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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

This Husband-Wife Duo Shares Noble ‘Principals’ That Led Them To Quit Jobs And Adopt Schools

  • IWB Post
  •  November 23, 2018

It is the year 2030, and our dreams of a developed India lies in shambles – sounds terrifying, right? That’s what the future looks like for a nation of over 440 million children without the facility of quality education. The future of India in the ill-equipped hands – sirens of impending doom, it was. It was time for a revolution, a Mantra4Change was needed!

It was the year 2012, Santosh More and his friend, Khusboo Awasthi, were conducting classes in a slum near Banashankari area of Bengaluru after their office hours which made them realize how, like these children, many lack access to quality education. The complexity of the situation on-ground helped them see the need for a systemic approach. And thus they decided to adopt… a school!

However, the problem wouldn’t have been solved by setting up one institution that provides quality education but by improving the existing system and thus Mantra4Change came into being in 2013, in Bangalore. Khushbo Awasthi, now married to Santosh, shares their journey of giving the “future of India” the gift of having a bright tomorrow.

What was it that inspired you to pick up the cause of education?

It came naturally to me because my parents worked in the education field. Both of us completed our engineering and went on to do our typical corporate jobs. But we always had a thought in mind that education was the solution to every problem and we wanted to do our bit.

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In 2009, Teach India Fellowship was announced and Santosh was like,”Let’s just jump into it!” He joined the fellowship and I went for my Masters in Healthcare Administration From Tata Institute in Mumbai. And from there on we got deeply involved in it.

I still remember the very first school we picked up! The principal was very supportive of the entire transformation. She gave us free rein, knowing that we didn’t have a plan but an idea we were working on.

Mantra4Change was founded with the aim to up the existing level of education. How is it doing the same?

Mantra4Change is an NGO which works with the agenda of school improvement. We bridge the gap between the parents, the teachers, the principals, and the students to ensure high-quality education. We basically focus on government schools and affordable private schools near slums. These schools mostly lack the proper infrastructure, have understaffed faculty with poor appraisal system, no proper monitoring setup. This motivates neither the teachers nor the students. So we try to sole these issues.

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Like we arranged for a library on wheels for the students in schools that lacked one. Also, we trained the teachers in the art of activity-based learning ‘cause as you know “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy!” But before they can attempt such methods the higher authorities, the principals, are communicated that opting for such methods is going to help the kids.

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Kids also don’t have a supportive home environment wherein they are helped with their homework or asked questions pertaining to their education. Their parents can’t be blamed either because many times they themselves haven’t been to school ever. So we run community drives for both the parents and teachers to provide the kids with that learning environment.

You talked about improving the teaching process but in slum schools, teachers lack the necessary enthusiasm due to excess load and a meager salary. How do you solve this issue?

We reached out to the community to solve the issue of under-staffed schools. Anyone who had completed their 12th was invited on board and then Mantra trained them. Once they were done, they were placed in the schools to lessen the burden of the senior, more experienced teachers. If they are in college, they come post-lunch to devote their time. And they also help kids by giving them after-class tuitions.

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Concerning the problem of their salaries, it’s only the principal and authorities above them that can take an action. We make them see the sense behind retaining the resource that is already there in the school. And so they did understand that increasing their wages is not a big issue compared to the talent they will be losing out on. It is also about making the faculty feel respected like on Teacher’s Day, the Principal will write personal letters to every teacher, it improves their morale.

While the journey of Mantra4Change sure sounds wonderful, the story of its two founders is equally mesmerizing for us. So, tell me Khushboo, how did you meet your hubby Santosh?

(Laughing) We have known each other from class sixth! Ever since that I can remember, we have been together.

 

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You had stable jobs that you left for something which may or may not be successful. Did your family support your risky decision?

At first, they weren’t convinced but they supported our choice. Obviously, people from our prior generation have a problem with the whole idea of entrepreneurship, that too non-profit. But now they love our work, they visit the schools with us and sometimes even take the feedback on our behalf!

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How do you arrange the funds for its smooth working?

