Democratizing education through learning centers

Featured Photo: iStock.com/VikramRaghuvanshi

What practices are organizations adapting to make their Learning Centers valuable to communities?

Most view learning centers as a vehicle to increase elementary school enrollments and retention and reducing the number of out-of-school children. Although that remains an overarching objective for a large number of nonprofits, the approach to running learning centers has become much more nuanced
and well-thought-out over the past decade.

The focus has moved from merely achieving academic milestones to holistic development and engaging parents for better learning orientation. We spoke to education nonprofits such as Vikramshila Education Resource Society (West Bengal), Samridhdhi Trust (Karnataka), North East Education Trust (NEET) (Assam), and the Association of People with Disability (Karnataka) to understand practices that they
have adapted to make their learning centers safe, vibrant, all-inclusive, and geared toward nurturing the holistic development of children.

The Learning Center as Lab and Bridge Before the Right to Education (RTE) Bill was passed in 2009, it was challenging to enroll students in government schools. Organizations have had to build credibility to gain the school administration’s attention and get pupils admitted to an age-appropriate class. West Bengal-based Vikramshila Education Resource Society is perhaps one of the few such nonprofits that have built strong credibility.

Since 1999 Vikramshila has been working with Kolkata Police to safeguard out-of-school children from a life of crime. The place where they started their center is infamous for criminal activities, including drug abuse.

These centers (called Naba Disha Centers) are located within police station premises. While the objective of the police was to keep the children off the streets, Vikramshila also focused on providing children with a safe space and giving them educational and social-emotional support. Vikramshila uses the learnings from Naba Disha Centers while setting up new centers.

Shubhra from Vikramshila says, “We had to struggle to find good quality centers back then. We used to train children and then get them admitted to mainstream schools. Admissions to schools became relatively easy after the RTE Bill was passed. At one point, we thought about whether we must continue, but we realized a need for supplementary centers. Living in congested homes, children didn’t have spaces to study, and they got the psychosocial support at the centers which they lacked at home.”

Vikramshila works on pedagogy, curriculum development, and teacher development programs. Their learning centers also function as labs to test their teaching and learning materials and tools. “Since we implement teaching and learning curriculums across different states and organizations, having tested the methods at our learning centers, we feel confident about implementing it for other children from similar backgrounds,” adds Shubhra.

The Naba Disha Centers focus on Early Grade Reading, Mathematics, Language, Library, and ICT-enabled programs in a community setting. Namrata from Vikramshila says, “The advantage of Naba Disha is that it is not dependent on any school for its premises. It operates in a community setting. This allows children to remain engaged even after school hours or when the schools are shut for long periods during holidays.”

Apart from the Naba Disha model, Vikramshila also runs supplementary learning centers and afterschool programs in school premises in collaboration with the school management, and in community spaces in partnership with communities.

Vikramshila’s role across all these models is to provide resource support, academic and technical support on education, the wellbeing of children, community sensitization, and formulating school-community linkages.

Building relationships with stakeholders, including the education departments of state governments, is a part of running learning centers. One of the approaches that helped Vikramshila channel their efforts into strengthening the school education system was to open the doors of their learning centers to government school teachers and let them experience their teaching and learning methods. The result was that after a few visits, the schools themselves started inviting Vikramshila to take remedial classes.
“At the end of the day, the work has to speak for itself. We have to deliver on our promise. The center has to show the result. Our children are completing their board exams, they become confident. Simply following up with the government doesn’t help,” adds Namrata.

Centers that Reach Out to the Margins

Another remarkable case study is Karnataka-based Samridhdhi Trust which works with 4,000 out-of-school children of migrants in Bangalore, Pune, and Delhi NCR. Samridhdhi’s goal is to take these children from ‘school-ready’ to ‘job-ready’ stage. The children associated with the Trust come along with their parents from states like UP, Bihar, Assam, Bengal, and Odisha.

Uttam from Samridhdhi says, “We started with a bridge project after doing surveys in the communities where these children lived. As a part of the program, we trained them in literacy and numeracy and especially the state language. And once ready, we enrolled them in government schools or low-fee
private schools.”

In many cases, the Trust offers to pay 50% of the school fees for boys and 60% school fees for girls enrolled in low-fee private schools. After a child is enrolled into the school, Samridhdhi works with the child in an ‘After  School Program’ and handholds them for the next ten years till they are employable,
ensuring that they don’t drop out. The After School Program either operates on school premises or in a rented place, where school teachers and community volunteers resolve any doubts that children might have.

“Once children are enrolled, it is important to keep them in the school. We pay attention to their smallest of needs such as providing snacks before the After School Program, arranging pick-up and drop bus services to the schools, and organizing parent counseling sessions so that they start seeing education as an investment,” adds Uttam.

Samridhdhi recruits Community Mobilizers, who are educated persons from the community and act as an interface between the community and the children on the one hand and the program on the other.
The mobilizers identify children who have stopped going to school and work with them to address the challenges they face.

If a student lacks a positive environment at home to study, Samridhdhi considers providing hostel accommodation for such learners. Samridhdhi’s learning centers go beyond academics and encourage
participation in crafts, music, dance, painting, quizzing, and drama. The center has come across many students with natural talent in sports, dance, or acting, which the team has encouraged to be honed further.

