Art projects, Kannada and English letters, bookshelves and colour-coded graphs cover the walls of a ground floor classroom. A rainbow of paper lanterns hangs from the ceiling.
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And there are so many children who sit in groups on the floor reading, writing, drawing or just quietly conversing, even as two women hover around supervising, periodically hunching down to work with them.
This is a scene from a classroom of Makkala Jagriti, a non-government organisation, from a primary government model school in Mathikere, North Bengaluru. Makkala Jagriti is committed to making learning attractive and education possible for children from Bengaluru’s most marginalised communities.
The same colourful, art-and-crafts-filled classroom, faintly smelling of glue and construction paper, is replicated in a slum in Malleswaram, where neighbouring children trickle in after school to continue learning. This is one of Makkala Jagriti community learning centers, which acts as a haven for children wanting a safe space to explore and express themselves. More young women not only supervise but also work one-on-one with children, sitting on the ground, engaging in various activities and working on team-building exercises. There is no rambunctious running around, screaming or hitting. Kids spend a few hours each day just reading, writing, studying or talking.
Getting children to actively engage in classwork instead of running around the streets of Bengaluru, is what Joy Srinivasan and her team at Makkala Jagriti have been working towards for 14 years. Motivated by the belief that everyone deserves education, especially children from marginalized communities, Makkala Jagriti, Kannada for “Children’s Awakening”, has impacted the minds and futures of kids from lower sections of the society all over Bengaluru.
The journey of enlightening children
In 2003, Joy Srinivasan, founder and chairperson of Makkala Jagriti, opened the first Makkala Jagriti holistic development community learning center near Adugodi. It was a colourful, child-centric space offering a safe, fun place for children to explore an approach to learning differently from what is offered by traditional government public schools.
At the first Audugodi center, there was a library for the children. For the first month, most children did not know how to read and were nervous to even touch the picture books, but soon the regular visitors were flipping through the illustrated pages, making up stories and learning the alphabet. Not long after the opening, the Adugodi center had over 150 children learning instead of roaming the streets.
“Children from the marginalised communities were not really going to the school so when this space opened up it was this colorful space, very attractive and the facilitators listened to them spoke to them,” says Sunayana Chatrapathy, deputy director of programs. “The space was non-threatening and emotionally, physically and socially safe, where they felt welcome.”
Schools partner with Makkala Jagriti
Schoolteachers and administrators from these schools began to notice that children were not coming to school, but were spending their days at learning centers. They approached Makkala Jagriti to understand why kids were drawn to them. A partnership was born between Bengaluru’s government schools and Makkala Jagriti. Today, government schools all over the city have set aside a classroom for the facilitators, so that they can teach each child for an hour a day playing games, learning new activities and receiving personalised help in several subjects.
Apart from encouraging children to attend school everyday, Makkala Jagriti in government schools is a learning place for teachers as well. Joy says: “So engaging the children is one part of the work, while engaging with the parents and then engaging with the teachers is also important.”
Tough past makes way for extraordinary vision
Getting urban children off the streets is of course at the heart of Joy’s vision. As someone who grew up in a lower to middle class area, Joy overcame the oppressive voices of her more privileged peers and worked on various part-time jobs to fund her schooling. “Facing all the odds of living in a diverse community where there were strong haves and have nots and there was strong resistance for the underprivileged to not penetrate into the education field” was very challenging and rewarding for her.
As a degree holder, former employee of multiple corporate companies and founder of a thriving social foundation, Joy believes that everyone deserves education.
For many children born into lower class families and growing up in the various slums of Bengaluru, education is a far-fetched dream and sometimes never even an option. School is often a place where many marginalised children feel out of place in. Not having any educated role models or family members can make such first generation students feel that they are not cut out for it. Many children drop out before 7th standard to pursue domestic work, just like their parents and neighbours.
The lack of confidence in pursuing education and the ridged learning environment of most government schools can make children feel inadequate at a young age. Makkala Jagriti is changing this by integrating activities such as art, sports, and music along with many more activities that can help them to explore their personal interests and talents. Children become willing to pursue lives that are different from the original ones they started with.
Sunayana explains how lower class children get affected by their surroundings and develop a low morale.She adds that the learning centers offer a space for the children to explore, experiment and discover themselves.
Joy believes that Makkala Jagriti becomes unique due to its mission of giving every child its own authority. Over the past 14 years, learning has sparked off education in thousands of children, who without the organisation may never have even gone to school in the first place. No agenda is forced down any child’s throat. Instead, they are empowered to make their own decisions.
