Gaurav, barely three-and-a-half, is swift with the tab. He skillfully navigates through the list of downloaded videos till he reaches the one from where he had left off the previous day.
“FISH!” the voiceover exclaims as the screen shows the picture of a large, grinning fish.
Just then Meena, who’s about a month younger and is perched on a small chair beside Gaurav’s, raises her head from the tab she’s holding and pores over momentarily before echoing. “PHIS!”
Gaurav giggles and then corrects her. “Phis nahi, FISH che!” (It’s not phis, it’s fish!)
The preschool is nice, the teachers are truly professional and the gadgets that the kids get to use are cool rows of cupboards lined with toys, shelves full of big books, walls adorned with cartoon characters, letters of the alphabet, numbers… Nothing you’d not find in an upscale preschool in your city.
Except, of course, the kids.
The kids are different.
While at the preschool, these kids get access to best of the videos, best of gadgets and some of the best of training (proof coming up soon). But once they pile up in autos and reach home, their lives will be starkly different.
Mostly, their homes are shanties. There isn’t anything like a drawing room or a kitchen, so don’t even ask if there’s a study room for them. There isn’t anything like a wall in some of their homes: partitions – created from huge, discarded posters or old, tattered sarees – pass off as internal walls.
Many of them are lucky to have access to public toilets, but for the rest, well, you know.
This means many of these kids have only a vague understanding personal hygiene. The early weeks every year are spent in helping students understand toilet usage.
The ones who are relatively better off are the ones whose father drives an auto and the mother is a domestic help at nearby homes. If that describes the best of the lot, one can very well extrapolate the socio-economic status of the remaining kids.
And yet these kids are being trained at a preschool that can easily compete with the best in the city. A preschool with everything that would have otherwise been cruelly out of reach of their parents’ purses.
This preschool is solely for children from the lowest economic segment of the society. Manjul, the preschool. It’s free – no fees whatsoever are charged.
* * *
On a not-very-sunny late September morning, I’m standing outside the Jain Balashram, right in the heart of Rajkot. This where Manjul is housed.
The 4’ x 3’ board outside reads Manjul the Preschool for little angels.
I walk inside. It’s an old-styled campus, with a big, grassy ground in the middle and the building structure all around. There’s what appears to be the office of the campus – I walk in to find a girl filing some papers.
Following her directions, I go to the adjoining unit. Its quarter to ten and Manjul is already buzzing with activity.
The lower floor has three classrooms, full of chirping children. I ask for Malini Shah and am guided to a large hall– with even more children – on the first floor. At the end of the hall, there are two rooms, one of which is where I will ultimately sit and talk to her for the next hour.
Malini Shah looks up from her laptop and then gets up to greet me. Her personality befits the head of a preschool to a tee – gentle, smiling and warm.
“Give me a second, please,” she says and quickly finishes her task on the laptop. Then she pushes it aside and explains with a grin. “That was a cool video I found on YouTube, something that talks about motor skills. It will help me in the next training session.”
We get talking. Post MBA, Malini worked with one of the most outstanding schools of Rajkot, ultimately rising to the level of Vice-Principal (with nearly 500 students under her). Then, with the lure of doing something more fulfilling, she accepted the challenge to step in as the founder-principal of Manjul in 2014.
I don’t like asking this, but I can’t resist: once these kids finish playschool, what sort of future awaits them?
Ultimately how useful will it be for these children in the long-run?
In a span of three years, while these kids are at this playschool, the purses of their parents aren’t going to get big enough to give their children great education for the rest of their lives.
And this is where the real impact, the real transformation emerges.
A very large proportion of these children will go to very good schools, a couple of which are some of the most expensive in the city.
But the answer must wait a while as Malini shares with me some amazing training sessions she and her teachers were fortunate enough to receive from reputed trainers.
A particularly interesting session was a 15-day training workshop under Christina Farrell, Master Teaching Artist. A faculty at the famed Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, near Washington DC, USA (currently chaired by no less than US First Lady Michelle Obama), she flew in from the USA, exclusively to train the teachers and the students, and conduct workshops with the parents.
