Dreams take flight: A case of strong community engagement

Mrs Sarala frequently tells her students that “it doesn’t matter where you start in life, it matters where you finish.” Her own school serves as an ideal example. Once a school with dangerously low enrolment levels, Puzhal Panchayat Union Middle School (PUMS) was awarded the ‘best school’ by the District Collector during the Republic Day celebrations in 2014.

This school is located in Puzhal, a small town in Tiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu.

Puzhal jail superintendent and Jain Community Trust during a sports day celebration at PUMS

The problems facing PUMS mirror those facing many other schools in the country — things like poverty, unstable home lives, language barriers, and poor quality of teaching and infrastructure. Most parents in this area are construction workers, and daily labourers. Since the parents are not literate and don’t attach high value to education, the children often drop out of school.

To address attendance, and other needs intrinsic to the students’ environment, the Jain community in Puzhal stepped in. They decided to take matters in their hands, they have over the years, been instrumental in supplementing the schools with infrastructure, financial, and in-kind support.

It was indeed a proud moment for the school and the Jain community when their combined efforts were recognized and the school was selected to be among the 90 schools where the READ Alliance funded Karadi Path ‘Joyful Reading’ project would be implemented. Karadi Path methodology is an indigenously developed language learning process that is revolutionizing the way language proficiency is achieved in schools.

Inauguration of ‘Joyful Reading’ project by Education officer and Puzhal Panchayath chairman

Recognising the need to go beyond supplementing the school with just infrastructure, the Jain trust decided to employ two full time teachers who would provide support to the existing staff to run daily classes and the ‘Joyful Reading’ project. The Jain trust has hired Mrs Shobhana and Aslin Mary from the local community on an honorarium. These teachers have been a great support to the trained Karadi Path teachers in leading the Joyful Reading classes.

A lot of government school teachers are burdened with extra government duties apart from teaching. Some also go on long leaves, leaving the school in utter chaos. But now, the situation has changed for the better. You will hardly find students loitering around in the corridors, enrolment has improved considerably, and dropouts reduced. But this change wasn’t sudden, it has been a consistent and slow change brought on by the tremendous support of the Jain community trust.

It’s not just the members of the trust who provide support, but also the housewives from this community, who prepare colourful and pretty uniforms for the children of this school. “It is the best kind of public-private partnership, where the community has taken ownership of improving the education levels of their own. Puzhal Panchayath union has also recognized this school as a Showcase/model school”, says Arockia Selvaraj, Sr. Trainer and Product Specialist, Karadi Path.

Teachers and the community also feel that they have more of a stake in the school and more opportunities to contribute. All of the teachers had long been asking what they could do for the kids outside of the regular classroom. With the ‘Joyful Reading’ program, there are more opportunities to make change. The core methodology of a ‘Joyful Reading’ class is based on the idea of learning English in the same manner the mother tongue is learnt. This natural language acquisition process has boosted the confidence of the teachers and they view the Karadi Path classes as a springboard to upgrade their level of English. When educators are no longer burdened by making sure their students’ basic needs are met, they are free to enrich their lives in other ways.

Since it is a project which is whole-heartedly supported by the community, there is greater awareness and acceptance amongst the parents as well. In fact a lot of parents whose wards aren’t enrolled in school have made extensive enquiries about the ‘Joyful Reading’ program and have shown interest in getting their children enrolled in the school.

Sports day celebration at PUMS school

“It’s not one person or one program that demonstrates such success, it’s a collective goal. It’s about everybody coming together inside and outside of the school. That’s what makes a strong community”, says Mrs Sarala, Head Mistress, PUMS. The teachers aim to create joyful learners who can read, communicate and dream big.

Originally published at designpublic.in on September 20, 2016.

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