By creating a large resource base of new ‘role models’ or mentors for underprivileged children, Sriram Ayer is introducing the component of empathy in the existing education system and bridging the gap between a child’s perceived intelligence quotient and hidden emotional quotient. He is thus ushering in a systemic change in the way education is perceived and delivered to low-income groups and adding a new dimension to the way their dormant skills and abilities can be nurtured to ensure a future at par with the rest.
The New Idea
Sriram's, Nalanda Way program focuses on children from lower-income groups who lack support systems by way of academic and extra curricular guidance and counseling. He is thus creating an entirely new segment of social capital in the form of role models or ‘mentors’ drawn from the privileged sections of society, primarily the vast body of young corporate sector professionals. The carefully selected mentors, who are matched one-to-one with children in the program, interact continuously not only with their ‘mentees’ but the parents and teachers as well, to ensure that the child remains in a cycle of continuous learning. The mentor is a mix of friend, philosopher, guide, counselor and sounding board whose role is to draw out a child’s creative thought and skills and steer him or her towards the vast opportunities and choices that the new global economy has to offer. Sriram is thus building social intelligence by complementing formal education with a human relationship-based program that allows a child’s emotional intelligence to surface so that his/her’s potential can be tapped to the fullest. The ultimate aim is make education relevant for these children and help them make choices and identify new goals.
India’s education system remains rooted in the systems planted at the turn of the last century. Inflexible, unimaginative and uncompromising, it is dominated by numerical scoring and rote learning. Those failing to meet the required scores are left to fend for themselves, leading to drop-outs and entire generations of frustrated young people. Though intellectuals have critiqued it as a system that stifles creativity and stunts holistic development, in reality little has been done to fix it.While privately-run schools are clearly making an effort to make learning more child-centric, State-promoted primary and secondary education is still focused on meeting targets in the form of the number of children qualifying to take the board exams. Little attention is paid to a child’s special skills, creativity or abilities and there is hardly any provision for extra-curricular activities, counseling or career-oriented programs. Teachers fail to provide support, defeated by the sheer weight of numbers. The problem is more acute among the low-income groups, where parents, a majority of whom are illiterate, want to invest in their children but have no idea of how to help them access the opportunities unleashed by globalization.Through its Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, the Government of India is making elementary education universal. In India, 89 percent of children enter schools, 40 percent drop out before grade five, and 30 percent more leave before seventh grade. Hence, 80 percent of children do not complete a basic education. The alarming number of drop-outs with few marketable skills leads to continuing poverty and all too often, violence. While there is a Herculean effort on the part of various foundations and citizen organizations (COs) to minimize dropout rates, reduce child labor and increase enrollment, the current system focused on marks-oriented results and rote learning is stifling children’s creative energy. Most schools for low-income children have no playgrounds, no extra-curricular or group activities and little meaningful interaction between teachers and students. Ill-paid and overworked, teachers do not address the educational needs but also the emotional well-being of a child. The only assessment of a child’s abilities is through numerical scores, and children failing to achieve the high marks drop-out or are perceived as failures. Low-income children are especially disadvantaged because of the odds they face in balancing education with marginalization and survival needs. This system of learning results in a breakdown of communication within families because of the mismatch between parents’ expectations and the child’s performance in school. Parents from low-income groups, many of whom are uneducated themselves, have high expectations for their children, and the school represents a route out of poverty for the entire family. Also, driven by economic compulsions, they may not make informed contributions to their child’s education and depend on teachers for guidance. When a child fails to meet expectations, he/she often drops out, is expelled, or is pulled out of school by the parents and put to work. This has led to rising incidences of depression, substance abuse, personality disorders, anti-social behavior and, in drastic situations, suicides. The vicious cycle continues spawning generations of frustrated youth who, instead of creatively strengthening the human resource base of a developing nation, end up being used by politicians and terrorists in mindless confrontations. These children are without any access to the opportunities offered by globalization and India’s thriving market economy, which today employs only a fraction of the country’s 1 billion people.
