Gyaan Ghar had a very successful first month of classes. Each day, students were driven from Malwa Public School to our house in New Lajpat Nagar directly after school, and remained in class from 1:30-3:00. The number of students increased from eight to twenty-one. However, quite a few of these new pupils are boys, and Gyaan Ghar is a learning center aimed primarily at helping female students; this is an issue we will address in the near future. Two registers were created: one for attendance and one to track students’ overall progress. The teachers, Radhika and Silky, developed a system through which one of them teaches for the first hour of the class while the other one supervises the students’ work, and then vice versa. They decided upon teaching basic curriculum to start, in order to spark the students’ interest. Lessons taught daily included drawing, poetry recitation, Hindi spelling, English sentences, and basic mathematics.

As stated in the objectives of this school, we wish to help these students develop their creative and artistic abilities, but also to ensure that they flourish inside the classroom. Thus, the issue of teaching directly from their school syllabus has arisen. As the learning center is at its preliminary stages and students range from upper kindergarten to third standard, it is difficult for two teachers to teach material to children who differ so greatly in age and ability. In the future, we may divide students by grade level and assign one teacher to upper kindergarten and first standard and the other to second and third standards. This time has been very beneficial to the students as well as useful in making us aware of many issues we must address.

I should also inform you of my experience at Pratham, an NGO working on providing supplementary education to less fortunate children living in slum areas of Delhi. When my father met Mr. Sharad Pawar in New Delhi and happened to mention the establishment of Gyaan Society, Mr. Pawar suggested that I observe Pratham's work and arranged for us to visit them. I spent half a day visiting their various programs and learned that their primary mechanism of imparting education is by setting up mobile and stationary classrooms within the communities and engaging teachers who are also high school students from the same communities.

The Establishment of Gyaan Society

When will our teacher come again?

 During the summers of 2006 and 2007 in India, I taught the young children of domestic help, drivers, gardeners etc. working in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Ludhiana, Punjab. However, once I would return home to the United States, my students would all inquire as to where I had gone and when I would be returning. To address these long gaps in their experience with the alternative education to which I was exposing them, I decided to set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) through which these underprivileged children could continue to receive creative supplementary education outside of their primary schools on an ongoing basis.

Doing the Paperwork

I started this process with a visit to a company lawyer, who would help me with the formal registration of my Society (a term for NGOs commonly used in India). He informed me that I would need a list of seven society members as well as statements of my objectives for both the society and the learning center I was planning to open. In selecting these members, I looked for individuals who were involved in fields such as education, health, and general community service. The lawyer suggested that since I was a minor and therefore, could not be formally included in the official documents for the society, I should select someone from my family in India to be president of the society on my behalf. Since the learning center I planned to open would be in a vacant wing of our house where my grandparents live, I decided to offer her to be the President of the society so that she could directly supervise the school’s daily activities. The goals I compiled are outlined below:

Objectives of the Society

 1. To promote the wellbeing of needy members of the community.
2. To help the less fortunate members achieve their true potential by providing them with opportunities to overcome their social, economic, and developmental challenges.
3. To mobilize the more fortunate members of the community for assisting their fellow less fortunate community members in their efforts to achieve their true potential.

Objectives of the School
1. To give bright but underprivileged children a head start in life, and promote their well-rounded development.
2. To facilitate this process through endowment of knowledge in the fields of Language, Mathematics, Culture, Arts, Hygiene, and other areas.
3. To supplement their classroom learning with additional assistance and support in comprehending school curriculum and through provision of additional knowledge in a number of fields.

There’s a lot in a name!

I would also need to decide upon a name for the NGO and the school. After much deliberation, I came up with the inspiring and alliterative Gyaan Ghar, which means “House of Knowledge” for the learning center, and decided on Gyaan, or “Knowledge” for the NGO.

Search for Students

My next step was to find a critical mass of female students interested in attending my learning center. The reason I wanted to focus on girls was that there is strong discrimination against the girl child in India, and parents are often willing to spend more on the education of their sons in order to send them to good schools, than on spending on the education of their daughters. I collaborated with the headmistress of Malwa Public School, a neighborhood school catering mainly to children from poor families to identify female students from ages five to ten who were both financially underprivileged as well as interested in learning. The location of this school would allow for easy transportation of students who would need to walk because their parents work during the day. The headmistress was very supportive of my project and promised to send me a rickshaw full of potential students the next day. I prepared a simple and interactive curriculum for Gyaan Ghar’s first class and taught eleven students ranging from kindergarten to grade four for two hours that day. After teaching them for two more days, I held a meeting with their parents to convince them about the benefits of supplementary education.

Selection of Teachers

I then began my search for suitable teachers by having an advertisement posted in The Tribune, a prominent state level newspaper. The advertisement read as follows:

Young women teachers aged 18-25 years.
To teach at local learning center for primary school girls in New Lajpat Nagar.
Call 099153-44717.

I was contacted by seven interested candidates, whom I interviewed by myself. The focus of my questions was to gauge how creative and hands-on their teaching approaches were, and how passionate they were about teaching young children from underprivileged hoouseholds. Communication was also a key criterion, as I needed to send monthly curriculum and receive weekly progress reports via internet. In the end, I chose three finalists, whom I invited to prepare half-hour lesson plans and teach sample lessons. After observing these lessons, I hired two of them to continue teaching after I left. One would be a full time employee, to be paid Rupees 4000 per month (about $100), and the other would work part time, receiving a salary of Rs. 3000 per month.
The learning center now has twenty-one students, seventeen girls and four boys, and completed its fourth week of classes today.

Cost of Running Gyaan Ghar

I calculated that the total cost of running Gyaan Ghar is between Rs. 150,000 to Rs. 160,000 a year, which is about $4000 per year. I can manage to keep the cost so low because there is no need to pay the rent for the current premises for the learning center. Once we expand (other parents are already requesting that their children should also be admitted to the school), the costs are likely to increase. I intend raising all of the money required to support the school from America.

Reporting and Communications

In order to manage the learning center from here, electronic communications are key. I get regular (almost daily) reports from the teacher who is a full time employee, and she reports on school attendance, main topics covered, and any problems and issues that may have arisen. For example, though the stated purpose of the school is to teach female students, four boys also showed up one day. My teachers reported that two of the boys were extremely bright and from very poor families. I thought a lot about this issue and then decided to include a small proportion of male students, not more than 20%, at the learning center. Another issue I am now facing is the resignation of my full time teacher as she is getting married next month and her future husband lives in Delhi, about 200 miles away. Apart from regular contact with the teachers, I also talk to my grandmother every Saturday morning to discuss any housekeeping issues that need to be resolved. Based on these reports from the teachers and my grandmother, I send a weekly report to all of my society members. A sample of a weekly report is included in the next post.

A Bright Future

I believe we are off to a good start and I am very optimistic about the future – both of our society as well as of the poor bright children we are trying to help become equal citizens of this world.