Thirty years ago, when an alumna of New Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College saw five little girls playing in a sewage drain, she didn't do what most of us would - feel sorry but move on. Instead, when Rashmi Misra realised they weren't in school because their parents did not believe that girls needed education, she started teaching them in her home's verandah. From these modest beginnings, Vidya has grown into a multi-city and multi-pronged movement that does not restrict itself to educating children, but also works towards enabling their communities to evolve. "Working with these girls, all first-generation learners, I realised that education isn't merely about going to school," says Misra. "It is a potent tool to transform their communities."
That is why, over the years, Vidya hasn't just run schools and bridge courses and spoken English classes for children. It has developed thriving vocational training, adult literacy and is driving training programmes for their parents as well. "In fact, at Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi campus, we're even conducting an adult literacy programme for grandparents," smiles Misra.
As I walk through Vidya's flagship project, a school in Gurgaon with almost 1,000 students, the energy is palpable. The laboratories, library and classrooms are abuzz with quiet activity. "We allow our students great freedom to explore whatever might interest them while ensuring that they always stay rooted and true to their communities," says principal Suprabha Vishwanathan. Interestingly, the school is quite upfront with students about the fact that their education is being sponsored (almost 80 per cent of the students here are sponsored, paying an average of Rs 800 per month as tuition fees). "According to our estimates, we spend Rs 42,500 each year on every student," she says. "Since all our students come from underprivileged backgrounds, their education is made possible only by these sponsorships, and we regularly make our students from Class V up, aware of this." The school encourages donors and sponsors to regularly interact with students, even teach classes, thereby bridging the gap between benefactors and beneficiaries.
The results speak for themselves. In 2015, Mensa conducted IQ tests across government and NGO-run schools in Gurgaon. "Normally, 2 to 3 per cent students in a school manage to score above the 98th percentile. But in our school, 28 per cent of the students tested scored that much." Mensa was so impressed that they have now referred 56 more students from other schools to Vidya, and their education has been sponsored by Indigo Airlines. Vidya was also adjudged the best school in Delhi NCR in 2015 by the British Council.
Vidya's other initiatives include Bal Vihar, Vidya's primary school and also its first programme, which provides English-medium education to over 300 slum children. Over 100 dropouts are registered with Vidya's bridge course programmes presently, which follow the National Institute of Open Schooling programme and give them a second chance at completing high school. To date, 2,500 students have successfully passed their Classes X and XII exams through these courses. Its Mumbai chapter runs programmes for school children as well as vocational training for youths. The Bengaluru chapter, in addition to being focused on the core objectives of education, has also been running a successful programme that trains women drivers. At the Vidya School in Gurgaon too, 50 mothers are currently learning to drive as part of the women's empowerment initiative.
Vidya India has an impressive list of donors, ranging from individuals to companies such as Deloitte and KPMG and agencies such as Sir Dorabi Tata Trust and Rotary Clubs. IITs have supported them by providing space and the British Council by providing English teachers. Interestingly, many donors volunteer their services as well. "All our work is because of the efforts of volunteers and donors," says Misra. "But the task of providing quality education to underprivileged first-generation learners is so huge, that we need much more." For instance, Vishwanathan aims to add another 300 students by the next academic year. "As long as we are able to find people to sponsor our students, this should not be a problem," she says. Misra's dreams are, of course, on a larger scale. "I want to replicate the Gurgaon Vidya School in other cities as well," she says.
Meanwhile, even as Misra dreams on, confident 10-year-olds are intently sorting abstract and simple nouns in a classroom game, unaware, perhaps, that they're leading a revolution in Indian education.