A product of sustained inquiry and experimentation, Sriram’s Nalanda Way model is inspired by the ancient Buddhist seat of learning—Nalanda University (5th Century BCE to 12th Century AD) in what is now the state of Bihar in eastern India. The ruins of the university still stand testimony to one of the most creative systems of education in the world—leading to holistic development in an environment of peace and harmony. Drawing from history as well as contemporary social realities, Sriram began mobilizing a huge resource base of committed citizenry seeking avenues to meaningly contribute within society.The Nalanda Way model draws upon a mentor-based learning program where a carefully screened, committed, and trained adult volunteer builds relationships with a low-income family, helping the child to understand his or her strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on the positives rather than the negatives. Through this process, the child develops a well-rounded personality, with increasingly independent thoughts and the ability to develop plans, achieve goals, tackle problems, and make informed choices.Sriram’s target beneficiaries are low to middle-income families, focusing on children between 3 and 17 years. Targeting mentors of the age of 26 and above, Sriram’s strategies are a product of intensive analysis and interaction with experts ranging from teachers, child psychologists, neuro-psychiatrists, Montessori practitioners, behavioral scientists, relationship consultants and, most importantly, the children and their parents. After identifying schools that are willing to incorporate the program, Sriram focuses on building his mentor-base. He has targeted the vast network of young professionals with a social conscience, large corporate entrepreneurs and executives who seek avenues for Corporate Social Responsibility programs, senior citizens who offer a wealth of experience, and lonely parents of non-resident Indian children who need the relationships as much as the children. Sriram has also engaged large citizen organizations like the Rotary and Lions clubs.Sriram, in his quest for the informed and empathetic mentor, begins by presenting his program, inviting questions and brainstorming. The next step involves stringent screening of applicants to assess understanding, suitability, motivation, tenacity and level of commitment. The mentor must provide two references to a two-member panel that makes the final selection. Only three percent of the applicants are finally approved as mentors. Applicants that do not meet the requirements as mentors are involved in the organization as volunteers. Volunteers graduate into mentors over time as they mature. Sriram plans to add another piece to the process of mentor selection—that of home assessment to ensure stability. In addition, once a mentor is chosen, he/she must commit to a minimum period of a year’s mentorship, contributing at least an hour a week towards relationship building with the mentee and his family.Additionally, Sriram enlists schools to recommend possible mentees and initiate introductions to their parents. Both mentor and mentee are profiled extensively. Intensive family interviews give Nalanda Way an insight into parental mindsets, expectations and the challenges faced by both parents and children. Parents are required to sign a consent form. The mentor provides space for the child to share feelings, misgivings and triumphs with a person outside the family. Together, an ambience of learning and individual development is created. Alternative strategies for problem solving are explored, encouraging questioning, structured thinking and the persistence to pursue goals with accuracy and flexibility. Creative processes are set into motion, which draw out ingenuity, originality and insight. It also leads to better listening, consensus seeking empathy, compassion, and leadership skills. The next step is the training component, where a mentor is taken through the various stages and processes in relationship building and the methodologies to set relationship-based goals. Experts are brought in at every stage to help in the process of understanding the needs and challenges and, more importantly, the child’s mind. Mentorship is restricted to school premises. Apart from encouraging a positive attitude towards learning and school, mentors and mentees spend time on activities such as schoolwork, games, sports, art, creative writing, exploring nature and creating collages to hone the development needs of the child.After a month, a half-day meeting is organized to share experiences. Key performance indicators are developed to measure the impact of relationships. The first 6 months are crucial and focused on building trust with the child and the family. Regular support group meetings bolster mentor progress and a lead mentor supports and monitors every 30 relationships, acting as a link between the organization and learning community. After a mentor is matched with a mentee, a system of checks and balances ensures that the relationship is on an even keel. Sriram has created ‘Listening Posts’ or drop boxes placed strategically in schools to receive feedback from children. Children are encouraged