In dozens of urban slums in India, Sarat Babu Vasireddy has initiated an educational movement of decentralized "community schools" run by slum dwellers themselves.
The New Idea
Against a backdrop of highly centralized and rigid state-mandated education, Sarat Babu Vasireddy is devising ways of decentralizing school governance, putting it in the hands of students, parents, teachers and communities. Although some alternative private schools in India have experimented with forms of decentralization, Sarat is breaking new ground in his attempt to apply this structure to a very different population-those living in India's vast and growing slums. Furthermore, his efforts to reform government policy, in light of his demonstrated successes, hold the promise for dramatically improving the educational prospects for poor, disenfranchised Indian children on a wide scale.In Sarat's view, power is "access, utility and control." His schools are accessible to and utilized by people who feel empowered to control them. In 170 schools servicing over 100 slums in and near the South Indian city of Hyderabad, he has already demonstrated that community-managed schools work as effective agents for change in society. Not only does it make practical sense to ask slum residents to identify their unique educational needs, but there are also compelling psychological reasons to put administrative control in their hands. When people accustomed to rejection and alienation are empowered to make decisions for themselves, they generate a powerful energy directed towards social ends. Furthermore, there is a transformation in a community's culture when the majority of children shift from being wage-earners to students.
Central to Sarat's work is his conviction that if school is firmly grounded in the community, it is likely to be effective long term. For that reason, he encourages the schools and communities to be mutually dependent and welcomes new types of interaction between them. For example, mothers in the slums take an active role in selecting local girls to be trained as teachers.
Traditionally, Indian schools have fit into one of two categories-government and private-each of whose characteristics are quite predictable. Government schools serve the poor and are run from a distance by state or federal government employees. The government oversees the building of schools, teacher training, curriculum development, choice of textbooks, monitoring, accountability, and decision-making. The government assigns certified teachers to posts in various cities and villages, places to which the teachers have no connections or loyalty. Private schools have considerably more leeway in hiring but are still bound by stringent curriculum constraints. Central control saps local initiative, restrains interaction between school and community, excludes teachers from curriculum development and textbook preparation, and prevents teachers from developing a broader role in and accountability to the community. This bureaucratic culture undermines teachers' dedication and leaves a theory rather than thinking-oriented curriculum and archaic teaching methods undisturbed.
On top of these problems, the students in government schools typically come from uneducated families without the means or the knowledge to help children succeed in school. Slum parents are often recent urban immigrants and their crowded homes cannot provide a quiet study space. They have difficulty helping their children with academic subjects. They often live far from established schools. Furthermore, a poor family typically needs all of its members to work.
India does have a few autonomous private schools that provide superior education and that successfully engage parents and sometimes even the surrounding community. However, their example seems so removed from the circumstances of the typical slum school as to be irrelevant or, at least, utterly beyond reach. Their parents and communities are educated and privileged, and their wealth allows them to hire very special teachers. They can experiment and adjust because they are not directly managed by a large government bureaucracy.
Sarat initially started three schools to provide a way for child laborers to regain their childhood. He wanted the government to fund these unique and imaginative schools, but with experience, his strategy began to change. He now believes that access to education takes precedence over creativity and that communities themselves should invest-financially and otherwise-in their schools. His refined strategy involves creating a critical mass of community schools in slums by redefining the traditional roles of parents, children, young adults and local citizen-based organizations. The resulting model provides first-time access to education for thousands of poor children. Students of all ages study together in the classrooms of the community schools. Children aged nine to fourteen may also attend educational camps held on a campus outside the city of Hyderabad. The continually evolving curriculum is based loosely on official textbooks in Urdu and Telugu (the region's mother tongue); the other materials are generated from the experiences of the local teachers, children and community. Some of the curriculum is devoted to issues particularly relevant to the community, such as sanitation, health, pollution and communal harmony. Sarat stresses that in school everyone is learning and that the teacher is there to help the child learn. This philosophy lies in direct contrast to most government schools, where failure indicates a lazy or dimwitted student, whose only cure can be strict discipline and even more memorization.
To build a corps of teachers who understand this philosophy, Sarat first conducts workshops with local youth. Placing their life experiences in the context of the larger society, these young adults learn to redefine their roles and visualize themselves as responsible lead players in the community, for education and other social issues. From these groups, Sarat identifies the girls with potential, relying heavily upon the recommendations of mothers in the slums. All teachers have passed tenth grade and Sarat only selects females because he claims they have more tact than men. Their pay is modest, but they earn more than they would while working in another job, such as in a shop. With his newfound teachers, Sarat runs a fifteen-day training program to teach them to interact with the community on educational issues.
Instead of relying on principals or other traditional hierarchies of school governance, ultimate administrative control lies in the hands of management committees, which consist primarily of fathers in the slums. They are trained to run and manage the school. The mothers' groups, besides recommending teachers, act as a watchdog for the schools, noting day to day problems that crop up.
As the community has awakened to the importance of education, success has been measurable. The slum dwellers have found places to set up the schools and have also begun to pay their share toward the expenses of educating their children; they contributed precious rupees when the government reallocated education funding and drastically cut funds for Sarat's program. (Within only six months Sarat won the support of the District Collector, who took up the case and used his authority to channel funding back into the community schools.) The nearly nonexistent absentee rate is further evidence of the strategy's success, as is the high number of Muslim girls attending the schools. In fact, girls as a whole make up 60 percent of all children enrolled in the schools-an astonishing figure for India. The rate of school dropouts has dropped dramatically, both in Sarat's schools and others nearby. In 1996, 7,000 children under the age of 9, who had previously been working full-time, were enrolled in his community schools. By the end of the year 4,000 of them remained in school full time, signifying that they had made the transition from child labor to formal education.
Because his schools are community based, Sarat has quickly been able to build up a powerful network that now includes diverse interest groups, policy advocacy groups, informal labor groups and youth clubs, as well as government agencies. Fifty of the schools have been adopted by local citizen organizations, some of which have already mobilized their own financial resources for running these schools. Additionally, the state of Andhra Pradesh (whose capital is Hyderabad) has begun supporting the schools through departments other than the Ministry of Education. Now the National Child Labor Program, the Adult Education Program, and the Women and Child Welfare Department all give financial assistance to Sarat's work, and the Ministry of Human Resources Development has granted funding for an adult education program. This new governmental support represents a major turnaround from when those challenged by his approach were able to cut government support.
Ultimately, Sarat would like to see decentralization of schools become standard policy. That is the next component of his work, along with re-energized attention to quality. Now, with 130 schools, he has the critical mass to be very influential in lobbying large scale spread of similar community-based schools across the country.
Sarat, whose father was an active trade unionist, comes from a political family. Although he studied engineering, he joined the Civil Liberties movement during college and realized he was cut out to work for social causes. After college he joined a child rights organization called the M.V. Foundation, and tried to attract street children into the classrooms and off the streets. It was here that he gained experience in lesson planning and teaching. He also participated actively in issues connected with handloom weavers, tribal people, and more extensively, child laborers. He had always been interested in creative education, but these experiences helped him both realize the importance of "full-time" educational opportunities and understand that access to education takes first priority. Sarat also realized that low quality education for poor children is a major cause of child labor: young people drop out of school and go to work in large part because the schools are not meeting their needs. For that reason, Sarat decided to shift from child labor issues to concentrate more specifically on education. However, he has continued to work as a resource person for international and domestic child labor groups. Until recently, Sarat was in charge of the District Resources Unit involved in teacher training. Now, as an Ashoka Fellow, he is devoting full time to implementing his idea.