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Aditya Natraj, Kaivalya Education Foundation
The Mission: Train and transform rural school principals and help them turnaround schools.
The Benefits: 100 principals are in the 3-year course. Plans to reach 1,000 by 2014.
A School For Principals
Aditya Natraj wants to fix India’s education system—one principal at a time.
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Anita Shekhu, the 37 year-old headmistress of government primary school in Seuwa village in Rajasthan’s Churu district, is beaming. She has just managed to convince six dropouts to join her school. “When I met them, they complained that their Guruji (class teacher) beats them,” Shekhu recalls. “I asked them to come and see my school. It is different.” So how is Shekhu’s school different from India’s 7,00,000 plus rural schools? She is one of the 100 primary school principals to have enrolled for a Principal Leadership Development Programme run by Kaivalya Education Foundation. In this three-year programme, Shekhu will sit through four modules to be covered in 20 classroom sessions every year. She will also participate in eight one-day workshops every month.

Kaivalya Education Foundation’s goal: train and equip principals to run schools better. Aditya Natraj, founder of the foundation, wants to fix India’s primary education system—one principal at a time.

Power Of A Principal

About 55 million school-aged children drop out after less than four years of primary schooling. But Natraj believes that training school principals can solve this problem. He formed this conviction in 2002 when he saw one principal turn around his school. At that time Natraj was working with Pratham, an NGO. That’s when he met Saurabh Patel, the principal of a government school. Moved by the Gujarat earthquake, Patel got himself transferred to a remote village, named Bhachau, in Kutch. At that time, Bhachau’s school had two teachers and 20 students. But only five or six attended every day.

 
 
Classroom sessions were not enough. Graduates were trained for four months to work closely with principals for the next 18 months.
 
 
To begin with, Patel walked around the area to get a feel of the socio-economic condition of the children. He discovered there were over 200 children in the 6-12 year age group who were out of school. He left his residence in an upper class locality, and bought a small house in the school’s neighbourhood. “You have to live among people for them to trust you and heed your advice,” Patel told Natraj. Patel then attended the local gram panchayat meetings and understood the politics. He spoke to some parents and understood their problems. Over six months, he gradually got the community to trust him and send 50 children to the school. When Natraj first visited Bhachau, Patel’s school had 130 children. Over 120 attended everyday.

“If the passion and methods of Saurabh Patel were replicated across India through structured leadership training programmes for principals, all schools could be turned around,” says Natraj.

The Spadework

As a chartered accountant and MBA from Insead (France), Natraj has lived in ten cities across the world. But he always had a strong inclination to work for a social cause. Before leaving for France, to pursue his MBA, Natraj worked in Chennai for five years, as a Consultant with KPMG. And after finishing his MBA, he worked as Vice President for an European firm. He joined Pratham after that, set up and grew its operations in Gujarat to over 300 staff working across 14 districts. Natraj played an instrumental role in improving Village Education Committee participation rates from 18% to 54% across 300 plus villages in Surendranagar district.

He founded Kaivalya in January 2008. After spending months visiting over 15 universities and government training institutions in US, UK and the Netherlands. He also studied systems in Sweden, Singapore, Korea, Japan, China and France. “Our aim is to develop school leaders who improve the learning quality of their schools,” says Nandita Rawal, member of Kaivalya’s core team and an ex-teacher trainer. The team includes ex-employees of Reliance, Marico Industries and Azim Premji Foundation.

Natraj began the first pilot programme in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district where 100 rural school principals enrolled. Natraj’s team is about to begin work in Ahmedabad, where 100 principals from the urban schools will take part. And in 2010, the third project will be commissioned in the tribal block of Chandrapur in Maharashtra.

The Jhunjhunu project is funded by the Ajay Piramal Foundation, while the Ahmedabad project has got funds from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Knowledge support comes from IIM-Ahmedabad in the area of organisational change. Jaipur-based Bodh Shiksha Samiti helps Kaivalya in the area of pedagogy. HR consultant Mercer helps it in assessing its training effectiveness. Ahmedabad-based Educative Initiatives helps it evaluate how well students have understood concepts.

But Natraj figured that just classroom sessions and workshops were not enough to help the principals. He began a 2-year fellowship programme called ‘Gandhi Fellowship’ where graduates from elite educational institutions take a four-month training programme and spend the remaining 18 months working with the principals. “The idea is to ensure accountability from principals and provide them support,” says Natraj. One Gandhi fellow works with ten school principals. From ten Gandhi fellows in 2008, the number has grown to 30 in 2009. The Gandhi fellows hail from Delhi School of Economics, IIT–Kanpur, Delhi University and Lady Shriram College, among others.

“From the second workshop the sense of ownership is clearly visible among the principals” says Preyansi Mani, a Gandhi fellow who works in Jhunjhunu. Out of 500 principals in Jhunjhunu, 250 had applied to participate in the programme. “Fifty per cent of the principals are volunteering without any financial incentive,” says a happy Natraj. “But when they know they have to work harder, a few back out,” he adds. “It’s not an easy job to change mindsets,” says the Ahmedabad-based, Manubhai Raval, Chairman of Nagar Palika Shikshan Samiti. Raval was initially sceptical of taking time out to see Kaivalya’s work. “But now I am keen to travel to Jhunjhunu and will also forward the details of the project to the Chief Minister of Gujarat,” Raval adds.

By 2014, Natraj wants to demonstrate 1,000 schools which work. “Upon the success of the pilot, Ajay Piramal Foundation is keen to fund 500 schools,” says Natraj. Even Dell Foundation is willing to take the programme to other cities of Gujarat like Baroda, Rajkot and Surat. For the moment though, Natraj is taking it one principal at a time.

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