2013 has been a landmark year for all of us at Akanksha. We made history through our first school – it was the first time ever in Pune that students from a government school took the class 10 board examination in English – and they did with resounding success. The school achieved a 100% result – every student passed. 72% of the students achieved a first class, including 22% who achieved a distinction. Every child is now pursuing further education.
Seeing the students’ beaming faces as they receive their graduation certificates is a gratifying feeling for a school leader, one I will never forget. But this would never have been possible without the unrelenting dedication of my team, who are truly the lifelines at school.
Numbers tell their own story. At KC Thackeray Vidya Niketan, student retention is as high as 99%, student attendance 95%, teacher attendance 94% and parent meeting attendance 73%. As our students step out into the world with their ‘SSC,’ they hold their own with millions of other more privileged children.
I cannot say exactly when I had the epiphany of wanting to work in the field of education. I was from a defence family (my father was in the navy). I had a very happy childhood. As I grew up and stepped out of my cocoon, I was horrified at the lives that so many children in India lead, and the injustice they suffer every day. While pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Work, I had the opportunity to work with and study the lives of children employed in the zari industry in Dharavi. I also took up projects with friends with the UNICEF in Assam, and in Guntoor. I was saddened and bewildered by a society that refused to take children seriously and then griped about mushrooming social problems. I yearned to run a school where children could learn and play, express themselves, acquire confidence, grow and explore their potential with dignity.
The opportunity emerged after a conversation with Shaheen Mistri – Founder of Akanksha and now CEO of Teach For India. She shared my dream of running a transformational school, and was on the lookout for a “maverick” who would take on the project. I realized that was the moment, and took up the offer. That my dream could come true so swiftly took my breath away.
Akanksha, the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation and the PMC School Board converged to give shape to one of the first Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) schools in India. Each institution had its own perspective but all had the same vision – to create opportunities for underprivileged children so that can compete on a level playing field. The chance to be the school leader of KC Thackeray Vidya Niketan in Pune marked the beginning of an amazing experience. Like a spectacular mountain trek, it has been challenging, awe-inspiring, scary and gratifying.
We started with 180 children in grades 3, 4 and 5, who came to us from other government schools. They lived in under-served communities all over Pune, and came from families that thirsted for a decent education for their children. Starry eyed, my team sought to infuse them with the spirit of learning and service to society. We saw them as self reliant, passionate and responsible citizens of a new world – a new, equitable and progressive society.
It was a tall order and the challenges multiple and diverse. How does one urge a child to do his homework and study for an hour everyday when he lives under a bridge? Or impress upon a child the importance of attending school when he is the only one who can look after and feed his injured mother in the hospital after his drunk father broke her jaw? Through this journey, the children taught me and my team more about life than we could teach them. We abandoned convention, innovated, so our students could explore their potential despite their challenges. They worked hard, with us as sometimes cajoling, sometimes stern coaches by their side. I swung from keen disappointment when a child gave up on herself, to sheer awe when I saw her grit to make it, no matter what.
Today, a devoted team of 27 teachers and five administrative staff members works tirelessly for the children. We follow a model of distributed leadership. Each teacher is part of a smaller group, led by a peer. Thus, decision making is collaborative, never unilateral. There is natural ownership among the team, of all school processes and programmes. The team is the heart of the school. The teachers of Vidya Niketan do whatever it takes, and not just whatever they can, to turn children around. They come in on weekends and holidays if needed, driving the kids, leading them, mentoring them.
The work culture is genial and supportive, and team members help each other out constantly. They experiment actively to find better ways of helping children achieve through hands-on authentic experiences, and analyse data to keep us on track. Through this work, we help to evolve and add to the Akanksha curriculum.
As the years progress, we have become one with our children, their struggles and triumphs. We are driven by the reality that our children have a chance to transform our society. They are, in fact our only hope. To return to the analogy of the mountain trek, the climb is exhilarating, the view breathtaking, and the anticipation of many more mountains to scale very, very keen.
Shalini Sachdev heads the KC Thackeray Vidya Niketan School, a Pune municipal school adopted by the Akanksha Foundation and the Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation. Akanksha runs 15 municipal schools in Mumbai and Pune in partnership with the BMC and the PMC.