For every child, Makkala Jagriti practises a model called SPICE (social, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional development). Interacting with attentive facilitators and other children in the learning centers, colorful display of arts and crafts on the walls, playing games to encourage intellectual growth and practising new skills like martial arts and computers is helping children to grow.
Recently, Makkala Jagriti has begun to work with children aged between three to six years, preparing them for primary school. After preschool and primary classes, they move on to holistic development in community learning centers in the afternoon and in government schools during school hours, focusing on reading, creative development, science, sports, educational field trips, health, hygiene and civil awareness. Teenagers and young adults between 15 and 22 join programmes through which they are taught career and life skills such as computer training, personality development, leadership and education for dropouts.
“A lot of the children who have gone through our programmes have come out of whatever emotional turmoil they were going through and have joined mainstream jobs. They have really come up in life, still remember their learning and acknowledge that they owe it to the space that was offered to them,” Sunayana says. “It helped them believe in themselves and that’s what we’re mostly about – helping children to believe that they can do it or achieve it.”
A colourful change for government schools
When I visit Mathikere school, Makkala Jagriti there facilitators beam with pride and ask what I think of their classroom. Children are gathered in a circle, working in groups, with their artwork displayed on the wall.
A book is shown to me listing every student’s name, grade and current reading level. Next to these names is a progress report, with increasing reading goals for each student. Similar books are stored in the room with the names listed again for different subjects. Each day the students focus on different skills. Sometimes they talk about music, sometimes art, but on other days the focus might be on computer lessons and language.
This classroom is one of many in government schools throughout the city that have partnered with Makkala Jagriti. Through this partnership Makkala Jagriti is working to introduce more creative, personalised teaching strategies to government school teachers.
Investing beyond children
It takes a village to raise a child and intervening solely in schools and afterschool programs leaves out an important part of the puzzle when it comes to children’s future; their home lives and family support. Makkala Jagriti works with parents to build strong family units and at-home support for education. Parenting workshops and retreats focus on transforming parenting behavior, so that children receive the same support and attention at home as in the learning centers.
“Two to three days of intense work really helps them transform themselves in terms of behavior, in terms of the way they look at their child,” Sunayana says. “I’ve heard parents say ‘I’ve never thought about it before but now I’m having a conversation with my child everyday.’”
Involving young adults from the communities
Young adults from marginalised communities are able to relate on a deeper level to the lives and challenges of the children. During the first ten years, Makkala Jagriti trained youth from marginalised communities to work as facilitators and volunteers.
“Since they are from the community they automatically become very strong role models for the children,” Sunayana adds. “The children really look up to this older young person and exclaim: “Hey, I want to learn. I want to become like him or her’ and that becomes really powerful.”
The process of teaching young adults, who often had not finished their schooling, took three-to-four years as they had to learn everything about teaching and child development from scratch. Facilitators grew to become coordinators and eventually managers as one way in which Makkala Jagriti conditioned young people to learn to grow into a brighter future. Since then, hires have also been young people with an interest in social work and qualified education professionals.
In 2007, Makkala Jagriti started working with children shelters by installing learning centers and inspiring change in the way shelters are run. For eight years, Makkala Jagriti worked in shelters as a place for children to simply be, without being told what to do. Many children learned to express their troubles and some took this time as a safe place to nap or refresh from their everyday routine.
An enduring legacy
With memories of the colorful classrooms and facilitators-turned-role models, many children grow up and leave the programme, eventually pursuing education and mainstream corporate jobs. “In the last fourteen years, we have seen that the children who came to our learning centers have now actually moved into becoming who they want to become,” Joy remarks.
Many of the adults who as children passed through the rooms of the various Makkala Jagriti programmes decide to give back by volunteering in learning centers or working full time as facilitators. “Some are working in corporate jobs, some are entrepreneurs, some are in the social scene reaching out to more children and some have become facilitators.”
Today, as many as 31 holistic development learning centers found in the city’s various communities, government schools and shelter homes, 90 centers in government preschools and many parenting and teaching workshops have helped 7,071 children from six to 14 years. Over 2,000 children aged three to six and over 1,000 teachers and parents get the specialised attention, range of lessons and confidence needed to succeed in school and life. At the heart of it all is Makkala Jagriti’s commitment to not only child development but also for transforming communities.
Fourteen years after its founding, Joy is happy to see where Makkala Jagriti is today. A flourishing non-profit that inspires underprivileged children to choose their own paths, it spells hope and makes a great impact on the lives that otherwise would get trapped in the cycle of lack of education and unemployment.