New Delhi — Close to a highway that connects the Indian capital to the neighboring northern Haryana state lies a small school where the world's largest brand has helped produce an amazing transformation.
Today, more than 600 boys and girls attend classes, eat nutritious lunches and play games like “I Spy” behind towering neem and mahogany trees. Beyond the campus are mustard plant fields where egrets happily pluck honey-filled buds.
Not long ago, however, the school was a bare-bones structure with only 370 students and two interim teachers. Power failures were frequent and children were forced to attend class in the dark. Teachers often failed to show up, and English, a prerequisite for most white-collar jobs in India, was rarely taught. Local villagers would often herd their cattle to graze within the school compound.
Today the lights are on, and children — not livestock — populate the campus. Almost a dozen teachers offer instruction, conducting classes five days a week. Metal drawing boards replace earlier ones made of cement. A new library funded by the United Kingdom-based Pearson Foundation houses more than 1,000 books — including novels and a few Spider-Man comic books. The students learn academic subjects as well as environmental ones, such as the intricacies of rainwater harvesting. The local elected-body, the Panchayat, lent a hand by laying the pathway making it easier for students to walk to class.
The transformation of the school in Jhundpur Village also included addressing a very basic concern — improved sanitation. There is no sanitation access for girls at almost fifty percent of schools in India. The girls are expected to take turns with the boys using single — often non-functional — toilets. Where there are no facilities, children use nearby fields — a situation that can be acutely distressing for some girls. In fact, many young women drop out of school to avoid the embarrassment of having to use the restroom in such challenging situations.
Fortunately, the sanitation issue has improved at many of these schools with funding from Support My School, a program led by
The program, the
The program has drawn accolades from many, including India’s minister of education, Kapil Sibal.
"There should be more like [
The campaign has been motivating to young adults as well. Harkunwar Singh, who took time off from college to teach computer basics to children in this school said, "if we don't do it, who will? I think youngsters across India should reach out and offer a hand and merge the divide."
"Who's going to help that little child with quality education and homework, and hold his hand? The failure to educate the poor threatens to derail India's economic miracle," says Atul Singh, President of
One of those important supporters, and the ambassador for the campaign is Sachin Tendulkar, the world's most venerated cricketer and now a member of parliament (MP), who routinely visits various schools across India as a
The schools that have been helped so far by the program can be viewed as templates for success. Experts believe programs like these help curb the broad socioeconomic gap that exists between the haves and have-nots in India. They hope Support My School will make things easier for poor children — many of whom speak only regional languages — to integrate into schools where classes are taught in English.
"In India, education is one of India's most pressing challenges. Such programs will help schools where education is in severe disarray," says Bunker Roy, a renowned Indian social expert who worked for more than three decades on similar projects in the country's northwestern desert state of Rajasthan.
Many agree with Roy.
"Efforts like these are a perfect blend of business and social inclusiveness. If more companies like
The Right to Education Act, passed into law by the government in April 2010, states that every child between the ages of six to fourteen has the constitutional right to schooling. Under the Act, Indian states qualify for more than $2 billion to hire teachers, improve curriculums and offer free lunches. Unfortunately resources remain a major constraint and the Act's effectiveness remains uncertain.
Indian policymakers who want government schools to raise the bar but find the litany of needs too much for the state to provide are trying to learn from
"Now that I have the facilities, I want to attend school every day and become a doctor," says Mariyana, an eighth grade student whose childhood hero is Bollywood hunk Salman Khan. But ask her about her role model, and she will tell you it is Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs. Mariyana wants to attend medical school and then return to serve her village as a doctor.
Standing nearby, Komal, also in eighth grader, says she wants to be a badminton player like Saina Nehwal, India's top shuttler who recently picked up a bronze at the London Olympic Games. Komal says that in the past she was tasked with making cakes out of cow dung to fuel the home fire. But now that she is focusing on her education, she says, “I enter the kitchen only to eat. My life has changed."
Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior Indian journalist. He lives in Delhi with his wife, daughter and three dogs.