Published: 07th December 2020
Started by IIT Bombay grads a decade ago, this programme is helping kids from low-income families get into IITs, NITs
Akshay Saxena, Co-founder of Avanti Fellows, tells us how they are trying to educate children from low-income families and help them get into India's best colleges
For Krishna Ramkumar and Akshay Saxena, two IIT Bombay graduates, the primary goal was to create a level-playing field for underprivileged kids who want to study at India's best colleges — such as the IITs. Thus, they came together a decade ago to educate children from low-income families. They founded Avanti Fellows, a social enterprise, in March 2010 with this in mind. "The major idea behind Avanti stems from what we did during our undergrad years when we were at IIT Bombay. We saw that there was a minimal number of kids who actually made it to IIT from rural areas or lower class homes. They had issues with coping too as they came from schools that weren't great, not good with English, and IIT has a very unforgiving academic environment. Thus the seeds of Avanti were sowed at IIT and we began working towards it. It's been a fun journey and we have learnt a lot," says Akshay.
What does Avanti do?
Avanti, which means to move forward in Latin, is also a Sanskrit word which stands for humility and several good values, adds Akshay. They have two specific programmes to educate these children. The first is a kind of test preparation and coaching programme for low-income kids who want to get into IITs, NITs, medical colleges and so on. "We partner with the Navodaya Vidyalayas that are residential and free schools. We work with them in Classes 11-12 to help them clear JEE/NEET," adds Akshay. He claims that almost 60 per cent of the children qualify for these competitive exams every year and currently, they have 10,000 students registered for this programme. Their second programme caters to kids at government schools where they are trying to work from a young age. "We want to increase the number of kids who have the potential to get into science programmes in their undergrads through this. We work largely with the teachers, provide them with new technology for their classes and conduct training to improve learning levels in mathematics and science while the kids are in school," he adds.
Avanti's government school training programmes are done in very close partnership with the Haryana government. "They help us with 160 schools. ICT equipment like TV, speakers, power backup have already been installed by the government, special workbooks, material we have designed are also being distributed there. Our field officers mainly train teachers and monitor student progress. Due to COVID-19, we have also introduced an online learning element through WhatsApp learning, videos and pdf worksheets to solve. Thus at home online learning is possible while teachers are being trained to run classes in schools," explains Akshay.
At the Navodaya Vidyalayas present in districts all across the country, there are Avanti employees who live on the school premises, who help prepare children for JEE/NEET examinations. "Both our programmes rely heavily on government partnership as the scale of these programmes is so large. Unless we partner with the state government we can't reach as many children and do it cost-effectively," he adds. In their initial days, Avanti relied entirely on volunteers, and then gradually began hiring IIT, NIT graduates who then stay with them for 2-3 years. They also hire people from several fellowship programmes such as Teach for India, who have already spent multiple years in government schools and have experience in dealing with that ecosystem.
The COVID-19 impact
Speaking on how the pandemic has impacted their programmes, Akshay tells us, "I consider this a happy accident. A few good things to come out of this is that the government school children have shown us they have a tremendous desire to learn. Nobody had a warning (about what would happen during the pandemic) and we were worried that children have no devices, how they will learn and so on, but we did the best we could. Avanti, along with a lot of other non-profits, had already built a lot of video content in Hindi. We then curated those into regular lesson plans and with the help of state governments started pushing it to children through Whatsapp groups. You wouldn't have imagined that close to 70-80 per cent kids in Haryana are on WhatsApp now, which is absolutely incredible," smile Akshay.
A survey conducted recently by Avanti found that close to 40 per cent of children are learning with some amount of regularity. "All things considered, this is a good number. The government has mandated that the kids have to take a weekly quiz. We are getting at least 1-2 lakh responses when we conduct this every week," claims the IIT Bombay alumnus.
He also adds that there's a lot of things they are learning from this sudden crisis. "There are a lot of gaps too like the difference between the top-performing kid and others who are struggling with a subject is enormous. There is a need to personalise online learning if it is to continue. It is a powerful tool and we need to find ways of how do you keep them learning online," quips Akshay.
Of dropout rates and inclusivity in India's schools
Their core programme in Haryana is targetted specifically at decreasing the dropout rates in rural and government schools. "In Classes 5 and 6 we lose about 40 per cent of the kids and then in Classes 10 and 11 there is a loss of another 40 per cent. This is quite tragic. A majority of the students have fallen so far behind academically that they drop out in Class 10, they don't see the point of studying further and believe that it will work for them," Akshay tells us.
Speaking about finding a way to improve the drastic dropout rates, he adds, "However, there's capacity in the system to solve this issue, we need to make the children learn properly in the primary levels. With online learning, it's more personalised and you can find ways to solve the gaps for them. Kids in government schools have an appetite and ability to learn by themselves at home. After COVID, we need to find a way to give them things that are at the right level at their homes. We can start to make some efforts in bridging this gap."
Akshay gives us his take on making the Indian education system more inclusive. "The point of discrimination between rural and urban schools is a key issue — nobody wants to work in rural areas, teachers don't show up, which has to be bridged. There is the gender issue where it's less about schools creating space for girls but parents getting girls married off, pulling them out of school at a young age. There's a third problem of learning loss and relevance. Children will learn if they see a point to it and if there are better outcomes. There are many ways in which we are failing them here the most. We are building schools, free meals, but what is the point of all that if the child doesn't believe that something fruitful will come out the learning. Why will they study? It's quite clear that the traditional educational model will not solve this — we have to embrace technology more. The government's own success during COVID is getting kids to learn online and it is an important answer to that problem. I hope we don't lose this momentum when schools reopen," says Akshay.