Field Notes Society

A programme in Telangana is helping children from marginalised communities get into India’s elite colleges

Students of the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.

Students of the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

This year, 100 of them broke into the merit list to get admission to Delhi University colleges

One girl has climbed Mt. Everest, another has taken to skydiving, while a boy skims the Arabian Ocean in a yacht off Goa when not in the classroom. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might say.

But once you know where these youngsters come from, the story becomes remarkable. They are only three of the roughly 28,560 students who are studying in Telangana’s government-run welfare schools where some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised children get a shot at a better life.

This year, 100 of them broke into the merit list to get admission to Delhi University’s hallowed institutions such as New Delhi’s Miranda House, Lady Shri Ram College and Ramjas College. Others secured admissions in Pondicherry University, Azim Premji University and more. The students have also cracked the tough joint entrance exams to IIT and other institutions.

Astonishing success

A world away, on the banks of the Manair, a tributary of Godavari, the quietude of expansive paddy fields, grazing goats and mango orchards is broken by the low thrum of classroom chatter and the occasional raised voice of a teacher.

I am at the riverside Telangana State Centre of Excellence at Alugunoor in Karimnagar, about 160 km from Hyderabad. The school, run by the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS), doesn’t look like your usual utilitarian government schools.

The classrooms are arranged around a large leafy courtyard. Inside, the teacher explains lessons in English, the students nod and occasionally jot down points. A girl at the back has her head down on the table.

At the heart of the astonishing success of this programme is the push to use English for teaching and communication, a shift that happened in 2015. “Earlier, children were wary about English and scared of making mistakes. Now, they are highly motivated. They don’t see it as a challenge, but as something they should get on with,” says K. Krishnaveni, who teaches social studies at the school.

These students are now outperforming their counterparts from other parts of Telangana. About 90% of these students passed the Class X board exams in 2017-18 compared to the State average of 83.78%. Similarly, in the Class XII exams, 86.47% of the welfare school students passed compared to the 67.25% State average. This, when politicians across India vociferously oppose English as a medium of instruction instead of regional languages.

Students during lunch break at the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.

Students during lunch break at the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

“English is a language of empowerment,” says R.S. Praveen Kumar, the IPS officer who heads TSWREIS. The change happened when a farm labourer’s daughter spoke in English to the Chief Minister.

“The girl was from his village of Chintamadaka; her parents most likely would have worked on his farm. That’s when K. Chandrasekhar Rao agreed to all-English schools,” says Kumar with infectious enthusiasm.

Race for admission

Kumar is a first-generation learner whose mother was rescued from child labour. He was a student of the first batch of welfare schools for backward class students started by the then Chief Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1971.

Later, the Thanjavur-born bureaucrat S.R. Sankaran expanded the network, and they now number 268. The government plans to add 108 more schools. And, as quality improves, there’s a race for admission. Three times the number of students have applied this year for the 28,560 seats.

Interestingly, the institution has developed an old boys’ network as well. “Last year, 12 students got admission to Delhi University. This year, it’s 100 students. Kumar’s son, who is studying in Delhi, helped do the groundwork required for processing applications and understanding admission procedures,” says K. Vinayakala, who handles alumni affairs for TSWREIS.

This is Kumar’s seventh year as admin head. “The earlier heads of the society had very short tenures. I’ve been given a lot of freedom,” he says. And he knows how to use the freedom, as can be seen in the Telangana budget paper, which almost reads like a family budget. It lists field excursions, movies, books, magazines, horse riding (at ₹1.5 lakh for 40 students), newspapers, special coaching and sports.

Small details

Everyone knows that governments are willing to invest in infrastructure but become tight-fisted when it comes to maintenance. It is this willingness and vision to pay for the small expenses to upgrade these children’s skillsets that has created a palpable sense of confidence among them.

Students during an eye health camp at the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.

Students during an eye health camp at the welfare school in Gowlidoddi.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

A confidence that can be seen in the eyes of K. Sumalatha, a Fellow of the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program, who spent 10 months in Oregon in the U.S. living with two host families. “I dream of becoming a doctor. I am good in biology and can crack the competitive exam,” she says, using a vocabulary and a language that her family of daily wage workers from Khammam will scarcely understand.

“I want to be an IAS officer after I finish IIT,” says P. Shankar, in a matter-of-fact manner. His village Timmaypalli in Mahbubnagar district has no hospital, transport or piped water. “If I become a civil servant I’ll be able to take care of these needs,” says the Class X student who cracked the National Science Test and whose name is inscribed on the electron microscope he won as a prize.

“When we admitted our daughter here we thought she would study like everyone else and then look for a job. We can’t believe she is now at one of Delhi’s top colleges,” says a proud Ranga Devi, whose husband works for a municipal contractor. “She sends photographs every day, to show us her friends, how she is living there. She wants to be an IAS officer…”

The lunch bell rings and the students disappear in a flash. They troop into a large dining room carrying their own steel plates. Today, lunch is a spicy curry of boiled eggs plus dal, rasam, curd and rice.

The noise rises to a cacophony as the hungry children race around finding places to sit near their friends. Menus are pre-planned and change over the week, with meat, chicken, vegetables and egg included regularly. It’s monitored online from the Hyderabad headquarters with frequent inspections.

If there’s one thing you would want to improve? “Sanitation. I would like the sanitation to be improved,” says one of the girls. She definitely has one of the qualities of leadership: Speaking her mind without fear.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 2:34:36 AM |

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