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  who's who >> Akanksha >> Shaheen Mistry

Field(s) of Work: Education, Civic Participation Access to Learning, Curriculum, Development of Teaching Aids, Education
Target Population(s): Communities / Residents, STD / HIV Carriers
Organization: Akanksha

Shaheen Mistry is providing engaging supplemental education for poor children living in slums. By exposing them to schools, teachers, and educational resources generally available only to middle class Indian children, Shaheen is improving the children's job prospects and involving middle-class schools in combating high levels of illiteracy among the urban poor.

The New Idea

Few would argue about the merits of education. But providing high-quality education to children living in slums, where funds and good teachers may be scarce is a difficult challenge. Even when schools thrive amid a slum, children may emerge from their classes into an environment that barely supports their dreams for a better future. To expose children from slums to different environments and improve their education and job prospects, Shaheen is creatively using the resources of schools for the middle class and other institutions. The opportunities she provides are designed to supplement what they receive in government-run schools. Shaheen's schools, called Akanksha Centers (Akanksha means aspiration in Hindi), operate before and after regular hours in donated spaces such as private schools, colleges, corporate offices, and science centers. For a few hours each day, the children have a chance to thrive in hands-on learning environments with outstanding teaching materials and personalized instruction from trained volunteer teachers. With twenty-five centers up and running in Mumbai and Pune, Shaheen plans to spread her idea to other cities and states by sharing her experiences in tapping underused resources, organizing and training volunteers, and developing inspiring educational materials.

The Problem

Most children from slums find it difficult to compete in India's formal, competitive job market. They do not acquire marketable skills because the free government schools they attend are poorly equipped and have a high student-teacher ratio. While these schools meet basic education standards, they hardly expose children to new environments and do not prepare them to meet the challenges of securing and maintaining well-paying jobs. Although English is India's official language, even children who graduate from these schools lack basic English language skills. In addition, no enrollment process exists to assure that every child attends school, and nearly half of enrolled students drop out during their first five years. As a result, a generation of children is growing up illiterate and ill-equipped to bring itself out of poverty. Yet the idea that schools catering to India's middle class can and should integrate poor students to give them a better education is still not widely accepted. There is a great need to harness resources of these schools so that they can be extended to benefit poor children.

The Strategy

Shaheen targets the students most in need of supplemental education and immerses them in a curriculum that relies on fun activities to teach English, math, and other subjects. The children draw, learn geometry, and sing English songs. Students of high school age acquire marketable skills and receive vocational training. Every child is also enrolled in a public school, where they will earn their education certificates that are required for future employment. While Shaheen doesn't dismiss the role of struggling public schools, she believes her program delivers what employers want the most.Each center has two head teachers, volunteers, and a student-teacher ratio of about twelve to one. Teacher training, which is intensive and continuous, includes a week-long introductory program for new teachers. Coordinators visit regularly to help teachers tailor the curriculum to the children's needs and progress. They also conduct bi-annual evaluations, identifying new skill-sets children wish to acquire. Though a challenge, Shaheen attracts top-notch teachers to her centers by offering them professional development opportunities. Housing the Akanksha Centers in donated spaces keeps costs low and enables the centers to build alliances with corporations that wish to help by providing spaces and capable, eager volunteers through mentoring programs. The partner organizations encourage their staff members to develop relationships with students by teaching them a skill or hobby, attending festival celebrations, serving as academic mentors, or simply playing in school sports matches. This type of interaction builds long-term connections between centers and their sponsor companies. Additionally, Akanksha festivals bring students of diverse backgrounds together so that they realize what they have in common. Also central to the Akanksha Centers is Shaheen's belief that parents, children, and schools should all be part of an educational process that does not end until a child finishes school at age eighteen. She encourages parents to participate in monthly meetings and volunteer as classroom assistants. Building on its experience in tapping underused resources, Akanksha supports the children's families with health care by enlisting medical students to care for them in training hospitals. Shaheen plans to spread her approach of using underused resources, organizing and realizing the potential of volunteers, and providing high-quality educational materials to create successful education programs for underserved, poor children throughout the country. Rather than running an enormous number of centers, she plans to make Akanksha a consulting partner for other organizations that are interested in improving the quality of their services and establishing similar centers. Shaheen's first partner is Veerni, a nonprofit working in women's literacy, in twenty-two villages in the state of Rajasthan. A partnership with Amba, an organization that works in urban slums in Delhi, is in the works. Over the next three years, Shaheen anticipates developing thirty-six partnerships.

The Person

Shaheen has felt drawn to working with poor children since college, when she first began looking for volunteer opportunities. Visits to Mumbai's slums made the wide gap between the rich and poor very apparent. Speaking only English, Shaheen befriended a Hindi-speaking girl so that each of them could learn a new language. Often, children from nearby slums would listen in to their conversations, and over the next months their sessions became regular evening classes. It was at this point that Shaheen realized how powerful education could be for slum children. A student of University of Mumbai, Shaheen recruited her friends to help with initial efforts to provide supplemental educational opportunities for these children. One of Shaheen's first goals was to tackle existing stereotypes about educating children from slums. "I was determined to take the children out of the slums to show them that life can be different," says Shaheen. She scouted around for space for her first center but was refused by nineteen school principals. When she had almost given up, the Holy Convent School opened its doors to her. In 1990, Shaheen started the first Akanksha center, enlisting college friends as her first group of volunteers and enrolling forty children.