Journalist and Indian School of Business Graduate Priya Nandkarni always wanted to work and experiment in the grassroots.Her strong keenness to work in our rural hinterland brought her in synergy with her husband Digvijay Singh and they worked together on employability for rural youth for many years. But fearing that vocational training was just a Band-aid intervention, they swivelled towards the fundamental education of children and started the Riverside School in Mandla in 2015. They utilise unique methods like, robotics, and football to empower hundreds of children and help them achieve a benchmark in education. The Optimist Citizen, in an exclusive conversation with them, discussed their experience of running a school in the hinterland of our country.
Can you tell us about our background?
Priya – I grew up in Mumbai and graduated from St. Xavier’s Mumbai, moving on to study journalism and working with Business Standard for 2 years. Post that, I did my MBA from Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and started working in an investment bank in Bangalore. Although I had been working in the corporate sector, I always wanted to work in the grassroots. So, I initiated a conversation with Pradaan in 2013 and took up a consulting project in Mandla on employability and vocational training. What was touted as a 4-month project consumed me for more and I ended up joining Pradaan. But, over time, we realised that vocational training serves only as a Band-Aid intervention and was not addressing the fundamental problem that core education could address.
We were not really sure of what could be an alternative. So, we left Pradaan and travelled the country to research on good practices. What if we can bring some of these practices in a rural landscape like Mandla? We thought We really can change an entire generation of children. With that intention in mind, we started the Riverside Natural School.
Digvijay – I come from Nainital, Uttarakhand and I graduated from Hindu College, Delhi University and I did my masters in Rural Management from Xaviers Institute of Management Bhubaneswar. I joined Pradaan in 2009 because I was moved by the problem of employability for rural youth. While working, I too realised that you cannot build on elements like behavioural changes, communication, fundamental quantitative and scientific skills after an individual crosses the periphery of 18.
So, why did you initially started to work in Mandla?
Digvijay – So, I have been working in Mandla for almost a decade now. The local community knew me and our work. Realising the fact that we were not educationists ourselves, as we had been management students, we thought Mandla might be a good place to start.
My reason for asking this question in the first place was the fact that you wanted to commit yourself to the region for the rest of your life!
Digvijay – I don’t think that we are sacrificing something or we are heroes of a different set. I think it is an intrinsic approach of ours to find for solutions that lead us to dedicate our work in Mandla because there are numerous challenges here that regularly infest and subdue the spirit of the community. Also, I and Priya got married while working here, so Mandla would always hold that special place for us (laughs).
So, as we have talked about your initially thought, we would love to know more about the Riverside Natural School?
Digvijay – Our school is called Riverside Natural school because we are located beside the Narmada. It is run under the Mrida Education and Welfare Society. We started out with a rented building and although we wanted to accommodate as many children as possible, sadly we couldn’t. Early on, we decided that whatever good practices we initiate in our school, we would try to propagate the same to other government schools in the district. We tried to amalgamate diverse practices from across the country. We brought in Karate and its utilisation that we saw in Southern part of India. We brought in an IIT Bombay alumnus and tried to bring in robotics and animation into our curriculum and established a lab. We started experimenting with a sports program, especially utilising football, to impart important skills and a new surge of confidence in our kids.
The local administration liked the lab concept and asked to replicate this in 10 government schools. Also, the footballer programme is now being run with the help of employing local coaches and training them. The results have been marvellous – with two students making it up to the state level tournaments within 1 year of the inception of the program. So, I think the robotics program and the footballer programme was something that connected us to the students in the government schools.
How do you weave all these diverse programmes for the kids? How does a day look like for them?
Priya – For the Riverside children it is a different day and for the children in the government schools – where we have our regular programs – might be different. Riverside children typically come to school at 10 am and the first half an hour is devoted to singing and yoga. Post that, we have our classes. Now, the idea behind every class is that if we have a new concept to teach, we would accompany it with an intriguing activity and allow the child to come to the concept organically.
For the children, classes continue for the course of the day with a compulsory computer class every day – to give a wider focus on critical thinking and problem-solving. Along with that, there is a tinkering and robotics class that happens thrice a week for students of grade 4th, 5th, and 6th. And the classes are essentially hands-on with practical problems hurled towards the kids and they try to create products and innovation that might provide a suitable solution. We also have a communications and language class where an inherent ability to understand and learn English is developed through stories and songs.
So, does your work currently moves beyond the school and the sports program?
Digvijay – Currently, along with our school we also run a community shelter because it was immensely difficult to bring children, from villages that are located 30 kilometres away, to the school. So, we started a community home that has 45 children. Also, there were many kids – most on the fringes of adulthood – who played football but didn’t go to any school. So, we had a carpenter, welder and an electrician with us and thus we began a community lab of sorts which provided practical skills to these adults; a source of an alternative livelihood.
But, with a work at such scale, there are fundamental challenges that often impede your work. Can you talk about them?
Digvijay – The biggest challenge for us has been to constantly provide the best of resources to reward the talent and potential of the children. We often reach out to our personal network and friends for support. We constantly question ourselves – are we able to provide them with the best teachers, playing fields, books and experience?
Also, I feel nutrition has been one of our primary and biggest concerns. We did a survey in 15 villages and found out that a substantial chunk of the population was severely malnutritioned.
What do you feel has been the impact of your initiative in the area?
When we started Riverside School, all these kids from the villages used to come to the school, looking blank and feeling confused. But after 3 months we found that they were not passive. They were just looking for love and attention – sentiments that validated their value for others. They often didn’t find it in the government schools they went to. Now, they study and live in unison. They curiosity is always brimming with yearning.
Our athletics programmes helped girls rediscover themselves through running. The girls feel running is something that is under their control – running is the liberating variable they can decide for themselves. We have had kids who never thought about running or studying in their lives are now representing the state in various events and sports – some have achieved this stage in a matter of 6 months. Some have moved onto becoming coaches themselves – professionally teaching football for a living.
You know sports as an engagement, has a permeating effect of large proportions. Many girls in our school never even used to raise their heads in the class. After a month of the football programme, they now actively participate in the class and voice their own opinions, in public. That is a massive shift in the way a sport can relay your thought process and a renewed change in it. This year, we are reaching out to more than 1600 children with our robotics and footballer programme. I feel this has happened because we try to help children find out what they are good at, rather than imposing what they must become good at.
CII Foundation’s Woman Exemplar Program recognizes exemplary grassroots women change agents who are working to transform excluded and disadvantaged communities of India in the fields of education, health and micro-enterprise in India. Every year 15 finalists are chosen, and 3 are declared winners, with prizes of Rupees 3 Lakhs to the winners and access to a six-month mentoring and leadership process to all finalists. Click Here to know more.
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