Shukla Bose: Teaching one child at a time

I’m standing in front of you today in all humility, wanting to share with you my journey of the last six years in the field of service and education. And I’m not a trained academic. Neither am I a veteran social worker. I was 26 years in the corporate world, trying to make organizations profitable. And then in 2003 I started Parikrma Humanity Foundation from my kitchen table. The first thing that we did was walk through the slums. You know, by the way, there are two million people in Bangalore, who live in 800 slums. We couldn’t go to all the slums, but we tried to cover as much as we could. We walked through these slums, identified houses where children would never go to school. We talked to the parents, tried to convince them about sending their children to school. We played with the children, and came back home really tired, exhausted, but with images of bright faces, twinkling eyes, and went to sleep. We were all excited to start, but the numbers hit us then: 200 million children between four to 14 that should be going to school, but do not; 100 million children who go to school but cannot read; 125 million who cannot do basic maths. We also heard that 250 billion Indian rupees was dedicated for government schooling. Ninety percent of it was spent on teachers’ salary and administrators’ salary. And yet, India has nearly the highest teacher absenteeism in the world, with one out of four teachers not going to school at all the entire academic year. Those numbers were absolutely mind-boggling, overwhelming, and we were constantly asked, “When will you start? How many schools will you start? How many children will you get? How are you going to scale? How are you going to replicate?” It was very difficult not to get scared, not to get daunted. But we dug our heels and said, “We’re not in the number game. We want to take one child at a time and take the child right through school, sent to college, and get them prepared for better living, a high value job.” So, we started Parikrma. The first Parikrma school started in a slum where there were 70,000 people living below the poverty line. Our first school was on a rooftop of a building inside the slums, a second story building, the only second story building inside the slums. And that rooftop did not have any ceiling, only half a tin sheet. That was our first school. One hundred sixty-five children. Indian academic year begins in June. So, June it rains, so many a times all of us would be huddled under the tin roof, waiting for the rain to stop. My God! What a bonding exercise that was. And all of us that were under that roof are still here together today. Then came the second school, the third school, the fourth school and a junior college. In six years now, we have four schools, one junior college, 1,100 children coming from 28 slums and four orphanages. (Applause) Our dream is very simple: to send each of these kids, get them prepared to be educated but also to live peacefully, contented in this conflict-ridden chaotic globalized world. Now, when you talk global you have to talk English. And so all our schools are English medium schools. But they know there is this myth that children from the slums cannot speak English well. No one in their family has spoken English. No one in their generation has spoken English. But how wrong it is. Girl: I like adventurous books, and some of my favorites are Alfred Hitchcock and [unclear] and Hardy Boys. Although they are like in different contexts, one is magical, the other two are like investigation, I like those books because they have something special in them. The vocabulary used in those books and the style of writing. I mean like once I pick up one book I cannot put it down until I finish the whole book. Even if it takes me four and a half hours, or three and half hours to finish my book, I do it. Boy: I did good research and I got the information [on the] world’s fastest cars. I like Ducati ZZ143, because it is the fastest, the world’s fastest bike, and I like Pulsar 220 DTSI because it is India’s fastest bike. (Laughter) Shukla Bose: Well, that girl that you saw, her father sells flowers on the roadside. And this little boy has been coming to school for five years. But isn’t it strange that little boys all over the world love fast bikes? (Laughter) He hasn’t seen one, he hasn’t ridden one, of course, but he has done a lot of research through Google search. You know, when we started with our English medium schools we also decided to adopt the best curriculum possible, the ICSE curriculum. And again, there were people who laughed at me and said, “Don’t be crazy choosing such a tough curriculum for these students. They’ll never be able to cope.” Not only do our children cope very well, but they excel in it. You should just come across to see how well our children do. There is also this myth that parents from the slums are not interested in their children going to school; they’d much rather put them to work. That’s absolute hogwash. All parents all over the world want their children to lead a better life than themselves, but they need to believe that change is possible. Video: (Hindi) SB: We have 80 percent attendance for all our parents-teachers meeting. Sometimes it’s even 100 percent, much more than many privileged schools. Fathers have started to attend. It’s very interesting. When we started our school the parents would give thumbprints in the attendance register. Now they have started writing their signature. The children have taught them. It’s amazing how much children can teach. We have, a few months ago, actually late last year, we had a few mothers who came to us