Malini’s grin broadens when she notices my jaw dropping (“Faculty from Washington DC? Flew in exclusively for Manjul?”). She clarifies, “Vikrambhai managed that. He follows a simple, but a very demanding policy for Manjul.”
“Just because this preschool is run from donors’ money, on charity, it shouldn’t mean we compromise. Ever. We will make this the best preschool. We’ll pull in the best of resources.”
Her expenses were shared jointly by the Wolf Trap charity, the Rotary Foundation, Shri Tapulal B Mehta Charitable Trust (which funds a large chunk of the expenses at Manjul), Apex Foundation USA, Vikrambhai, and Christina herself.
Not too many of preschools with such stellar credentials around, right?
That brings me to how Manjul started off and who was behind it.
That warrants a meeting with the founder, Vikrambhai Sanghani.
* * *
In the escalator to the eight floor, I try to figure out what might have led Vikrambhai Sanghani, joint MD of Ace Software Exports Ltd., one of the oldest and the biggest IT firms of Saurashtra, to establish Manjul.
I imagine it must have been a situation like this: him dropping off his kids at an upscale school and seeing slum children at traffic points and taking it up as a mission and all that.
Fifteen minutes later, I find out.
“You see I am a trustee of the Shri Tapulal B Mehta Charitable Trust, which funds the college education of a good number of bright students. Students who score 99 percentile and making it sound like it’s the easiest thing in the world. They’re really brainy, but also really deprived.”
“I noticed our social and educational system was working fine for these kids who are super-intelligent – at least in the conventional sense”, the JBIMS alumnus pauses and continues in his trademark soft voice. “Sooner or later, most of them get a break – a benefactor, a charitable trust, a helpful college professor, a community leader… anyone.”
“However, it’s the next level of children from the weaker sections of the society who don’t get a chance. An above-average kid from a middle class family gets a lot of opportunities (mainly due to familial support), but the poorer kids with comparable IQs get a raw deal. Families don’t have money to spend on them and oftentimes, the kids’ 90 percentile fall tragically short of aid from trusts and other bodies.”
The logic sinks in.
The focus is on those kids who are bright (though not necessarily proven geniuses) but hail from very poor families. With the right start and the right push, they can be very successful too.
“As a member of various philanthropic organizations (Vikrambhai travels to various countries as an official assessor for Rotary Foundation-funded projects to observe how the poor communities have benefited from the millions of dollars donated by Rotary), I have observed so many nice people and wonderful organizations do some great things for education.”
Some schools, which catered specifically to children from the economically weaker sections, were doing good, but many could do with some improvements. “For instance, I feel a good playschool with good teachers, high-tech gadgets, and the right environ can make a far bigger impact than a playschool run under street lights. I think these children deserved to be in good places, and being born in families whose purse strings are perennially strained wasn’t their fault.”
“My sons went to Johns Hopkins and Caltech – both figure among the best universities the world over. I think it’s fair to dream that one day Manjul students will make it to Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge, INSEAD…”
No cutting corners
He visualized a playschool that wouldn’t charge a penny from the kids and yet would deliver at par or a whole lot better than the best your neighborhood playschool. Just because Manjul was run on charity and donations would never be an excuse for it being run in an ok-ish way. It would be great. Period.
So what all counts as great, and how it happens is what I wonder.
“To start with, we are clear that at Manjul, we are not obliging the kids or their families. We’re just sharing with society whatever we have. And since we are kind of paying back to the society, making compromises or cutting corners is a lot like short-changing.”
It starts with getting the right teachers. Manjul stresses getting quality teachers. “Bring whatever gadgets, whatever technology tools, the teachers are the ones who’ll impact the most,” says Vikrambhai. “To that extent, we’re already moving towards offering better emoluments and better training inputs for our current and future employees.”
The next, he says, are the training tools. “This is where accomplished people like Christina can make a world of difference.
