Fuelling students’ interests

R.S. Praveen Kumar

Shaila Kumari lost her father at a young age. This shock could not shake this gritty tenth grader. As an SR Sankaran fellow, she also has to act as a teaching assistant in her class. As the vice-captain of Kammadanam Social Welfare School, she has to organize weekly inter-house competitions. In summer, she also aspires to be a co-counsellor for the prestigious Young Leadership Camp and Voice for Girls Camp. Despite her many responsibilities, Shaila maintains her position among the top ten in her class consistently. Like Shaila, thousands of student-Swaeroes*of our schools are involved in innumerable extra-curricular activities that bring boldness into brains and a breather from the blitz of lectures in the classrooms. But many wonder if the students get time to complete their studies. Are the parents not worried about academic achievement at all?

shooting Indeed, education is serious business at the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS). For the past three decades, this state-owned organization has been providing quality education to thousands of marginalized children across the state, in its 134 schools. This Society has chiseled out innumerable icons in various fields from these communities. When it comes to the state Board examinations, these schools have consistently maintained a lead over others including many private schools. However, despite these achievements, critics have always felt that the true potential of these schools has never been fully tapped.

Out of pure passion, I opted to head the social welfare residential schools. My first ever visit in 2012 to one of the Hyderabad-based schools left me shocked. Classrooms were comatose and children looked disoriented and the many faculty members were obsessed only with getting 100 per cent results. The major annual task was completion of syllabus by January and pushing the children into the cycle of revision till the board examinations. Sadly, the children of 5th to 9th classes missed the attention of teachers once the board examination schedule began. Many parents turned skeptical. Things almost reached a tipping point. The need for change was palpable.

After a thorough scrutiny, we, at the head office, regrouped into a committed team and began visiting the schools and brainstorming with the teachers on the ground. We visited some of the well-managed schools outside our society as well. We invited some NGOs doing great service in their domains. We returned with loads of stories, huddled together and came out with a strategic plan called P-5 that covered all five domains of residential education: teacher empowerment, student engagement, promoting competitiveness, introducing technology, and involving the community. We adopted this Plan-5 as a vision document and took the plunge. Numerous boot camps for teachers were conducted for all the teachers by a few master trainers for smooth transition.

play-with-match-sticks One of the serious strategic portfolios that we had invested our energies into was extra-curricular activities as a part of student engagement. This focused approach helped us discover diamonds like Malavath Poorna, the youngest girl ever to scale Mt Everest. All our extra-curricular activities move according to a thoughtfully designed academic calendar. They happen on daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual basis. Many school time activities like E-Plus Clubs are non-competitive and are aimed at improving communication skills, bust the fear factor and improve social bonding. However, some events like the Ignite Literary Fest, Earn While You Learn by teaching important topics on live television (Mana TV) are fiercely competitive. The successful students compete at school, district, and finally at state level. Many such activities come to a close by January 15th every academic year. After this schools go into hibernation for nearly three months for rigorous revision and final exams. Exactly at this juncture, our Summer Samurai comes alive.

Summer Samurai is the funky name given to a range of extra-curricular activities during the summer vacation. Themes of these summer camps include young leadership, music, games and sports, journalism and politics, abacus, vedic mathematics, theatre arts, movie making, adventure sports and mountaineering, computers and coding. Around 10,000 students are engaged annually in these residential camps. Children are selected based on their interests and ability well in advance. In certain adventures where there is risk, parental consent is taken. While teachers go on vacation, many talented volunteers from local universities and youngsters take over the running of the camp. Generally, preference is given to the students who are not appearing for the Board examinations. In many camps, senior students act as counsellors or as assistant counsellors. Each camp lasts for 10-15 days. After the camps conclude, children return to their homes. When they report to the school after the camps, they are expected to disseminate their new learning to their peers. This activity is closely monitored by selected mentor teachers who are particularly trained in this methodology.

dancing Most adventurous among all the activities are rock climbing, mountaineering, and water sports. There is a lot of demand for such events in the organization. We consciously filter students based on their endurance, willingness to take risk, and parental consent. You might wonder if our students study at all? Look at their testimonials below.

“Hailing from a remote village I never dreamt that I would become the youngest girl ever to scale Mt Everest. The entire credit goes to the Society and to our Secretary. When I am attending camps which sometimes last for weeks and months I take my books with me and read. My school provides me special diet for rigorous training. My friends and teachers help me prepare notes. All my teachers help me even after school hours.” – Malavath Poorna, I MPC, TSWR, Tadwai.

“I won a silver medal for Yogasanas and a bronze medal for Artistic yoga in the World sports championships in Malaysia. I get up half an hour earlier than my friends to practice yoga regularly. When I miss some classes I go to my teachers’ quarters and they readily help me make up the missed portions. Every time I win prizes my school always honours me in the morning assembly. This boosts my morale.” – P. Sunder Raj, I MPC, TSWR, Madanapuram.

“It’s a boon that I’m a swaero. After scaling Mt. Renock I become an instant celebrity in my school and village. How could this miracle happen in my life – but for the society? My parents could never have afforded to provide me with the costly equipment, trainings, and money that made me a hero. I always get extra help from my teachers and teaching assistants to make up the classes that I missed.” – Kavali Naresh Kumar, IX, TSWR Shivareddypet.

The Social Welfare Residential Schools Society has a unique model of education. It draws strength from its strong culture of experimentation. I believe that it takes a huge sacrifice to be part of this experiment. Our parents are willing to give up their comforts and the children postpone their gratification. Every effort is made by the management to live up to the trust of the stakeholders and give the best experience to the child. All our teachers cherish this fresh breeze in their schools and are busy striking a balance between rigor and revelry to bring out the best. Our results testify this. For instance, 22 swaeroes entered the prestigious Azim Premji University last year. I call this harmony with nature.

*Swaero is name given to all the students of State Welfare Residential Schools. Aero in this term is a reflection of aspirations of students and parents.

The author is an IPS officer currently heading Telangana Social and Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Societies. He is also Edward Mason Fellow (2012) of Harvard University. He can be contacted at praveenips@gmail.com.

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