Fixing Rural Schools
One school at a time. That philosophy translates into the acronym OSAAT, a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit that is directing its efforts towards needy schools in India.
"NRIs in the U.S. are thriving due to the education that they had in India. … I felt it is our duty to give back in some ways to our education system," says Vadiraja Bhatt, a software engineer in the Bay Area who founded OSAAT in 2003.
As a classically trained mridangam player, Bhatt often plays at charity concerts in the United States. A nagging thought constantly persisted at the back of his mind to improve the quality of education in rural schools.
He recalls a visit to his village in India, when the principal of the local school approached him for help. It occurred to him that unless schools are equipped with basic infrastructure, there could be no improvement in the quality of education. Giving back to education was the ultimate charity, one that would have "larger impact compact (short term and long term) on our homeland."
OSAAT quickly drew a pool of willing supporters and volunteers from Bhatt’s own circle of friends and others, including Silicon Valley entrepreneur B.V. Jagadeesh, who is an active advisor and donor of OSAAT. Jagadeesh works closely with volunteers on several issues of strategic importance. He agrees strongly on the need for organizations like OSAAT. "The cause for which this organization is built will have a huge impact on hundreds of thousands of students over the next few years. That followed by the quality of the volunteers with tremendous dedication to make that difference is what’s going to make OSAAT a very successful organization."
As with any charity, fundraising plays a crucial role in OSAAT’s success. The plan was to help one school at a time. By picking one school and making a plan to renovate it, OSAAT believed that donors would feel directly connected to the beneficiary, and know where their money was going.
At the other end, OSAAT lay out simple conditions to be met by any school applying for help. (1) It must be a rural school; (2) there must be absolutely no government involvement in the development work; (3) the school must get clearance for outsiders to do the development work; and (4) the school must serve a minimum number of students and must be adequately staffed.
The U.B.M.C Higher Primary School in Bajegoli in the state of Karnataka was OSAAT’s first project. Before renovation, the school functioned from a single room divided into multiple learning areas by cloth partitions. Today, the school has three bright and airy classrooms with modest furniture. The structure has been strengthened with a new roof and walls. A new kitchen, break room, staff room, clean drinking water, as well as clean restrooms have been added.
"OSAAT receives requests from different schools seeking help," says H.C. Srinivasa, an OSAAT volunteer in Bangalore. "… since the name says ‘One School At A Time,’ OSAAT obviously has to make a choice after evaluating each request." Srinivasa was on the team that visited OSAAT’s current project—the Bannerghatta Primary School—a year ago, to evaluate its request for assistance. The team surveyed the conditions of the existing building, talked to the school staff and assessed the commitment and the sincerity of the staff in properly managing the funds. A detailed report of the school, along with the photographs, was then sent to OSAAT members in the United States. In addition, independent analyses were obtained from different people before deciding to fund the project.
Some questions come to mind here. How far can structural overhaul contribute to good quality education? What happens if, in spite of a strong school, the teaching staff is not competent?
"When we pick the school, we have selection criteria that requires to have a highly motivated principal and teachers," explains Jagadeesh. "What we have observed during the past several years of working on several projects is that providing good infrastructure motivates both students and teachers. A periodic visit by OSAAT volunteers will further help to produce better results."
Jagadeesh cites numbers from the B.V. Jagadeesh Foundation’s Bagalur project, where the pass percentage of students increased from 20 percent to 80 percent with 25 students securing distinction and first class in the matriculation exams. "Interestingly, many students from nearby villages who used to go to faraway schools have all started to come here. School capacity has doubled from 300 to 600 in just three years. Now the government is taking huge initiatives to add new classrooms, etc."
Currently OSAAT is focused on fixing Bannerghatta Primary School in Karnataka. Until a year ago, leaking roofs allowed inches-deep water to accumulate during the monsoon months. At other times, the students and staff endured cracked and water-soaked walls and cold, stone-floor seating. The school, which had been built in 1939, served 540 children attending grades 1-7 from 10 surrounding villages before its renovation.
Phase I of the project was completed in March 2007 through the collaborative efforts of two organizations—OSAAT as the funding organization and Rotary India as the builders. Rotary India offered "Architect and Build" assistance, where the builders were also members of Rotary Club, and hence conscious of the value of every penny spent in the project. In addition to structural reinforcement, six new classrooms were added, all within the short span of nine months.
"Overall, the Bannerghatta school project has been executed flawlessly," says Srinivasa proudly. "Construction is of very good quality with every rupee well utilized and, most importantly, well executed to finish on time."
OSAAT addresses one of the various elements that contribute to the learning environment. However, it believes that a strong basic infrastructure is the foundation upon which other quality factors can be built. Especially in schools where there is little or no government support, simple things like clean facilities, chalkboards, supplies, and benches can go a long way in encouraging students and motivating the staff to seek out new ways to improve education quality.
Nitya Ramanan is a freelance writer who lives in San Jose.
Want to Volunteer?
OSAAT offers a certificate of community service to those completing over 10 hours of volunteer work. For youth this is an excellent opportunity to work for a good cause, as well as fulfill school requirements for community service.
For more information on OSAAT, browse www.osaat.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. More than likely, you will receive a prompt reply from Monika Venkateshmurthy who works as an IT professional during the day and doubles as OSAAT core volunteer and email gatekeeper during her spare hours.