Initially, we had invested all our savings in hiring employees and funding for the resources. Friends and acquaintances offered monetary help through various crowd-funding campaigns. The first major donation was made by Sanjay Purohit, Executive Vice President at Infosys. Funds have also poured in from the Infosys Foundation, Wipro’s CSR and several HNIs. Recently, Sowparnika Foundation headed by SD Shibulal, ex-CEO, and co-founder of Infosys, funded implementation of STEP (an intervention programme by M4C) at ten schools in Bengaluru.

You have improved the level of education in many institutions. Which will you denote as your biggest achievement?

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What I would call our winning star was this school Florida English School in Bangalore. We just completed our second year there last March.

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The improvement had been monumental. We still have this Whatsapp group where the teachers share their daily activities and praise their Principal, who has started giving out a scholarship to children so they don’t interrupt their education due to lack of financial backing. And this is such a big step for a school which had been a brick and stone institution. He has even invested money in making the infrastructure more conducive, he also developed an activity center for the pre-primary classes, and all this development continues happening even after Mantra had exited the scenario.

Wow! That’s one unbelievable feat! So, while we are on the topic of principals, who of the two of you is the principal at home?

Principal?! (she ends up giggling at the change of track) It depends on what is the topic. If it is about traveling, then that department is under me. And if it comes to watching TV or picking a movie, he makes the rules.

You sound like a wonderful couple! What is your favorite memory with him?

We went to Himachal on an impromptu trip. Usually, you know in entrepreneurship one rarely takes any vacation. Every month we shift plans of holidays to the next month that never comes. So that one time, we wandered through the woods, spend some quality time there for 15 days. It was the coolest trip we ever had!

Here, imagine I am giving you a piece of chalk, what would you write for him on a blackboard?

“Never change, always be the way you are.”

If I would ask you to describe your day with him, what schedule the perfect couple follows?

Well, every moment is together only. From waking up to having tea. And that is the rule. We ALWAYS have our tea together. After that, it’s all a blur of activities.

No moment of respite from all the work, then…

Nope! You know what, Apeksha, we have tried it several times but it never happens! We decide like for the next one hour we’ll not talk about work, but eventually, even a random movie discussion leads us back to some school-related topic. But seeing that we both are equally passionate about Mantra, it is never boring.

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Tell us about your team.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was to constitute a like-minded team. The non-profit space we are in makes it really challenging to find good talent. And this sphere has no monetary benefit. So in the initial days, we had even less time than now, as all proceedings were on us and we had to look to its smooth functioning.

We have been very selective and cautious about our team building. Today, the idea and dream of Mantra4Change is owned by 18 of us. We are a tribe, a family. I’m very proud to share that our team members are capable of leading Mantra4Change on their own. We are a team of doers, who are not afraid of being on the ground and getting our hands dirty.

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And, how do you deal with resistance the conventional system puts up?

The government and the school are very resistant to changes in the way they had been working for such a long time. We were often faced with the question who we are to give suggestions to people who are far more experienced than us. Although this melts away with time as we tackle it with immense patience, we never rush through.

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Tackling such hurdles is no piece of cake! And doesn’t help that issues like child marriage, child labor are plaguing the life of many. Did you rescue any child?

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Parents would be like “Why shouldn’t I marry her off?” or “What will he gain from not earning some money?” It is all about changing their minds. So, we invite the parents to the schools and they see for themselves what their child is learning and how they are enjoying it. I agree that not 100% of them will follow but many do and that’s a big win.

But what about those who never enrolled in schools in the first place?

We go both ways, when a child is attending school and suddenly stops, we enquire and also we identify any kid in the area who comes in the school-going age and work hard with the School Management Committees to enroll them in schools.

You are doing possibly everything in your power to save the education quality. What is next for you?

We would love to expand our efforts to a bigger number of schools and to expand it to more places. In this case, we need to identify more organizations, more entrepreneurs, more Santosh and Khusboo’s out there.

 

First published on Nov 18, 2017.

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