A Fellow’s Perspective on AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (Part II)

Every year, the district of Dang witnesses large number of its schedule tribe population migrating to the neighboring districts of Surat and Valsad for nearly 6-7 months to work in sugarcane plantations. Since the district of Dang is entirely dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the mass migration happens after the monsoon during the months of October/November to March/April. The strenuous nature of work at the plantation sites keep parents preoccupied for long hours and given the poor living conditions in the make shift tents, it is not safe for children to migrate. So the government has set up provisional hostels during the migration season to help children continue their schooling while parents are away at work. [1]

Scheduled tribe children eagerly watching a local game called Kho-kho. Three other children involved in a race in which they are rolling worn out tyres.
Children engaged in traditional outdoor games.
Enrolling Children at Risk of Migration to Seasonal Government Hostels

The Learning and Migration Program (LAMP) of the American India Foundation (AIF) has been playing an instrumental role in identifying children who are at risk of migration and enrolling them in government hostels. The provision of staying in seasonal hostels is only extended to children from grade 3 and above because authorities believe that younger children are still not independent enough to take care of themselves. Moreover, the classrooms which are turned into makeshift hostels in government schools can only accommodate limited number of students; as a result, teachers have been asked to select students on the basis of first come first serve. On one hand, we see the government’s resolution to provide education to children during the migration period, but on the other hand, the basis on which students are given admission in the hostels does highlight the jarring gaps at the systemic level.

Empty cots inside a makeshift seasonal hostel of a government school campus
Arrangement of seasonal hostel in the Government School Campus.

One of LAMP’s interventions in the migration prone areas of Dang has been to build a cadre of youth group, more formally known as the citizen educator group in every cluster of villages. The citizen educator acts as an intermediary between the community and concerned government authorities in the locality. Every year from the month of June, the youth group alongside AIF’s field team conducts surveys in the villages to identify students who are at risk of migration by giving priority to those with single parent, no relatives to take care of the child and poor socioeconomic condition in the family. Since the government schools cannot accommodate all the children, the team also reaches out to families having elderly caregivers to provide support to children while parents migrate for work. The public school teachers are likewise informed about the identified children in need of care and support in order to ensure that the government provided schemes reaches the last mile to all the disadvantaged groups. In villages where a large number of children are found to be at risk of migration and there is no availability of makeshift  hostels, the school management committee (SMC) is roped in to initiate a dialogue with the concerned education functionaries and members of the Gram Sabha demanding for the provision of seasonal hostels.

Model Hostels Run by AIF in Partnership with Swapath Trust

The American India Foundation, in partnership with Swapath Trust, had also set up model hostels before the pandemic to demonstrate to government officials and local communities how hostels should be overseen. During my visit to Mokhmal village, Raju bhai shared his experience of having served as a warden in the AIF hostel. Unlike in government hostels where children of grades 1 & 2 are not given admission, AIF had made provision to cater to younger children as well as older ones who are denied entry due to lack of space.

View of a model hostel in the local community set up by the American India Foundation. View of a local house built with thatched mud and tiled roof.
Setting up of a model hostel in the local community.

A female helper and cook were given the responsibility of taking care of children and ensuring they were given nutritious breakfast, snacks and dinner alongside milk and fruits once daily. The younger children were given additional support by helpers and older peers to manage their everyday chores. To ensure children were acquiring discipline and other necessary skills, Raju bhai had assigned tasks to everyone depending upon their capacity on a rotational basis to maintain cleanliness of the hostel premise. He personally also ascertained the wellbeing of children and accompanied them to school every day. In the first year, parents were rather hesitant to send children to the AIF run hostel in Mokhmal; but by the second year, the response had been overwhelming as most parents preferred the community hostel than the government facility given the care and support provided to their children.

Exploring the Rural-Urban Education Divide in India
View of the local landscape and locked classrooms of a primary government school.
View of the Landscape in Dang (Top) & Locked Classrooms (Bottom)

Since last year, the government has not made any arrangements of starting seasonal hostels in government schools in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact the schools remained closed for months together during the prolonged period of lockdown. During this time even public schools in metropolitan cities had the resources to shift to online learning, however, in a place like Dang where electricity is intermittent, internet connectivity does not reach many of the households with only a few families having smart phones, the feasibility of having online classes still seems a far-fetched reality. Despite all odds, the LAMP team mobilized the youth group at the cluster level to prevent learning loss in children. Every youth was allotted one village in which he was assigned the responsibility of engaging children in small groups of 4-5 in various learning activities. The offline deployment of learning modules by the youth group ensured children continued to learn even during the challenging times. Coincidently, the lockdown restrictions had been eased considerably by the month of October last year which led to large scale migration of children to sugarcane plantations as the government had not set up any seasonal hostels in schools.

