How this MBA graduate from Mandwa is building safe havens for students in rural areas

By Snigdha Sinha|12th Mar 2016
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I did my primary education in a Zilla Parishad Marathi medium school in Mandwa, Maharashtra. When I progressed to Class XI, I moved to a Taluka and subsequently to a Beed (a district in Maharashtra) for pursuing engineering. For MBA, I moved to Mumbai and had to play catch up with my peers. My entire journey gave me insight into the problem of education inequity between rural and urban students

,says Santosh Digambarrao Phad.

After completing his MBA and securing a job with a finance company, Santosh (31) went back to Mandwa for a visit. What he saw shocked and disheartened him. Little had changed. While the schools had become bigger, the quality of education was what he remembered, or had even plummeted further. He says, “Basic amenities like libraries, computer laboratory, digital classroom, etc., were not present. These amenities are common in government schools in metros and sub-metros.”

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To address this ever-increasing gap in education standards in rural and urban schools, Santosh founded ThinkSharp Foundation, an NPO, in 2011. He was joined by Sachin Pawar and Deepali Basur as trustees. Sachin and Deepali resonated with ThinkSharp, since they came from rural pockets as well and were well-versed with the problem.

‘Study Mall’ – A safe haven for rural students

What comes to your mind when someone says ‘mall’? Probably a place where you get everything that will satiate your shopping needs. Drawing from the essence of the meaning, Santosh decided to apply the concept to education in rural pockets. In 2013, he, with the help of his team members Bhagwan Jadhav and Shraddha Bhange, launched ThinkSharp Foundation’s first ‘Study Mall’ in Surangali, Maharashtra. Santosh spoke to the headmasters of the two schools there and explained the concept. The second Study Mall was opened in Varangaon (a village near Jalgaon) in 2015. The third centre cropped up at Vangani (a village near Mumbai) in Jan 2016.

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Study Mall is a free-of-charge after-school intervention programme that offers children an opportunity to learn and grow in a safe environment. ThinkSharp either rents a place or collaborates with a school for space that houses books (academic and non-academic), provides the digital classroom experience, and offers various art, craft, educational games and sports equipment for children to play.

Santosh tells us that at Study Mall, some children study on their own, while some others engage in facilities available to them, and teachers or volunteers engage children in various activities like storytelling and poem recital. Santosh says. “Rural children feel connected and always voluntarily clean and arrange their Study Mall. There is a clear sense of belonging and ownership for the children.”

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Most of the children belong to farmer families and the Study Mall has made a huge difference in their lives, says Santosh.

He tells us about the children at the Vangani digital Study Mall, “Children enjoy the educational tablets that are used to infuse fun into learning math. Kids enjoy listening to poems and watching the animation on a projector.”

Santosh says that support has poured in from all corners. ThinkSharp Foundation is supported by Google, Reliance Capital, Pratham Books, Voltas, YVO, Resilspur, Imprints and family and friends. It is currently raising funds for its fourth centre Chikatgaon, a village in Aurangabad, via a crowdfunding platform.

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Santosh gives us the details of the impact quantitatively and qualitatively:

  • More than 1,000 children from three villages are engaging and using the services offered at Study Malls
  • Increase in awareness regarding education and its need by 25 to 30 percent
  • Increase in school attendance marked since the children’s involvement in Study Mall
  • Increased attention span due to availability of digital learning methods
  • Increase in study time by 300 to 350 percent.
  • Increase in reading, writing and learning skills by 30 to 40 percent
  • Better academic scores with a five to 10 percent increase
  • Increased involvement by the teachers who now have access to newer teaching tools and resources via the Study Mall
  • Introduction of computer learning to children
  • Increase in overall knowledge about academic development, career options, personal growth, etc.

The tough road

Team Pic

Santosh tells us that social entrepreneurship is a tough cookie to crack, especially when running an organisation and working full time. He says that a lack of awareness in people is a challenge. Lack of government support and improper regulation of CSR funds is another roadblock. He adds that there is no course where one can learn about social entrepreneurship; it’s all about self-learning. An immediate challenge for ThinkSharp has been raising enough funds for the fourth Study Mall at Chikatgaon, and adding digital classrooms to the existing ones. A long-term challenge, which most social entrepreneurs face, is sustainability and resources.

Santosh says that his dream is to build a Study Mall in every village in India.