Libraries as Learning Centers

Learning activities that encourage creative thinking are said to increase the academic social competence of children. Assam-based North East Education Trust’s (NEET) program mainly focuses on enabling children to connect with their lived experiences through their Community Library initiative in Guwahati. The library’s rich collection of age-appropriate contextually-suited books has opened up a new world for children from underserved communities in the region who are primarily first-generation school-goers.
Risha from NEET says, “We used to introduce our library program and do workshops in several schools in the region. A lot of children from schools eventually started visiting our library center. To engage them, we started with some small workshops on story-telling, read-aloud, and book games to enable
children to think critically. But we also learned that many of those children couldn’t read or lacked basic numeracy skills. So, we started offering support in Math, English, and Assamese.”

More than 200 students from nearby areas participate in NEET’s library center activities. They receive support for their academic needs from this library-cum-learning center. NEET’s community library is set
up as a vibrant child-friendly space that is open throughout the year with an open area for children to play. It is designed to allow for easy access to books for children, organized according to their age. The team organizes various activities and workshops at the library in collaboration with artists and other resource persons from different fields, supported by multiple corporates and individual donors.

“We put a lot of emphasis on the material that we give to children to enhance their learning experience. Many of the books and TLMs have been specially translated to Assamese to ensure all children get an opportunity to engage with reading and learning materials in a language they can understand,” adds Risha.

Learning centers like the one run by NEET require sensitivity and understanding of different cultural nuances and understanding how children engage and respond. Early on, the NEET team participated in a series of capacity enhancement training programs such as the Library Education Course and the Foundation Education Course to understand what kind of resources and capacities the team would need to enable children to have a meaningful learning experience. Founder Risha and co-founder Parismita became the recipients of Wipro Education Fellowship 2018 onwards and continue till date.

Risha says, “The fellowship provided us with financial support with which we could implement our ideas. Every year we got access to different capacity-building enhancement workshops and that helped us in gaining clarity about our work. It also gave us an opportunity to connect with a network of like-minded organizations and individuals and we could learn from their work as well.”

Interestingly, NEET’s Community Library Program model has expanded to a few government schools in Guwahati and Kamrup. The team now engages with government schools in Assam on aspects like organizing their library spaces and making existing reading and learning resources accessible to children.

While the focus for non-disabled children at learning centers is mainly on academic and all-around development, in the case of children with disabilities, it is about addressing their day-to-day functional needs in addition to making learning spaces more inclusive or disabled-friendly.

Centers that Ensure that the Disabled Learn

Karnataka-based Association for Persons with Disabilities (APD) focuses on two models to promote inclusive education through their programs – a school model and a community model. For the school model, APD has been setting up learning centers at schools having more than ten children with disabilities. The process begins with assessing how many children and with what disabilities are there
in a particular school. After evaluation, the school administration is engaged in processes of setting up a therapy center at the school and in converting the entire school into a disabled-friendly space with suitable access audits.

Nakkina from APD says, “The therapy centers act as spaces for children to get access to experts, take therapy, and engage in activities that can support their development. Since the children we work with are often neglected, our larger goal is to sensitize headmasters, principals, and the teachers involved in the classes on how they should deal with children with disabilities.”

Along with education and therapy services, APD provides opportunities to participate in summer camps, dasara camps, adventure camps, sport meets, and creates space for children with disabilities to exhibit their talents. Building peers in mainstream schools is another activity of importance; this process helps peers understand the needs of children with disabilities and assists them in curricular activities.

Getting buy-in from the school administration requires time and effort, especially for children with disabilities. To bolster their case, the APD team often takes their previous beneficiaries to the headmasters, teachers, and the students to make sure their work is communicated effectively.

In the case of Community Learning Centers, APD groups children with disabilities from 4-5 schools and provides them with the same resources as they do for school-based centers. In addition to psychosocial
support, the APD team also provides hearing aids, orthotics, and prosthetics for children custom-made at their manufacturing units in Karnataka.

One of APD’s key focuses is on advocacy and on bringing parents on board with the education of the children. The organization empowers parents to access social security schemes for their children. Nakkina from APD says, “Children enrolled in the learning centers come from challenging backgrounds.
In most cases, the father and mother go to work. But we insist on parents meeting us as it helps in orienting the child. Often our staff also visit their homes to sensitize them or to give worksheets to children.”

APD has developed a streamlined tracking system for each child that captures details after they are on board. Each child gets an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and an Individual Rehabilitation Plan (IRP) besides periodic assessments and internal reviews to track progress.

“We raise funds for learning centers on an ongoing basis, and the donors are informed about our collaborations with schools or communities. At places where we cannot operate with the APD team, we collaborate with other organizations working on disability in the region and provide them with technical support and expertise or subgrants,” adds Nakkina.

India has over two million registered education NGOs, and most of them are focused on one or the other way of achieving children’s learning goals. Learning centers have evolved to become an essential instrument for achieving these objectives, to track learning outcomes, and to undertake advocacy. Most organizations have developed their learning center models through trial and error, based on the needs on the ground.

Regardless, the overall experience has helped organizations build expertise in different areas, such as collaborating with the government, developing inclusive learning centers, or meeting the education needs of a particular group or community.

You can reach out to the organizations featured in this story at: contact@apdindia. org (APD India), info@vikramshila.org (Vikramshila), northeasteducationaltrust@gmail.com (NEET), and uttambanerjee@ samridhdhi.org (Samridhdhi Trust)