Project Akshara was originally an initiative of members of Samvedhana, the social service and Eco Club of Young Economist School (YES) with the active support and guidance of some faculty members. In the next phase, it was broadened to enable active participation of students and faculty from all departments and schools of University of Hyderabad and renamed as Project Akshara, HCU. It is a two months’ comprehensive programme wherein every semester is aimed at strengthening both the infrastructure and quality of teaching in government schools. We have currently implemented it in two schools of Gopanpally village near our university. The schools are: Gopanpally Primary School and Gopanpally Thanda School. Our project was welcomed with enthusiasm by the students of the two schools who stayed back every day for an hour after their regular classes including Saturdays despite it being a holiday for the schools. At the close of the programme, we organized a Grand Finale of Project Akshara, where the kids get an opportunity to showcase what they have learnt including some cultural programmes like songs, rhymes etc., and improve their self-confidence.
Project Akshara is based on the vision that all children of the poorest of the poor families should get access to quality education and this is possible only when govt. schools are developed by providing sufficient infrastructure and adequate number of teachers and helping the teachers to evolve good quality teaching. We also believe that the pedagogical methods adopted for these children should be different to take into account their lived experience. The third aim is to study the curriculum and bring changes into it to ensure that the students can relate to the curriculum prescribed. It aims at building interest in students towards school and education and boosting their confidence. Project Akshara is all about sharing knowledge by those of us who are fortunate enough to have some education with the poverty- stricken and illiterate population of our country and boosting the quality and image of govt. schools.
Parents’ Mobilization and Enrollment Drive
After reopening of the schools in 2013, Project Akshara decided to participate in the enrollment drive initiated by A.P. Govt. On 12th June, the children of Gopanpally Primary School and on 19th June, the children of Gopanpally Thanda Primary school, held impressive rallies, going around the Gopanpally Thanda Village. The children carried placards and shouted slogans like “Protect the Government Schools to protect human values and provide quality education to us, appoint teachers, construct class rooms in our School, admit your children to our School” etc.. The children appealed to the Government/authorities to provide at least those facilities and teachers as specified in the RTE Act.
A parents’ mobilization programme was conducted as part of Project Akshara, wherein, the volunteers visited the houses of the students which made the mobilization programme a success. We conducted a meeting with all the parents and teachers of the two schools on 23rd February 2013 and 24th February 2013. The parents were very vocal about the required facilities and quality of teaching in their respective schools. They asked many questions about poor quality of midday meals, lack of teachers in the school. We prepared a memorandum raising these issues separately and got it signed by parents in that meeting itself and it was submitted to higher authorities. As a result of all the above initiatives and repeated reminders to DEO by Project Akshara, the Gopanpally Primary School appointed three additional teachers at the beginning of 2013-14 academic year. GopanpallyPrimary School got two additional teacher posts and Gopanpally Primary School, Thanda got one additional post. In addition, the local MLA and local youth groups provided one contract teacher each to the schools.
Curriculum and Pedagogy
One of the goals in the semester January-May 2014 was to study the curriculum of the 4th and 5th classes. This was to understand the gap between the students and their curriculum. We had our own students supplement the teaching of the regular teachers and some of us among the faculty sat in as observers. We found that the English text books that are prescribed are far above the standard of the children in these schools. We also wanted to observe the children’s responses to different pedagogical methods. We suggested methods for our students to adopt when teaching the children. We observed if these methods had any advantage in terms of reinforcing the learning. For example, we had a couple of students teaching in the morning and asked them to give home work. We asked other volunteers who go in the evening to synchronize with the morning volunteers and ensure that more individual attention is paid in the evening where children are made to do the home work in the school itself. Volunteers reported that there was definitely an improvement in some of the children, thanks to such individual attention. We could not do it for long during this semester to understand the real benefits of these methods. We plan to explore them further in the coming semesters.
As part of Project Akshara, we also had a plantation drive in both the schools. This programme was received by teachers very well and they personally stayed in the school for this programme even after office hours. They made arrangements for watering these new plants every day. This has brought us very close to the teachers and students of these schools.
Preparing students for entrance exams
In the holidays, Project Akshara team also gave coaching to students for writing entrance exams for Navodaya School and A.P. Residential schools. They collected books and other material and took classes. This is another way to convince parents that their children can get good opportunities for studying in these schools and we will help them in that direction.
All these measures definitely helped schools to get some additional teachers from DEO, which is helpful to improve quality of education. Because of our supplementary teaching, the kids learned more than what they would have otherwise. Of course, we have to improve our own pedagogical practices to suit the background of the children. We have to understand the suitability of curricula based on the family background and regional specifics. If needed, we may need to advocate changing some portions of the syllabus in different subjects based on this study. We have to also exercise considerable pressure on SSA officials to make them responsive to the needs of the schools.
It is our considered view that if all universities, colleges and other higher educational institutions in the country follow this model with their teachers and students, then certainly the politicians, educational bureaucracy will come to the senses and will be forced to discharge their duties and make this country educated. Till then we cannot claim that this country is a civilized one.