Kids in Kolkata slums get a head start on school with help from a sponsor who knows where they’re coming from
By Damon Guinn
If there’s a maxim to live by in India, the second most populous nation in the world, you might sum it up like this: It takes extraordinary effort to rise above one’s station in life and achieve success.The last time the United Nations measured school attendance rates in India, they found that one out of four children left school before reaching fifth grade.
About 69% of the country’s 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank – a situation that compels the majority to feverishly compete for access to jobs, goods, services and space. The competition starts early, too, affecting impoverished children disproportionately to other age groups.
Consider the impact on education. The last time the United Nations measured school attendance rates in India, they found that one out of four children left school before reaching fifth grade, while nearly half left before they made it to eighth grade.1 That’s primarily a consequence of poverty.
“Especially in slums,” UNICEF notes, “where public education options are scarce, families face a choice between paying for their children to attend overcrowded private schools of poor quality or withdrawing their children from school altogether. Even where schooling is free, ancillary expenses – uniforms, classroom supplies or exam fees, for example – are often high enough to prevent children from attending school. 2”
If children in India have any hope of setting themselves apart from the impoverished majority, it’s imperative that they get a good education. And the earlier they start, the better.
“Research has shown that the most effective interventions to improve human development and break the cycle of poverty occur most in children’s earliest years,” UNICEF reports. “The care and attention a child receives in the first eight years of life – particularly during the first three years – are critical and influence the child for life.3”
Dr. Mukund Padmanabhan, a long-time CI sponsor, is determined to enrich those early years for disadvantaged children in India. By funding early childhood education, he and his group, the Guru Krupa Foundation, are helping to keep kids off the streets and in classrooms.
Born into a middle-class family in southern India, Mukund’s odds of success were better than millions of others in his home country. He benefited from reliable access to school, and it showed. Of the 100,000 students who took the entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), only 2 percent were accepted. Mukund was one of them.
Still, with so many students competing for recognition, Mukund knew he had only one shot. “I didn’t have much of a financial safety net to fall back on,” he says, “so it was up to me to put in the extra effort to make a success of my life.”
The extra effort paid off too. After finishing a degree in electrical engineering, Mukund received a scholarship to attend the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Upon graduation, he went to work for the research division of IBM and then was recruited by Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund management company which prides itself in employing renowned physicists, mathematicians and statisticians.
Over the course of his career, Mukund and his wife, Chithra, worked closely with a small group of people – Dr. Lalit Bahl, Dr. Deepak Nayak and Mr. Amit Maitra – all alumni from IIT. The group shared much more than professional backgrounds, however – they shared a common vision for helping people in India. Inspired by Sri Vijayendra Saraswati, a prominent spiritual figure in southern India, they decided to start the Guru Krupa Foundation (GKF) in 2008. The name Guru Krupa, which means “By the Grace of the Teacher” in Sanskrit, would prove auspicious in the years to follow.“Influencing children’s study habits and providing them with this early educational advantage will have effects lasting well into the later stages of their lives,” Mukund believes.
A sponsor since 1993, Mukund knew he could trust CI to help carry out the community projects the foundation wanted to pursue. “I asked Tom Owens [a CI staff member] to suggest potential projects and that is how we came to support hepatitis vaccinations, Cyclone Aila [rebuilding efforts] and an anti-parasite program for poor children.”
When the foundation learned about CI’s efforts to expand early childhood education programs, they donated $29,000 to launch new preschool classes at three sponsorship centers in Kolkata. Children ages 3 to 5 years old are now able to attend classes hosted by trained teachers five days a week. Each student receives a uniform to prepare them for regular school attendance, books, stationery and a daily lunch, while getting a head start on English, math, art and music. Parents’ meetings are hosted every month as well to provide progress updates and help reinforce the importance of education, good health and hygiene and children’s rights.
The classes in Kolkata add to the growing roster of early education programs CI currently offers in countries like Ecuador and Zambia. Moving forward, CI hopes to launch programs at every agency.
"Investing in early childhood care and education can be a powerful way to reduce gaps in cognitive and socio-emotional skills that often put children with low social and economic status at a disadvantage," UNICEF confirms. "Morever, recent studies show that the returns on such investments are highest among poorer children, for whom early childhood programs may serve as a stepping stone out of poverty and exclusion.4”
For Mukund and his partners at Guru Krupa, the “Grace of the Teacher” as demonstrated in CI’s preschool classrooms, is the key to helping generations of children stay in school and someday lead better lives. “As for children,” Mukund adds, “I think they are relatively blameless and deserve to start off life at least at some minimum level. […] The feeling of satisfaction at having helped a child is well worth the relatively small amount of money that it costs.”
2UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 2012, Executive Summary: Children in an Urban World, p. 6.
4UNICEF, “Inequities in Early Childhood Development: What the data say,” p. 11, February 2012.