 

During my visit to LAMP’s project site in the month of February this year, many children had already returned to the village as secondary schools had once again reopened. However for children in primary grades, classes were conducted in the community because the government of Gujarat had still not issued any circular allowing primary schools to resume physical classes in the campus. Although the administrative structure of school education in India does have a dedicated Block Education Officer (BEO) at the rural level, the primary responsibility of the BEO is largely limited to administration, supervision and inspection of qualitative development in government schools. [2] The BEO cannot exercise his discretionary power to overrule the mandate of the state to open primary schools despite one or two cases of covid-19 being reported in the entire block. Moreover, conducting classes in the community homes becomes much more challenges due to lack of physical space to accommodate multi-grade children and also in terms of procuring necessary TLMs such as the blackboard, story books, flashcards and project related materials. It is not feasible to have online classes in the given geography; hence, physical classes are the only way to ensure that children do not experience any learning loss. However, given the present arrangements, the central mandate does not appraise the local demand of allowing physical classes in the school campus which otherwise would have led to better learning inputs and also adequate physical distancing among children.

Intervention of the LAMP Program to Strengthen Student’s Learning Levels

In addition to providing continuous training support to the youth group, the LAMP team has also been running several interventions to help children improve their learning outcomes. AIF has identified 4 backward hamlets as hub villages in Subir block of Dang district in which a Learning Resource Center (LRC) has been set up for children of the elementary school in the village. Every week day, after school hours, the LRC is open to children of all age groups between 5 to 6 pm. The facilitator engages children in a variety of activities such as guided reading, chain talking, arts & crafts, singing, science experiments, outdoor games and remedial support for Gujarati and Math. Cross-learning is encouraged among older students to provide academic support to their younger peer. The digital divide is also bridged as children use tablets in the process to strengthen their conceptual understanding of the subject by watching videos and referring to supplementary learning resources.

Children participating in a local game outside the learning resource center. A paper flower made by children being handed over to me by a 10 year old girl.
Children playing outside the Learning Resource Centre (LRC).

Every hub village is further mapped to 4-5 sub villages having a primary school (I to V). During the morning hours before the school officially begins at 11 am, the Learning Enrichment Program (LEP) takes place between 8 to 10 am for students academically weak in grades III & IV for Math and Gujarati. About 40 students who fare poorly in both the subjects are identified from a baseline survey and subsequently, they are provided with tailored remedial support to improve upon the foundational literacy and numeracy skills.  The learning enrichment program is run all through the year in one of the  sub-village primary schools where the learning level of children is especially poor and there is high pupil teacher ratio.

However, the Spoke sessions on the contrary takes place at the sub-village level across all primary schools. The Spoke classes are similar to the academic support provided by the AIF facilitator during the LEP sessions but the former is conducted during the school hours in the afternoons between 3 to 5 pm for children in grades 3 to 5. During this time, the regular teacher finds some free time to complete all the pending administrative school tasks of the week. Both LEP and Spoke happens in the school space while the LRC is conducted in one of the community huts at the hub village level. There is one AIF staff member deployed at all the hub villages whose primary responsibility is also to ensure timely provision of continuous academic support to children in the sub-villages. The weekly routine of a field staff broadly entails from conducting LEP classes in the mornings, followed by Spoke sessions at the sub-village with organizing activities at the learning resource centers by the evening at the hub level.

Children in large numbers attending the Learning Enrichment Program in the makeshift community centers
Children attending the Learning Enrichment Program (LEP) at the community centre.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the classes never resumed in the school campus physically for the primary grade children. Alternately, the AIF field team identified several community homes across all the hub and sub level villages in which the LEP and Spoke classes could be organized to ensure that prolonged school closure did not affect the grade level competency of children. This effort has actually paved way for government teachers to eventually begin regular classes in the identified community homes because the AIF facilitators had already taken care of arranging the basic facilities such as a blackboard, drinking water and washrooms. The pandemic has resulted in this unforeseen arrangement where the primary classrooms have been lying vacant for many months together, while the classes are being held physically in the community homes given the lack of stable internet connectivity in the region.

