Kevin had booked our train trip to Lucknow on the wild hope that a miracle would happen and we’d actually be able to go to Study Hall School on the one day we were available. Our chance paid off: we were contacted by Study Hall’s co-founder, Dr. Urvashi Sahni and not only would she see us, but Saturday was the day the Prerna girls attended school. Prerna is the program for the underprivileged girls from the slums neighboring the Study Hall Prep School. Prerna’s website said they attended school after hours and on the weekends, alternating hours with the rest of the Study Hall girls.
When we arrived at the school, Dr. Sahni met as at the gate, glowing vibrantly in a deep purple sari, her shiny dark hair let down and gracing her shoulders- unusual for a woman in India. She greeted us vivaciously, “Welcome. Welcome.”
“Thanks so much for having us,” Kevin and I began, but the words seemed almost an unnecessary delay. Dr. Sahni was proud and moving, ready to show us her school. As Kevin tinkered with the camera equipment she motioned for us to follow, “Come. Come.”
I followed her with the microphone, remembering the quote I had read on the Study Hall website: “Children are unique, powerful, important persons worthy of our respect. They have a right to enjoy their childhood, which is an important phase of their lives in itself and deserves to be understood respectfully, rather than treated simply as a preparation for adulthood.” There was the appreciation for child development I had always longed to see in education, and I was curious to see it in action.
“Hello, auntie. Hello, auntie,” Every girl that passed gave Dr. Sahni a hug, and smiled and reached to shake my hand. They all looked eager and bright as Urvashi herself.
Kevin piped in with a question, “Tell me. We’ve seen many children in India who are not going to school, although there has been an increase in attendance over the last few years. My question for you is: ‘What will bring all students into education? Particularly girls. How do we get all the girls into school?”
I knew the basis for his question. Before we left for India, Kevin and I had read a lot about the positive benefits of educating girls. When women are educated and have control over their lives and the household spending, they tend to spend the money on their family, their family’s health, and on things that will help the community. This leads to other social benefits like: reduced fertility rates, later marriages, and reduced infant and maternal mortality rates. When given micro-finance loans, these women have a much higher payback rate than men. The men tend to spend their money outside of the home, and on things like alcohol. It’s been said that educating women is one of the best things we can do to eradicate poverty in the world, and the UN has taken it up as part of their Millennium Development Goals.
Urvashi answered Kevin’s question and much more as she began to explain to us some very cool things about their school. It actually took me forever to write this blog entry because I couldn’t narrow it down enough. I didn’t want to leave anything out, everything was amazing!
These are some of the highlights- the rest is in our video (below):
“As far as I’m concerned,” Dr. Sahni said, “I think the goal of all teaching and learning is to enable students, all students, to find answers to a central question: who am I and what is my relationship with the universe and others in it? And so, I think your self is built in using your imagination and reason and interacting with others in the world. And so who you are is a reflection of the way others see you. And as you come to know yourself you also create yourself. That’s why knowing yourself is so important.”
“See what we’ve done, and try to do, in Prerna is build a whole universe of care- in which, children learn that they are persons worthy of respect and they develop a sense of home in the world. And they do that because other people treat them with respect and care so they begin to see themselves and other people as persons worthy of respect. And so that, it’s in this whole universe of care that they are growing to be these strong selves. And that’s why they are so engaged. Because I think that what they are doing over here with the education is self-work. They are really constructing themselves and feeling connected. If you ask the children, I’ve been asking them about what it is they like about school: friends. The fact that they have friends, the fact that they feel connected, the fact that they feel their teachers love them and they say, we can find answers to our problems here.”
I had noticed that from so many of the girls here. These girls were glowing, full of joy. They loved school.
“Some of our girls are apprenticed in the morning at the school. So they make a little money that goes into their accounts and they are learning. And that’s part of what we are working on; we are trying to register as a vocational technical training institute so that they will get government certificates after that and they will be job worthy.”
“Another program we have is Didi’s Foods. What we do is we make all kinds of food. Chocolates, and chocolate biscuits, and savories and we also take care of the school canteen. And we sell this to parents, to children, and whatever money that comes is used to support the girls here. They all get a free midday meal out of whatever the profit generated is. Let me tell you what the genesis of it was. I saw that these girls were all working and the mothers are getting beaten up and it’s just a terrible scene at home and there’s not enough money. And so I said, ‘Hey there should really be a place for them to earn some money too.’ And so we just started this whole thing and it really took on well. It’s really a win-win for everyone: the mothers are getting employed and the girls are working part time. We have fifteen employees here and we are very new; we are only eight or nine months old. And all the profits go to Prerna to fund the education and we fund a full midday meal for all four hundred and thirty girls.”
“We have a program called Digital Study Hall, where we film lessons and then send them out to schools. And they will have a DVD to play it on. And if you’ll look at our Digital Study Hall website there is a whole database that is there that is free. It is open source; anyone can use it. “
“You have to empower them,” Urvashi told us, “We do all of that. Because it’s not going to change their lives if all they learn is math, science, English, and Hindi. They have to learn to think about themselves, develop a self, a strong self, learn to dream, have aspirations, and the strength… to understand their rights and the strength to fight circumstances. Because no education can really change circumstances outside but you can change the kids and then they will change their own circumstances.”
Wow! It was obvious to us that Prerna is truly and authentically empowering these girls. Visiting was definitely one of the highlights of a long, three month India trip.
Visit their website to learn more and donate if you’re inspired!
Some of the Prerna girls showed us their homes! Let them show you themselves, and see so much more of the great things they are up to, in our video!
“What would you ask of the people watching this video?” Kevin asked Dr. Sahni.
“I would ask them to one: respect these girls, you know. And really respect them for the spirit in which they live their lives. And I would ask them to come and join us in whatever way they can. In the work that we are doing, in building strong women able to fight all the circumstances that they have to and build a life for themselves. I would ask them to come and help us, and come and help us doesn’t mean just physically come and help us. You can even do it where you are with the girls in your community. Because we want to work for all girls. And of course we would love it if you would come and help us here. You are most welcome. So write to us, email us and if you can help raise support we would be most delighted, but most importantly, I think, promote the cause, wherever you are.”
Note: I wish I had more of my own pictures, but I was too busy helping out with the filming to take many. I borrowed many images from Study Hall’s website. Check it out to see many more!