Too cool for school

Published: 08 December, 2013 08:03 IST | Rinky Kumar |

Engineer-turned-social entrepreneur Gaurav Singh's organisation, 3.2.1, aims to run India's first charter-run school network and plans to launch a pilot project next year where teachers from low-income schools will receive training in cognitive skills

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, I make my way to the Janabai & Madhavrao Rokde Municipal Marathi School at Masjid Bunder. As I climb up to the building’s second floor, the words Prayatna ha yashacha paaha aahe (try and try till you succeed) welcome me. I enter a hall that has been turned into two makeshift classrooms by putting up cupboards in the middle of the hall. In the first classroom, I see children huddled into five groups. They are attending an art class.

But it isn’t just any other art class. Here, the kids are learning the art of crumpling wherein they crumple a piece of coloured paper and stick it inside an alphabet that is drawn on an A3 paper. The exercise has threefold benefits. The children identify colour, alphabet and how to make the best use of limited resources. 

Gaurav Singh quit his job at Accenture to join Teach for India (TFI) in 2009. After teaching at schools in Pune and Mumbai, Singh felt the need to start a school that would provide high-quality education on par with elite schools at government costs by using government infrastructure

After finishing the assignment, one of the girls asks me, “Didi, isn’t it nice?” Later, they move to the centre of the room and pronounce the letters on which they have stuck the crumpled colour papers. During the course of the next hour, their teacher, Lara Maria Velho, plays them a song, urges them to dance to it, shows them a cartoon on a projector, pins pictures of animals on the board and asks the kids to identify them. She concludes the class by asking the kids to do padmasan.

Velho is one of the 10 teachers who is working with 3.2.1, the brainchild of engineer-turned-Teach for India (TFI) alumnus, Gaurav Singh. He aims to run India’s first charter-run school (privately operated and publicly funded) network. Its first school started operations last June in a municipal school in the Crawford Market area. It was run on the public-private partnership model where the premises was given by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and 3.2.1 brought in its own teachers and teaching techniques. After the BMC declared the Crawford Market building as dilapidated, the organisation is now operating from the Janabai & Madhavrao Rokde Municipal Marathi School at Masjid Bunder. Things have changed for the better since last year. Today, the organisation has 235 kids in senior KG and first standard, the operations of which started this year.

After the BMC declared the Crawford Market building, from where 3.2.1 started its operations last year, as dilapidated, the foundation now functions from the Janabai Municipal School at Masjid Bunder. Pic/ Sayed Sameer Abedi 

The children hail from low-income families in and around Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Crawford Market. Seventy per cent of the kids’ parents are daily wage earners while others are grade four employees of the BMC. Most of these kids are first generation learners.

Chasing dreams
Twenty-nine-year-old Singh, who hails from Lucknow, got the idea for 3.2.1. four years ago after he quit his cushy job at Accenture to attend the first batch of TFI. He says, “I didn’t join TFI for the education part.I wanted to do something for the society. We always have armchair discussions about the dismal state of affairs in the country. But how many of us actually act on them? It’s high time we take matters in our hands and do something.” His friends and family members were appalled at his decision to quit his job for a teaching experience. “Their reactions ranged from mild confusion to anger,” he says.

After joining TFI and teaching at schools in Pune and Mumbai, Singh felt the need to start a school that would provide high-quality education on par with elite schools at government costs by using government infrastructure.

He enrolled for the Fisher fellowship organised by the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), the largest network of charter schools that work with disadvantaged communities in the US. “I travelled to schools that provide quality education to students and have a high reputation. Most of them followed the Pygmalion effect,” explains Singh. Conducted by a psychology professor Robert Rosenthal and a school principal Lenore Jacobson in 1968, the Pygmalion effect derives its name from the Greek mythology of Pygmalion. In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the kids showed that enhancement.

Parents at a Parents-Teachers Meeting colour, write and prepare a book on what they feel about 3.2.1 Education Foundation 

Singh visited nearly 40 charter, public and private schools in the US and observed how they operate. He realised that the schools focussed on high level of development for teachers and building a strong moral and value base that would seep from teachers to students. “The extensive travelling served two purposes: firstly it gave me a window to see how schools operate and secondly it gave me access to mentors whom we could call to India and who could share their knowledge with the teachers and kids,” elaborates Singh.

After he returned, he faced three major hurdles — finding donors, forming partnership with the government and convincing parents to send their wards.

“When we started raising funds, we faced frequent rejections. People told me the idea was not good enough, I wouldn’t be able to carry it forward and so on. Finally, those people who had seen me teaching as part of TFI decided to donate funds,” he narrates. Singh got funds from Central Square Foundation, a start-up that supports school education and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wings of organisations. Singh was clear that kids wouldn’t have to pay for their education. He knew that several rooms were lying vacant in municipal schools, so he decided to make use of them by proposing it to the civic body. “After traversing the city and running from pillar to post for the formalities, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the BMC. Finally we got a room at Crawford Market,” he explains.

