Change from within
A few young people work to transform the lives of children living in a notorious neighbourhood in Coimbatore.
Puliakulam needed a new identity. And, education was the chosen instrument of change.
Investing in education: A night class in progress.
It is a little after six in the evening. But the well-lit corridors of St. Antony’s Boys Elementary School in Puliakulam reverberate with voices of children. There are giggles and whispered conversations as the children hurry to their classroom s. They have to be on time for their free night tuition at Vidiyal Kalviyagam.
For 17 years now, K. Gladies Selvakumar, J. Ramesh, C. Lourdu Xavier and S. Kulandhai Teresa, from Puliakulam in Coimbatore district have been coming here every evening after their busy day at office. They have been joined by like-minded friends M. Quthupudeen and M.Vishnumoorthi.
Their aim — to ensure that every house in their village has at least one member who has passed out of school. And, the results are beginning to show. “I want to become a software engineer,” pipes up a Class V student. And, K. Gladies Selvakumar, founder of Vidiyal Kalviyagam, and his team smile happily. Once known for its anti-social activities, and a high number of school drop-outs, today, every house in Puliakulam village has a child willingly going to school.
It wasn’t always like this. “We wouldn’t get off at Puliakulam in order to avoid the bus conductor’s suspicion. We’d get off at other stops,” recalls Gladies. “Even now, if you reside in Puliakulam, you are not eligible for bank loans or a broadband connection. The area is black-listed,” he explains.
The bunch of graduates decided Puliakulam needed a new identity. And, education was their chosen instrument of change. “Societal change is possible only by providing good education,” believes Gladies. First, it was the high number of school drop-outs that needed tackling. Research done by S. Kulandhai Teresa, now a social activist in Chennai, kick-started the movement. They short-listed five schools in the area, and found that the drop-outs were the highest in St. Antony’s (546 dropouts out of 1087 students). Teresa reveals how in some schools, the students were sent out in Class IX, to ensure that the school got a 100 per cent pass. “The teachers believed that these under-privileged students couldn’t cope with studies. They failed to see that every child had the potential to learn,” she adds. Poverty and de-motivated teachers are the main reasons why education is ignored. “Most of the students are Dalits. Their parents are illiterates and earn their living as unskilled labour. Schooling is rarely a priority with them,” Gladies says.
And, these circumstances drive the children to anti-social activities like picking pockets and petty thefts. Frequent physical punishment meted out by teachers was another turn-off. So, Vidiyal approached the schools in Puliakulam with a “free tuition” announcement and the first batch was started with just eight students. Now, the number is 450 and growing. The intervention programme has brought down the dropout rates considerably. And, every year the students have been maintaining a 100 per cent pass in Class X examinations.
They are like family, says C. Lourdu Xavier. “To the students we are ‘anna’. We listen to their woes and help them find solutions”. And, their woes are aplenty. “Some do not have notebooks, while others are not able to pay their annual school fees even if it’s a meagre amount. Sometimes, it is the parents who want them to stay home and do household chores,” says J. Ramesh. The team members keep aside a portion of their salary to run the centre, and friends and well wishers chip in for the students’ notebooks, school uniforms and school fee expenses.
For Sharon Sebarteena, doing her Class X, a top ranker, science used to be tough, but not any more. “Now, I have picked up. The undisturbed atmosphere at the tuition centre helps to concentrate better,” she says. Sharon wants to be a teacher. So does A. Praveena, a Class IX student. “A job as a teacher will give us an opportunity to come to Vidiyal in the evenings,” she says. N. Nancy’s cousins and older brothers, who are not too well placed, encouraged her to attend the free tuitions classes and now she gets an ‘O’ grade in her exams. “Apart from the regular studies, I also learn computers and music here. I was introduced to the reading habit too,” says this Class IX student, who wants to become a doctor.
Like any other coaching centre, model question papers are set and regular revision tests are conducted. Saturdays are for extra-curricular activities. Experts are invited to talk to the students on self-development, empowerment and child rights. Creative arts, yoga, meditation, street theatre, dance and music all form a part of the curriculum. There is a computer lab with five computers as well as a mini library. “Some of the parents come here just to catch a glimpse of their children using computers,” he adds.
While helping students pass the Class X hurdle was the initial aim of Vidiyal, most students continue to study further. And, there is a beautiful rider. The ex-students, who now hold jobs, assemble every evening at the school to repay their debt, by imparting education to the next batch of children.
Says S. Deepalakshmi, now an accountant. “It’s our turn to inspire them to set bigger goals in life.” For J. Deepak, studying social work and D. Arokia Thomas, studying psychology, their day is incomplete without teaching at Vidiyal. “It gave us a focus in life. We want to set a good example,” they say. These former students take their role as teachers seriously and feel they owe it to those who come from disadvantaged families like theirs.
The Vidiyal team takes pride in the fact that more and more white collar job-holders are emerging from previously disadvantaged families. “It gives us a sense of achievement and there is hope that the movement will go on,” says Xavier. For Teresa, “Instilling social responsibility in youngsters is the biggest achievement”. Gladies sums up their teaching mission saying, “It’s like a temple to us. When we are down, all we need to do is walk its corridors. Everything is at peace once again.”