“We built this school little by little over the years to make sure children in our community have access to education. Today, I’m seeing my school crumble.”
On a particular afternoon, when students of class 9 had assembled on the ground for a class test, a shy Ani (name changed) was called to the gate where his father stood, intoxicated, demanding the house key. Refusing to give in, Ani remembered promising his mother to refrain from letting his father go into the house and ransack her pockets of savings. Ani faced the wrath while his peers looked on; Ms. Divya sprinted out of her Principal’s Office to intervene in the scene. After giving up the key, Ms. Divya told a distraught Ani, “Don’t lose heart because you can’t seem to make a difference right now. Your education, your experiences in life will turn everything around. Keep this going.”
It’s been several years since this episode and as Ms. Divya Lokesh stumbled upon Ani’s picture on social media – embracing a professional mentor and thanking them for ‘making him what he was today’ – she was filled with pride on how far he’s come.
“This is the story I recall when I’m in need of self-motivation. This story makes me believe that I can make miracles,” she says. She soon withdraws herself into painful helplessness as she asks, “But what can I do now?”.
Sujana Convent, a quaint school in the Parappana Agrahara area of Bangalore City was established in 1998. With 83 students in the first year, the school today houses 600-700 students and 32 teachers across LKG to Class 10. Unlike many budget private schools that only cater to children from low-income communities, Sujana Convent has a mixed bag. Parents are either auto-rickshaw drivers, construction laborers, vegetable vendors, or IT professionals. Some expect quality in the education their children receive while others focus on the affordability.
The school is located in an infamous locality, brimming with criminal activity back in time. Ms. Divya and her team of teachers would engage children in after-school extra-curricular activities at no cost just so they wouldn’t indulge in untoward activities until their parents were home. Ms. Divya would console teachers finding themselves overworked because of having to stay in school till 6:00 PM every day.
“There is no way but to push through. Parents are not always able to come out of their job, pick up their unwell child from school, and take them home. If a child fell sick in school, we had to take care of them until the parents came at 6:00 pm to pick them up,” She recalls.
We celebrate educators once a year and remind ourselves of the positive impact they’ve had on us growing up. Yet, today when they need us to give them a single ray of sunshine, they’re left scrambling in the dark.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect on education and at the center of this whiplash are Leaders of Budget/Low-income/Affordable Private Schools who have no idea when their schools will reopen for students. Neither can they continue the promise to take care of their teachers. However, learning has to continue but the challenges of many like Ms. Divya leaves us feeling helpless.
Letting Teachers Go
As a leader, it’s never easy to tell her teachers ‘I cannot take care of you anymore’. Especially after she gives them hope that everything will be alright,” said Ms. Divya.
She had to stop paying the salaries of all her primary school (classes 1-5) teachers. As of today, there are 10 teachers on the payroll of Sujana Convent out of 32 teachers totally.
“I did ask them to continue to stay involved in the spirit of learning. But it’s hard to be motivated during these times. No one comes for meetings, none have spoken to me either,” Ms. Divya said. She has seen teachers resorting to jobs as house helps, vegetable and fruit vendors to sustain their families.
Initiating Online Classes
The schools shut down at the threshold of Summer Break. What seemed to be a short-term pandemic soon turned into a weeks-long lockdown and while on one side, the imperative conversations around the resilience of the education system continued, leaders of these Affordable Private Schools stayed utterly clueless in the face of growing uncertainties.
As Summer Break ended and Sujana Convent decided to begin online classes for students in high school, Ms. Divya found a mobile application through which children could do certain assignments teachers gave them. Teachers in turn could evaluate these assignments on the same app. It wasn’t free, yet, knowing that parents wouldn’t have the purchasing ability, the school paid for it.
“We called 38 parents to an online meeting where we explained to them that the application was free to use. We hoped that this would bridge the distance between the school and the students.”
However, there continues to be a lack of clarity on conducting these online sessions with children. While Ms. Divya believes that children are interested and want to continue learning, with just one smartphone per household, she fears that many of them would not be able to complete the assignments or even get to access them.
Alter the Narrative
The unforeseeable future is what haunts school leaders like Ms. Divya. While the government of Karnataka announced that parents wouldn’t have to pay for online classes, who would compensate the schools? “A lot of indecisiveness around education and public arguments have left us in the lurch. Managements of Affordable Private Schools are being called ‘bloodsuckers’ in the media,” said Ms. Divya.
Affordable private schools depend on students’ fees to manage their teachers’ salaries, a host of other administrative and utility expenses. Many leaders also end up sponsoring children in their schools. While parents are unable to pay their children’s fees in these current circumstances, the government has refrained these schools to charge fees from the parents.
“We worked all these years to bridge the gap between school, parents, and students. Today, we’re being torn apart by the prevailing ideologies that stand against our existence as Budget Private Schools.” – Ms. Divya Lokesh
The government’s decision is welcomed and is a huge respite for parents vastly affected by the economic slowdown this pandemic has brought upon. However, the need is to support these schools as they try to access alternate financial schemes or loans – like Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) do.
Her only request to the entire education ecosystem that comprises the government, stakeholders, and civil society organizations is to start talking about the plight of institutions like Sujana Convent.
The loss of educators within an institution, diminishing funds, lack of awareness on the school’s initiatives, and scarce appreciation for their efforts in improving accessibility of education for children of low-income backgrounds prevents them from surviving this unprecedented situation. For a community within the education ecosystem, this is a clarion call to alter the narrative of Budget/Affordable/Low-income Private Schools. “We need influencers who can make a difference and highlight the darkness we’re in. Deliver us to clarity and help us see a ray of hope in our future and relevance.”
By Team Mantra4Change