Nandita Shetty, a 2010 Teach For India Fellow, addresses the students

The third challenge was to convince parents to send their children to the school. “We actually went door to door to convince the parents. On the opening day, we got only 50-60 kids but gradually word spread and more kids started coming in. Finally at the end of the year, we had 120 students. We asked the parents how did they define quality education earlier and now. And they said earlier they would associate quality education with high fees, donation and English-medium schools. Now they associate it with the fact that teachers care for kids as much as the parents and the children look forward to coming to school and their learning is visible at home,” elaborates Singh.

Never too late to learn
The 3.2.1. team comprises 10 teachers, eight of whom are TFI alumni while the other two hold BEd degrees. Before the school started last year, Singh held a four-week training with his team where they had discussions on everything from philosophy to international education practices. They studied the latest in cognitive science and behavioral psychology, poured through the works of giants in the field of education, analysed schools and school systems and then worked on creating all the resources required to set up a school.

Today, the classes run from 10: 30 am to 5 pm. There are two teachers in each class. The syllabus for both the standards comprises mathematics, language and co-curricular that includes art, science, social studies and geography. Teachers make daily lesson plans in their respective content areas.

Half an hour in the evening after the classes are over there is a debrief where teachers discuss how did the day go, did the content plan work and strive to improve on a daily basis. “Teachers learn from each other. We do assessments every six months to try and understand how are the kids coping. Mid-May to mid-June the teachers undergo intensive training,” says Karishma Kotwani, head of operations of 3.2.1.

The senior KG kids at the arts class

Singh adds that different kinds of evaluation are undertaken for teachers and kids. “Twice a year, we conduct assessments for kids. The child doesn’t know it’s an exam. We make them comfortable and interview them on a one-to-one basis. We note down how they fare and enter it on a excel sheet. Then we analyse the data qualitatively and quantitavely. So for instance, we give the child a book that he has read in class and ask them to identify the characters, the central theme and so on. Then we bring in a new book, the teacher reads excerpts from it and asks the kid what will happen next. This helps us understand the child’s critical thinking ability. We undertake remediation and enrichment classes if we feel the kid isn’t picking up something,” he elaborates.
Singh also brings down experts from abroad who can share their knowledge with his team. Last year for a week, Dr Stephanie Smith of Georgia State University, who has been working in cognitively guided instruction (CGI) (an approach that helps teachers understand the ways in which children invent strategies to engage with the problems they face in arithmetic), visited the 3.2.1 premises. Singh aims to focus on problem-solving and understanding versus just memorisation method by using the Test of Everyday Reading Comprehension (TERC) Investigations Curriculum used in classrooms in the US. This curriculum is designed to promote a deep understanding of mathematical concepts. For example, to teach math, the teachers use the Investigations Curriculum by TERC which allows students to discover the concept of counting on their own, rather being taught numbers through memorisation. By laying this foundation of independent thinking, students are better able to grasp more difficult concepts of addition, division, fractions, etc. later on. Singh saw this curriculum being used during school visits in the US and knew he had to have it, but was prohibited by its high costs. TERC agreed to donate outdated copies to the school for free.

Changing lives
Explaining the meaning of 3.2.1, Kotwani says, “We believe the purpose of education is the journey to understand three things: the self, others and life. On this journey we will be guided by two phrases — excellence is a habit and grace under pressure. We will know we are successful when everyone asks one question — ‘what will I do about it?”

The children’s lives have changed to a certain extent after enrolling in 3.2.1. For instance, Ambran Shaikh, whose father died of alcohol poisoning and whose mother works as domestic help, was troublesome and extremely violent when he joined the class. Gradually, his behaviour improved and became helpful to fellow students and his teachers.

It has been a learning experience for the teachers, too. Twenty-three-year old Velho says, “I joined the school last year when I was doing the second year of fellowship for TFI. It’s been an eye-opening and challenging exercise and I have realised just how unfair the education system is. I hail from Goa, which has a fairly egalitarian system. When I came to Mumbai, I was shocked to see the disparity in the system and the great divide between the society. Here, I learnt how to interact with kids and how to teach them.”

Looking at the future
Singh says that next year, they will launch a pilot project of training other teachers of low-income schools in cognitive skills and imparting them the same knowledge that his teachers have. By using research to shape their practice and technology to capture their methodology he aims to create ‘lab schools’ which, like research and development centres, will create, test and share innovations in teaching with the education community. “We want to ensure that the current school has classes till standard 10 in the future. We are looking at identifying spots in Mumbai where this model can be replicated. In the long term, we want to open such centres across the country,” concludes Singh.  

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