and said, “You know, we want to learn how to read and write. Can you teach us?” So, we started an afterschool for our parents, for our mothers. We had 25 mothers who came regularly after school to study. We want to continue with this program and extend it to all our other schools. Ninety-eight percent of our fathers are alcoholics. So, you can imagine how traumatized and how dysfunctional the houses are where our children come from. We have to send the fathers to de-addiction labs and when they come back, most times sober, we have to find a job for them so that they don’t regress. We have about three fathers who have been trained to cook. We have taught them nutrition, hygiene. We have helped them set up the kitchen and now they are supplying food to all our children. They do a very good job because their children are eating their food, but most importantly this is the first time they have got respect, and they feel that they are doing something worthwhile. More than 90 percent of our non-teaching staff are all parents and extended families. We’ve started many programs just to make sure that the child comes to school. Vocational skill program for the older siblings so the younger ones are not stopped from coming to school. There is also this myth that children from the slums cannot integrate with mainstream. Take a look at this little girl who was one of the 28 children from all privileged schools, best schools in the country that was selected for the Duke University talent identification program and was sent to IIM Ahmedabad. Video: Girl: Duke IIMA Camp. Whenever we see that IIMA, it was such a pride for us to go to that camp. Everybody was very friendly, especially I got a lot of friends. And I felt that my English has improved a lot going there and chatting with friends. There they met children who are with a different standard and a different mindset, a totally different society. I mingled with almost everyone. They were very friendly. I had very good friends there, who are from Delhi, who are from Mumbai. Even now we are in touch through Facebook. After this Ahmedabad trip I’ve been like a totally different mingling with people and all of those. Before that I feel like I wasn’t like this. I don’t even mingle, or start speaking with someone so quickly. My accent with English improved a lot. And I learned football, volleyball, Frisbee, lots of games. And I wouldn’t want to go to Bangalore. Let me stay here. Such beautiful food, I enjoyed it. It was so beautiful. I enjoyed eating food like [unclear] would come and ask me, “Yes ma’am, what you want?” It was so good to hear! (Laughter) (Applause) SB: This girl was working as a maid before she came to school. And today she wants to be a neurologist. Our children are doing brilliantly in sports. They are really excelling. There is an inter-school athletic competition that is held every year in Bangalore, where 5,000 children participate from 140 best schools in the city. We’ve got the best school award for three years successively. And our children are coming back home with bags full of medals, with lots of admirers and friends. Last year there were a couple of kids from elite schools that came to ask for admissions in our school. We also have our very own dream team. Why is this happening? Why this confidence? Is it the exposure? We have professors from MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, Indian Institute of Science who come and teach our children lots of scientific formulas, experiments, much beyond the classroom. Art, music are considered therapy and mediums of expression. We also believe that it’s the content that is more important. It is not the infrastructure, not the toilets, not the libraries, but it is what actually happens in this school that is more important. Creating an environment of learning, of inquiry, of exploration is what is true education. When we started Parikrma we had no idea which direction we were taking. We didn’t hire McKinsey to do a business plan. But we know for sure that what we want to do today is take one child at a time, not get bogged with numbers, and actually see the child complete the circle of life, and unleash his total potential. We do not believe in scale because we believe in quality, and scale and numbers will automatically happen. We have corporates that have stood behind us, and we are able to, now, open more schools. But we began with the idea of one child at a time. This is five-year-old Parusharam. He was begging by a bus stop a few years ago, got picked up and is now in an orphanage, has been coming to school for the last four and a half months. He’s in kindergarten. He has learned how to speak English. We have a model by which kids can speak English and understand English in three month’s time. He can tell you stories in English of the thirsty crow, of the crocodile and of the giraffe. And if you ask him what he likes to do he will say, “I like sleeping. I like eating. I like playing.” And if you ask him what he wants to do, he will say, “I want to horsing.” Now, “horsing” is going for a horse ride. So, Parusharam comes to my office every day. He comes for a tummy rub, because he believes that will give me luck. (Laughter) When I started Parikrma I began with a great deal of arrogance of transforming the world. But today I have been transformed. I have been changed with my children. I’ve learned so much from them: love, compassion, imagination and such creativity. Parusharam is Parikrma with a simple beginning but a long way to go. I promise you, Parusharam will speak in the TED conference a few years from now. Thank you. (Applause)


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