Novel schools seek to make a difference in villages around Chennai

A herd of cows rambles home through the mud roads of Punnapakkam, a hamlet in Tiruvallur district, indicating that it is evening. Paddy fields and fallow earth, green shoots in water-inundated fields and a yard filled with wet bricks getting ready for a kiln, complete the picture. On the arched entrance of the Panchayat middle school is engraved 9.10.1958 – perhaps the date the school was built on.

In the courtyard of a temple on a couple of mats, around 20 children, aged five to 12, have spread out much-thumbed brown-paper wrapped books, chorusing after an older child as he recites a shloka. The children, whose parents are agricultural or kiln workers, learn surya namaskar', Tamil patriotic songs, poems and songs with a social message from teacher M. Arul Jothi. Her husband is a driver.

Arul Jothi, who has passed class X, is employed by the Panchayat to remove soil from the village tank during the day. In the evening, for three hours she teaches children. “Ever since I started teaching, I have earned respect. Everyone here refers to me as teacher,” says the 38-year-old. The Punnapakkam school is one of over 600 single-teacher schools in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, run by Swami Vivekananda Rural Development Society.

In some cases, the children attend Panchayat-run schools and the evening schools supplement their education. Those who help their parents in the fields and the kiln come to the evening school to learn mathematics, English and Tamil. While these children need basic education about health and hygiene, the children in Kilai, near Sriperumbudur in Kancheepuram district, are from various mainstream schools –— including those run by Christian organisations. But even so, 30 children gather at S. Desammal's front yard every evening for three hours.

Desammal's husband is a casual labourer. The couple has three children. “I have been teaching the children for four years. My son Prasanth was also a student. He is now in class X,” says the 35-year-old .

“Until I became a teacher I was not too bothered about education. But now I am determined to educate my children too,” she says, adding that her “knowledge” has also improved. Her oldest daughter is studying B.Sc. Mathematics in Chellammal College, Guindy.

The concept of single-teacher schools, launched six years ago, has taken off in remote villages where sometimes, teachers also double up as health workers. R. Yasodha, who supervises 30 such schools in Kancheepuram district, recalled that at Mathur village where she primarily works, a man gave up alcohol after his son repeatedly sang songs taught at school about the harms of drinking. Around 7 p.m. as power supply is cut in Kilai, children sit in clusters under the stars bathed in the glow of oil lamps. R. Ramkumar shows off his creation, a paper boat. “I want to be a Collector,” he tells me. His brother Shiva wants to be a police officer. Nobody knows when power will be restored. “They did not cut the power yesterday because of class XII exams,” said 11-year-old P. Sumitha, who eagerly shares her dream. “I want to become a doctor.” Her father is a cook in a college, her mother, an agricultural labourer. Divya, sets down her two-year-old on the mat. “Before the school was started, the kids would run off to play. Now they do their homework and there are a lot of changes in them,” she said.

The Society's executive secretary R.P. Krishnammachari visits the schools regularly. “We have 60,000 villages in the State and to cover them all we need Rs. 12 crore a year. We now have over 600 schools with 30 children each. But we want to make it 1,000 schools this year. We train the teachers and regularly visit the schools,” he said. The Society offers people the option of adopting a village school for a year at a cost of Rs. 36,000.

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012

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