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Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, is in the San Francisco Bay Area for a conference at Stanford on global poverty. I met Dr. Banerji in San Jose during her visit.

First, a few facts about Pratham: Pratham started off in the slums of Mumbai, 1995. The educational NGO, one of the world’s largest, focuses on “high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system.” It has helped about 50 million children to date, with 15 chapters across the United States, all run by volunteers. Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of charities based in the United States, rates Pratham with its highest possible rating of four stars.

Asked about her vision for Pratham, Dr. Banerji says that they complete a strategy review once every five to ten years. Based on this review, they’ve decided on implementing three or four major programs. While school enrollment levels in India are high, functional literacy is not. Their focus is on raising the foundational educational levels for children quickly, on a large scale and in a cost effective manner.

I ask her what differentiates Pratham from other educational NGOs, considering that the Bay Area alone has over 160 registered institutions working in this arena. Dr. Banerji says Pratham’s mandate is not to buy school buildings. They don’t want to come in as outsiders, tell communities how to educate themselves, then leave. They see themselves as facilitators who facilitate community building through education. This emphasis on structuring learning is not just for the kids, but for whole communities.

According to Dr. Banerji, as these kids enter the workforce, they will need to learn to work in teams, they will need to learn to collaborate. This, she feels, is best done outside of the school curriculum.Towards this end, they bring together children in groups. Funding from companies like Google and Facebook, allows Pratham to provide each group with a tablet computer preloaded with projects, in their regional language of instruction. These tablets have a choice of mini courses. The content is grouped into videos or games; it is up to the kids to decide what they use. As a group, the kids choose a course or a plan, it could be a football game, if that’s what they want. The kids are required to find their own coach, present their plan, then ask for mentorship. This coach is someone within their own community – it could be an older sibling, it could be someone’s grandmother. But it has to be someone who can hold the children accountable. For maintenance of the hardware, Pratham assigns a mentor, one for every villages.

Dr. Banerji recalls a group of kids who came up with project on skeletons. For this, they sought out the local bone setter as their coach. Dr. Banerji feels that schools are so focused on academics that they sometimes leave behind kids who do well in collaborations. In sharing a tablet, and a project, these children learn to work together, learn how to use content that is made available for their use, and how to apply what they know. In this ‘hybrid’ learning model, the children are responsible for their own learning.

The previous year the kids were given a choice of themes – water, mango etc. The kids could choose to go with the theme, or pick something on their own. So many videos were created that village level juries – picked the kids themselves, voted on the best ones, and then uploaded them to Pratham volunteers. Currently, this program covers about a thousand villages. Pratham tests out various such projects in focus labs. Once they begin to show results, they are moved to the mainstream.

Another area that Pratham focuses on is the development of vocational skills. They have tie ups with companies like the Larsen and Toubro and others. Pratham helps train young people for entry level jobs. These youngsters are then absorbed by the organization with which they have an existing tie-up. Dr. Banerji estimates that people have been able to take advantage of this program.

On a smaller scale, Pratham runs a program for women who had to drop out of school, called “Second Chance.” Since 10th class certification is necessary for so many government programs, including government jobs at the village level, Pratham provides help to finish high school studies if the women choose to do so. Dr. Banerji estimates that young women have taken advantage of this program.

Dr. Banerji is very optimistic about the future – “India has changed quite a lot,” she says. There are major shifts even within the government to explore new technologies. When asked how people in the United States can help Pratham, she points out that most of the work of the NGO happens on the ground in India. The best way for people based here to get involved, is through fund-raising believing in the organization’s laudable vision and mission.

Rasana Atreya is a novelist and technical content writer.

Rasana Atreya

Rasana Atreya’s debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012). She finds a mention in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s "Emerging South...