The small school operated by our project partner AID India in southern Satankulam, Ave Maria, is in need of urgent support. It recently applied for state recognition and must now comply with strict and expensive terms otherwise it will be shut down. This would be a fatal blow to the students as Ave Maria is the only school in the region that offers highy-quality education beyond the boundaries of caste. Our guest contributor Dorit Behrens recently paid a visit to see AID India’s work in action.
It is 9:30 on a Monday morning. A young teacher sounds the bell. Shortly after, around two hundred boxs and girls in light blue school uniforms gather in the playground: it’s time for morning assembly. The students, ranging in age from four to 13 years old, stand in rows. Some of them are still sleepy. Most of them gaze curiously upon the school’s guest. Today, I have the honour of hoisting the Indian flag. Afterwards, the children sing the national anthem and the older students read the newspaper to the crowd. It is the same ritual every Monday, greeting the new week and kickstarting the lessons.
Yet, the future of the school is unknown. During this current school year, Ave Maria’s parent organistaion AID India applied for state recognition, a necessary action given that, under the new Right to Education Act, schools are only allowed to provide lessons if they have state recognition. Ave Maria is now faced with some drastic terms and conditions. A new roof for the toilet wing must be put in place, the library and laboratory must be equipped with books and materials and seven new class rooms must be built as the existing light blue school buildings do not meet government standards. All of this must be completed by the end of this school year (April 2013) otherwise the school will face indefinite closure.
The preparations are being sped up thanks to private funding (Ave Maria receives no public aid whatsoever). People who have supported via RESET have helped provide cupboards and shelves for the library. The school was brought to life four years ago with the firm objective of providing an education to the poorest of the poor and, as such, school fees are waived for the majority of attending students. The adjacent children’s home also provides a secure and caring sanctuary for around 30 girls. Together with the other children, these girls receive lessons beginning at pre-school age—regardless of gender, caste or religious affiliations.
The school is a blessing for Tamil Nadu, where poverty and caste tensions run rife. Students receive basic, vital and, above all, individual support that they wouldn’t necessarily receive at a public school. Since the 2009 introduction of the Right to Education Act, the reality of life in public schools looks somewhat different: absenteeism and truancy are the norm while curriculum is hastily thrown together.
Ave Maria functions in a way that avoids these ailments of the public system—parents are encouraged to accompany their kids to school using the school-provided bus service. The bus picks everyone up in the monring and drops everyone off home again in the afternoon. Even families who live as far as 30 kilometres away from the school are included in the bus service.
Right now, the students are preparing themselves for their final exams in April. For the littlest ones, their study plans are filled with learning about numbers and letters while the sound of fourth year students fervently sounding out English vocabulary fills the school grounds. The sixth graders busy themselves with solving algebra equations while the the eighth year students fixate on Tamil grammar. The students are thirsty for knowledge and the atmosphere is relaxes despite the adverse situation the school currently finds itself in.
The school’s finances are tight and it is still unclear how Ave Maria will finance all of the terms and conditions outlined by the state. The fact that the construction workers have allowed the school to pay its bills after it receives state accreditation is one silver lining in an otherwise murky situation. "This gives us a bit of room to breathe and allows us to keep fighting fort he children" Peter from AID India tells me as I leave. I climb into my train and wave to him and the five girls who have accompanied me to the station. "Poittu vanga!" they call out, which translates roughly to "Bye, see you soon!". "Hopefully", I think to myself as the trains rattles away.
Take part and help Ave Maria fill its library with books.
Author: Dorit Behrens, RESET editorial