Education is the surest way out of poverty. Though educational opportunities are widely available, many Indian children never get the chance to take advantage of these, because their families are too poor to support them. Despite the concerted efforts of the Indian government and its NGO partners, many poor children drop out of school for the simple reason that if they don’t work, they don’t eat. Once a child drops out of school, it can be very difficult to return later – difficult socially, to fall behind peers who stayed in school and continued to progress through the curriculum, and difficult academically, because basic skills atrophy, and it can take considerable time and effort to make up lost ground.
The Agastya International Foundation has taken up this challenge, working to bring school dropouts back into mainstream academic programs. Agastya trains young, socially conscious volunteers – mostly college students – to go back to their home villages and tutor children who are not currently in school. Two to three times a month, the volunteers attend training workshops on the Agastya campus, where they sharpen their teaching skills and learn remedial education strategies. As an added incentive, volunteers receive a modest monthly honorarium to help defray their own educational expenses.
Each volunteer teacher takes on twenty to thirty students, holding classes for at least two hours a day, six days a week. Classes at the dropout centers typically are held outside of working hours, so that poor children do not have to choose between working to meet immediate needs and studying to improve their future prospects. Parents consent more readily to their children’s participation in the dropout program knowing that, at least initially, they won’t lose income. Many parents are all too aware that a lack of education can trap their children in poverty, according to an iron law of the job market: the lower the skill level, the lower the wages.
In the course of the program, parents’ attitudes toward education may undergo a striking change; when their children succeed in their studies, parents often encourage them to return to school full time, as an investment in the family’s future. Equally important, the children develop a love of learning, gaining confidence and self-esteem, as they become more competent learners.
K. Balaram, was Agastya’s longest-serving mobile lab instructor until he advanced to an administrative position. He proudly recounts one of many success stories for the dropout program. After two months of intensive work with an Agastya volunteer teacher, a young dropout boy returned to school and passed the tenth class with top marks. Now the boy is going to college. He just needed the opportunity. Agastya’s dropout program made all the difference, Balaram says, “It turned his life around!”