Above the hub level villages, there is an Innovation Center at Subir block. Every Saturday, after the morning LEP sessions, the field team assembles at the Innovation Center to discuss planning for the next week, review learnings and challenges experienced by children during the activity sessions and any community related issues which might call upon further deliberation. Anil bhai, one of the facilitators of the LAMP program who also coordinated my field visit at Dang informed me about AIF’s new initiatives of starting Archery as well as modules on experiential learning through Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) based projects for secondary school going children at the Innovation Center in Subir block.

Secondary school children being briefed on the upcoming STEM Program at the Innovation Center
Anil bhai briefing the students on the STEM program at the Innovation Centre (top).
Colorful books and teaching learning materials being displayed at the community library center
View of the community library center.

 

 

There are also three community library centers in Dang which run before and after the school hours from 8:30 to 10 am in the morning and 5 to 6 pm in the evening respectively. The facilitator who runs the library has likewise been given the responsibility of conducting spoke sessions for primary classes in the neighboring villages. In addition to reading Gujarati books, children in the elementary age group engage in songs, drawing, arts and crafts and various outdoor games like Kho-kho etc. After a period of 2-3 years, the LRCs as well as the libraries are shifted to other backward villages in the region so that the parents community and teachers are made aware of the critical role which education plays in improving the lives of children and experiential ways of learning to improve student learning outcomes respectively.

Mobilizing Social Capital at the Community Level for Sustained Change

The LAMP team also works with the school management committees (SMC) to improve upon school governance by ensuring timely procurement of all the necessary teaching learning materials as well as infrastructural resources to provide children a conducive learning environment in schools. The SMC members are given regular trainings by the AIF facilitators to remind them about their duties such as monitoring the functioning of the school, preparing the school development plan and reviewing the utilization of school grants. The parent’s representatives are also asked to monitor whether teachers are regularly turning up to school, students are provided necessary academic support by the teaching staff, children are attending school on a regular basis, sufficient provision of MDM supplies as well as outdoor playing space are made available for children etc. [3] In schools where the government has not made any provision of having seasonal hostels, the SMC members conduct a needs assessment in the village and put forth their demand for a hostel by providing strong supporting evidence. The women facilitators organize monthly sensitization workshops for adolescent girls across all 25 villages on psychological and physical developments as well as the need to practice personal hygiene. Additionally, the LAMP team has voluntarily undertaken the task of spreading awareness among the local people on new government schemes by distributing pamphlets and providing necessary assistance right from acquiring the form to filling it up to avail the benefits.

View of local houses built with thatched mud and cobblestoned roofing.
Houses in the community made of mud – thatch – cobblestone roofing.

The American India Foundation has been working now for more than five years in the district of Dang in identifying children who are at risk of migration and enrolling them in seasonal hostels. Leveraging upon community support to improve on student’s learning outcomes by integrating contextual wisdom, local language and children’s lived realities into the classroom learning space have helped children develop academic grade level competence.

In the last couple of years, the LAMP team has mobilized social capital at the community level by identifying committed individuals who strongly support the importance of school education in children’s development.

Currently, India is witnessing its second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and given the sudden rise in infections countrywide, the government schools have indefinitely closed down. AIF has also temporarily suspended all its operations on the ground in the region of Dang, however, the citizen educator’s groups have risen to the occasion once again and ensured one on one academic support to bridge the learning gaps in children. This ecosystem of supportive youths across all the 25 intervention sites is an exemplary model of the American India Foundation’s commitment in bringing sustained social and economic change in the lives of the underprivilege sections of society.

Notes:

[1] In Gujarat’s Dang district, tribals are left with no option but to migrate for survival.

[2] Role of Block Education Officer.

[3] Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009 – Constitution of School Management Committee.

Utsarga is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Shaishav in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and strengthening life skills training, self-designed learning techniques, and sustainable living practices for children and locals of vulnerable tribal communities. The self-paced, student-centric approach fostered at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) provided Utsarga with ample opportunities to develop his interest in the field of alternative education. After his graduation from SAICE in Arts and Humanities, he pursued his Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University. During his Master's programme, Utsarga learnt about various issues plaguing the public education system and acquired a first-hand understanding of some of the challenges pushing children out of elementary schools in rural communities. His latest engagement has been a research internship with the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, where he studied school leadership in the context of organisational culture and community participation and its effect on children’s overall learning outcome. He contributed in strengthening the physical education program and raising funds for the school apart from conducting household surveys to understand the socio-economic condition of families, sources of livelihood and management of natural resources. In 2019, he participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey to interact with social change-makers and explore alternative practices to bring quality education in the government schools of rural India. Utsarga is grateful to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow; he is looking forward to broaden his understanding of the education sector and experiment alternative practices in the public school system by fostering an all-round development in children.

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