Published: 02nd February 2021
This government official set up a residential school on a hill in rural AP to help tribal kids during the pandemic
The Hill Top Eco School in AP's Boddugudem has sprung up to help tribal kids attain functional literacy. We talk to the project officer behind this initiative to understand why it's of such importance
The word school wouldn't suffice to describe The Hill Top Eco School located situated on a hill in Gutta Maddibanda, about an hour away from Boddugudem in Andhra Pradesh, an area predominantly occupied by the Konda Reddis and Koya tribes. And this is not just because of the circumstances that it came up under (the Coronavirus pandemic, no less) and how it united the whole community in setting up this temple of learning with bamboo sticks and thatched leaves. Here, the lines between learning and play blur as games seamlessly deliver elementary knowledge like the art of recognising letters (in both English and Telugu). Classes are preluded by songs that set the rhythm. Then chores-turned-lessons like gardening, cooking and cleaning are an everyday activity at this residential school. It's this atmosphere that makes children from ages 6-15 comfortable enough to learn under one tarpaulin roof.
Addressing kids and parents | (Pic: Ramana Akula)
Believe me when I tell you that The Hill Top Eco School is not a school in the conventional sense of the term. It's a place where children learn, live and laugh their way to a brighter tomorrow.
On a hill far away
Though it was in November 2020 that Ramana Akula, Project Officer, Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), Chinturu, started work on the school, by January 26 this year, on Republic Day, when they invited elders of the community for a small ceremony, he knew the impact the school was having. He could see it in their eyes. "Konda Reddis or Hill Reddis are a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) and reside on hillocks. They are isolated and don't mingle much. The only time they do come down is to participate in the weekly mandi (market) to sell what they grow. Very often, they are cheated because of their lack of education. What they need is basic education and skills. There was a primary school downhill but it has been closed. So before starting the school, we surveyed the area," says the officer.
Children get holidays during festivals. For example, they got three days off for Sankranti for which, they went back to their hill village
As a result of the survey, they found that there are 167 families in 21 hills villages who practice shifting cultivation. As it wasn't possible for children from faraway villages to come to school every day, the answer had to be residential. So once they arrived upon a solution, Akula mobilised local social workers, community members and his own team to set up The Hill Top Eco School. They found a reliable teacher in 26-year-old Ravva Venkatesh who, armed with a BA degree and a Diploma in Education, proceeded to conduct all the day-to-day activities of the school. A cook and a warden have also been deployed. And since then, the strength of the school has been a consistent 28.
Happy children | (Pic: Ramana Akula)
Let's get to the sing-along
Songs, poems, games, activities and chores all take the form of a lesson for kids and this is a huge plus point particularly considering the fact that there are students of varying ages here. Venkatesh sorts them into similar age groups and assigns seperate age-specific activities. The teacher, who is pursuing his MA now, keeps circulating between the groups to teach and assign new work. The games are also as simple as they get. Imagine letters drawn on the floor and kids are given small pebbles to arrange them over the letter. Then there is the group game where letters are drawn within the circle and the kids are given papers with all the letters on them. They need to place the letter in hand in the correct circle while all the children competitively call out, "Run, run, run!". The games and the curriculum are simple because the objective is simple. "I see this school as a bridge that offers functional literacy, be it in letters or numbers. That's why songs and poems are our way forward. And revisions are conducted two or even three times a day to ensure retention. Their assessment too happens via play," explains the 27-year-old officer who visits the hill once every 15 days. ITDA provides uniforms, ration and stationery too. While one hut is for residential purposes, another is a staff/storage room and then there is the school itself.
Venkatesh would like to crack the exam for becoming a government school teacher. Or start a small business and take care of his family
"I believe that this is a community-owned school as the entire construction was done by the villagers with the material that they sourced," says the Markapur-born official. He is also happy to report that the children are very quick to learn and because they are from tribes, they seem to be naturally creative too. While the immediate plan is to construct a fence around the school that will keep the buffaloes away, the long-term plan is to ensure that these students strive for more education and are able to gain admission into good government schools. They also want to convert the school into a community centre in the evenings which people can visit to discuss issues.
Akula | (Pic: Ramana Akula)
So in the end, no matter what you call this space, school, activity-centre or otherwise, it is a place where children get a shot at a future in which they are more aware and attentive, enough to be better at any job they take up and understand that even the most basic education goes a long way.
Another way Akula is convincing tribals in Edugurallapalli to send their kids to school is by assuring that they will their patta (land deed issued by the government)
What is Akula's backstory?
Akula went to a Telugu-medium government school, pursued engineering from KL University in Vijayawada and took up a job in an IT firm. He used to work with NGOs in Hyderabad wherein, he taught Physics at a few government schools. "Soon I realised that me going to one school might not change many things and that I needed to get into the public sector," he says. He attempted APPSC (Andhra Pradesh Public Service Commission) and topped the Group I exam in 2018. He began his training in Guntur and he was posted as Project Officer, ITDA, Chinturu in October 2019. This is his first posting. "I even met Jaya Prakash Narayanan in between and he suggested that I read a lot to understand better," he shares.
Group picture time | (Pic: Ramana Akula)
Time table of the school
6 am: Time to wake up followed by basic exercises and a glass of milk
9:00 am: School begins. An assembly is conducted and the pledge is recited
9:15 am: Classes start with a local song. Revision of previous day follows
10:45 am: Interval for 15 minutes and a few more songs are sung
11:45 am: Students are asked if they would like to play or study
12:30 to 1 pm: Break where students freshen up and eat
1 pm: Classes begin and they play outcome-based games
3:45 pm: Cleaning of school premises followed by gardening
4 pm: Sports and leisure games follow
6 pm: Preparing for dinner
6:30 pm: Dinner is served
7:30 pm: Leisure time and casual assessment of what was learnt
9 pm: Time to sleep
The games they play | (Pic: Ramana Akula)
For more on him check out facebook.com/ramana.akula