made blueprint for government and aided schools to adopt and apply. Last year the Parikrma team demonstrated that its model can work just as well in government-run schools. Given the challenge of improving the class X pass percentage of eight Bangalore Mahanagar Palike (BMP) or municipal schools by the BMP commissioner, a task force of 40 (including teachers) conducted an intensive four-month two hours per day tutorial programme for 875 children of 12 BMP schools. Subsequently their class X board exam pass rate leapt from 9 to 31 percent.

“To meet this challenge we hired retired municipal school teachers who knew the system well. A curriculum was drawn up and two hours of intensive lessons were given after school to 875 class X students of the 12 BMP schools. The Pratiksha Trust picked up the Rs.19 lakh bill for teachers’ salaries and Akshaya Patra, which provides mid-day meals to municipal schools, pitched in with a free meal for the children. The consequence of applying only a part of the Parikrma model was a 300 percent improvement in the class X board examination of these 12 schools last year,” says Bose with evident satisfaction.

But although its integrated model of education is the major contri-buting factor behind Parikrma’s extraordinary 98 percent class attendance record — though the jury is still out on whether the foundation’s first batch of class X students will match the academic performance of frontline CISCE affiliated students three years hence — the other factor behind the quick success of the three Parikrma centres is rigorous application of corporate management principles to the foundation and schools’ backroom administrative operations. Parikrma perhaps is the first education NGO in the country to be professionally administered like a corporate on the basis of a business model with clearly defined targets and a marketing plan.

Box 2

Parikrma student voices

Parikrma gives us free education, uniform, books and meals. The teachers look after us very well and teach us many new and interesting things and don’t punish us for every small mistake.

Shyam John David (13), student of Royal Parikrma Centre for Learning, Koramangla

I like to come to this school because learning is really fun and we are given free breakfast, lunch and a glass of milk in the evening. I also get a chance to participate in a lot of extra-curricular activities such as games, singing, drama, etc.

Sandesh J (13), a student of Parikrma Centre for Learning, Sahakarnagar

The best thing about Parikrma school is that everyday we learn something new. In the government school which I went to earlier, the lessons were boring and uninteresting. I like to write poems and the teachers here constantly encourage me.

Selva Kumar (12) student of the Parikrma Centre for Learning, Sahakarnagar

I like coming to school because our teachers teach us to speak and write English. I can now read an English newspaper and storybooks. My parents are very happy that I can speak in English. Once I pass my class X, I can go for higher studies in English.

Srinivas (8), student of the Royal Parikrma Centre for Learning, Koramangla

This is an important factor in the sustainability of its operations because all Parikrma centres provide completely free tuition, uniforms, stationery, textbooks and nutritive meals and diet supplements to their 620 students. This requires an annual revenue mobilisation effort estimated at Rs.1.25 crore (Rs.15,000 per child) — not a small order in a society which accords low priority to quality education for the under-served. Therefore Parikrma’s marketing team is in constant contact with organisations, charitable trusts/ foundations and over 4,000 individuals who have signed up to donate half-a-day’s salary once every year towards building Parikrma’s corpus fund.

“What we are doing at Parikrma is unique and at the same time very simple — give the poor quality holistic education and leave the rest to human potential. We need to carry this message across and effect a mind-set change within the donor community. To compete for funds with over 900,000 NGOs in India, it is imperative that we build Parikrma’s brand equity as a credible and professional not-for-profit company with a unique character. The fact that Royal Resorts, Levi Strauss & Co, Dell, ING Vysya and Yahoo to name a few, have partnered with us, is an indication of our strong brand equity. PHF is managed on the lines of the country’s best-managed corporates with clear objectives and detailed plans. Quality and excellence are not just for the education of our children but themes that run throughout the organisation,” says Vivek Raju, a business management graduate of the University of Toronto, former marketing manager of Levi Strauss and a founder member and head of marketing at PHF.

Yet perhaps the unique selling proposition of Parikrma is that within two years of its registration, it has begun — by all available indicators successfully — practising a common school system by giving children from the lowest strata of society the opportunity to receive qualitatively acceptable English medium school education — hitherto the preserve of the ruling class. This is a landmark achievement because children of the poor have always been crowded into shabby ill-equipped government schools staffed by indifferent teachers offering low quality education in regional or vernacular languages to the almost total exclusion of English language learning. This early childhood deficiency disqualifies them from the middle and higher rungs of the booming national jobs market where English fluency — written and spoken — is a non-negotiable prerequisite.

“We are ready willing and able to share our blueprint including our curriculum, teacher training systems, best management practices and funding model with government and voluntary sector schools prepared to offer equal quality English medium education. We are also open to partnerships and franchises. Our goal is to establish a chain of Parikrma centres of learning across urban India, especially in the metros with a hub in Bangalore where teacher training and pedagogical research will be done continuously. Our aim is to build partnerships — both government and private — that will help millions of under-served children access equal opportunity education across India. This is the only prescription for transforming India into a developed 21st century nation,” says Bose.

One of the most shameful and enduring injustices of post-independence India’s crumbling education system is the unwritten social contract of ‘education for the classes, literacy for the masses’. This intrinsically inegalitarian education model which has continuously restricted upward mobility of hundreds of millions of midnight’s children, condemning them to the status of hewers of wood and drawers of water, is being forthrightly challenged by the Parikrma school education model.

If Bose and her dedicated band of believers succeed in their mission — the era of effortless superiority of India’s acquisitive middle class will be over. The playing field will be leveled, and in the rapidly expanding national market for jobs, positions, power and perquisites the best man/ woman will win. Surely, that’s the way it should be.

With Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)

Also read: 50 Leaders who can revive Indian education – Shukla Bose

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