With her extensive experience across the globe, the accomplished Christina opened up a completely new medium, a new world for our teachers to explore. It was as much a life-changing experience for the students as for our teachers.”
Farrell brought a new perspective to the teachers and the students. While discussing the concepts of large and small, for instance, she actually mimicked the walk of an elephant (“big”) and that of a cat (“small”). The kids couldn’t stop giggling, but they also tremendously loved the sessions.
She used things like a bubble-gum to explain concepts like counting. The effect was so instantaneous that the kids wanted to put it to practice. They asked how many licorice (Yashtimadhu) sticks it would take from one end of the hall they were sitting into the other. And then they actually measured it with their new-found measuring stick!
Thirdly, he elaborates, is teaching aids and technology. He wanted the kids to be comfortably use the latest tools to learn. That’s how the tabs happened. Various educational videos that the team at Manjul constantly discovers are put to use. The videos, of global standards, make the teaching of these preschoolers much more scientific.
The next, and to me the most important, aspect is “placement” of these children. What after they finish the playschool? Some run-down government funded the school that will push them back to their horrible poverty?
Manjul has found a wonderful answer to that. Under the current guidelines laid down under the Right to Education provisions, all schools are expected to take in a certain proportion of their students from the socially underprivileged class.
“I think we solved their (the schools’) problem.” Vikrambhai chuckles. “When our children enter these schools, the schools are happy because they get very well-trained children. So it’s a win-win: our kids get to study at some of the best schools and the schools get children who are as well-trained as their counterparts from well-off families.”
And what about the fund-raising? I asked,
“I was adamant that Manjul will always be free for students.” The seed funding was not that tough: the Tabulal B Mehta Charitable Trust provided enough resources that ensured a good start. The premises too were available at practically no cost. “But founding it and keeping it running are two quite different aspects.” he smiles knowingly.
He meets a number of people who contribute to various causes, because of his involvement in other social activities.
“So I take occasionally some of them to Manjul. I show them around, explaining how it works and how we operate. It might not happen instantly, but once they are aware of Manjul, sooner or later they get back to me. That’s how fundraising happens.”
Manjul also benefits from volunteering resource persons: Rajeshbhai Vyas, a Sa Re Ga Ma finalist, teaches singing and music, assisted by Vikrambhai better half Binaben Sanghani. Rotary club Doctors often conduct medical camps and look after the occasional medical needs of the students.
His vision is very clear. “There are two things that I see happening at Manjul. One, I want it to develop as not just a preschool run on charity, but a true Center of Excellence. It must be a role model for other preschools. And that’s why I keep insisting we don’t compromise.”
The other thing he wants Manjul to be is a training center for other preschools, especially the ones that run on charity and public funding, rather than on students’ fees.
“The purpose is to show that anything run on charity needn’t be a notch lower. We want to replicate this model, and we’ll do all we can to help others set up similar centers.”
Encouraged by the experience at the 3-year old Manjul, Vikrambhai has just started a similar preschool in Gondal (Sanghani Foundation Preschool), a town some 30-kms from Rajkot. It is run by his own family trust and currently operates out of his ancestral home there.
It is close to 10 in the night as I get up and take leave of Vikrambhai. As I wait for the elevator, Vikrambhai joins me. He runs a quick eye over the day’s issue of The Economic Times he’s carrying and then makes a quick business call or two. For someone who heads a big IT company, works with a good number of philanthropic organizations and keeps conceiving one preschool after the other, his pace is quite cool and measured.
We shake hands and part in the parking lot. He gets into his car and heads home. It might be a long journey, but the direction he’s going is infallibly accurate.
* * *
Note: The formal name of the schools is “Manjul – Smt. Dayakunverben Tapulal Mehta Rotary Midtown Playhouse and Nursery” and the building is under the aegis of Shri Vardhman Seva Trust led by Shri Tarunbhai Punjani, c/o. Jain Balashram, Rajputpara Street no. 8, Rajkot. For further information, check out this video on YouTube, check out on Facebook or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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