to recognize threatening signals and negative behavior patterns among mentors. Parents are also free to opt out of relationships. Sriram has succeeded in generating much interest and has recruited 142 mentors. The mentoring program currently serves 270 children residing in the slums of Triplicane, Royapuram, Vilivakkam and Mambalam in Chennai and in Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu. The program reaches over 1,700 children in Krishnagiri, Nagapattinam, Chennai, Cuddalore, Kanchipuram and Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu.In urban centers most of the mentors are executives from companies in the city. The program is being extended to Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi. Local COs and companies will anchor the program. The aim is to target 100 children in each city during 2006. Sriram has piloted a franchise model of spread, whereby Nalanda Way will not directly implement the mentor program within a company, but instead, will train internal champions and CEOs on the core elements and will monitor compliance with standards and impact measures. Krishnagiri, a rural and semi-urban district, one of the 16 most in need in India, according to UNICEF, is one of Sriram’s first expansions beyond urban centers. Nalanda Way is implementing a “peer to peer” approach to mentoring children who have been rescued from dangerous work situations. The mentoring program recruits young people aged 18 to 21 to mentor younger children who are in rehabilitation. Eight thousand children are estimated to be at risk in this area. Sriram’s newest innovation is Project Karna, a network of community volunteers and coordinators who are residents of villages or slums where Nalanda Way is working. Many are youth “graduates” of Nalanda Way and the idea is that they will undertake community surveys and then communicate important child welfare information to the entire community, to government and citizen organizations and international bodies. This will form an indigenous mapping, documentation and monitoring system from within poor communities to influence public policy. Nominated children will become Mentor Junior and, as leaders, identify the health and education problems and priorities of other children in their class, street and the larger community. Mindtree Consulting, an innovative technology company in Bangalore, is adopting the Nalanda Way model and has offered to build the web-based portal for project Karna at pro bono.Nalanda Way’s East Side Story Program will develop media champions for issues related to children. Children who are disadvantaged may become victims or are close to individuals who have been subjected to injustice and suffering. They have a better understanding of their problems so involving them actively in expressing their needs through powerful channels may shake up the government, policy makers, COs, donors, and citizens to understand and respond to problems as children perceive them. “East Side Story” will create a network of children teams between the ages 14 to 17 in villages, towns and cities to research, write, and produce film stories on issues for publication and broadcast in newspapers, magazines, television, radio and on the Internet. Children are already communicating their messages at conferences and forums, such as the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Sriram reveres Mahatma Gandhi as one of his role models; inspiring an entire nation with the power of his principles in an age when there were little or no communication systems. “It needs the right people, maybe just one or two, to spark an entire movement,” says the 29 year old. Sriram has sought innovative solutions to the problems he faced—whether exploring auto suggestion theories; developing a short-term memory program (at 14 years) to help students prepare for exams or founding Society for Enrichment through Advanced Techniques during his college years to help students understand and prepare for the needs of industries. Beginning his career in advertising, in 1996 Sriram received his MBA from the Advertising Club of Madras. He opened a business solutions company offering corporate training in executive effectiveness over the Internet. In 1998, Ibhar Industries invited him to join as a consultant. During the internet technology slump from 2000 to 2001, Sriram started a program within the organization called ‘Together We Can’ which served to boost employee morale and ultimately helped to turn the company around.The Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in early 2002 were a turning point for Sriram. He began looking for solutions to stop violence in the future. Believing that the present education system had created a capable workforce but had failed to create a framework that built skills, capabilities and attitudes for people to coexist peacefully, he devised the Nalanda Way model to address the issue of responsible citizenry. As a forerunner to his current initiative, he created Me, My (Child) Future in 2004. In 2003, Sriram became the Director of Ibhar and was promoted to direct the organization’s Malaysian operations. However, he decided to quit his job to devote all his time to the Nalanda Way program.