Sumeeti Mittal’s Pratham Shiksha, a Jaipur-based non-profit, has educated over 5,000 slum children in the city, helping them end their poverty cycles.
The recent ASER 2016 result that collected data from 589 rural districts of India paints a rather grim picture. Over the last decade, the percentage of children who can read a Class II text has dropped to 48 percent in 2016 from 63 percent in 2006. And the percentage of Class V students who can perform division has also declined to 26 percent in 2016 from 42.5 percent in 2007. While the government is ramping its efforts rather slowly—between 2006 and 2013, public expenditure on education increased only from 2.2 percent to 2.68 percent only—there are countless startups, non-profits, and individuals who are working relentlessly to ensure every child has access to quality education, and ultimately, economic opportunities.
Jaipur-based Sumeeti Mittal’s Pratham Shiksha is one such humble attempt. Sumeeti (43) understood the power of education at a very early age. She recalls her father's words, "He used to always say education is paramount. It's the only weapon to succeed in this world." And that became the cornerstone of Sumeeti's life, who went on to complete her Civil Engineering from Jodhpur. Later, she appeared for the Rajasthan Public Service Commission (RPSC) exams and worked as an Assistant Engineer in Rajasthan’s Public Health Engineering Department for two years. But her passion for entrepreneurship made her quit her job and, along with her husband, she started Pratham Software, an offshore IT services company, in 2000.
Her work enabled her to travel to UK, US, and Europe frequently. Sumeeti says, “Even the most underprivileged children in the developed countries are educated. This gives them a fighting chance in the world. Even a child born in an immensely impoverished family can become something big – a lawyer, doctor, author, or anything so long as they are determined. That’s because they already have the most important tool – education.”
Armed with this realisation and an upbringing wherein education was paramount, Sumeeti started Pratham Shiksha, an attempt to provide quality education to slum children and equip them with the skills to exit the vicious cycle of poverty.
The growth of Pratham Shiksha
Sumeeti started the school as she fondly calls it "Kachi Basti" in her garage in 2005. She chuckles and says, "I called our neighbourhood children, who at first refused to come. So, I bribed them with sweets and that's how I found my first 20 students.Slowly, ‘Kachi Basti’ became ‘Pratham Shiksha’ and today, it has 350 students enrolled. If we were to look at the numbers since inception, it’s an admirable 5,000 students who have been part of the Pratham Shiksha family. The school teaches children till Class VIII and later, assists in placing them in higher studies as well.
The struggle, Sumeeti says, isn’t in finding the children, but retaining and instilling in them and their parents the importance of education. “Poverty in slums is so deep-rooted, families are perennially living in a hand-to-mouth situation and this forces parents to send their children to work, just so, they can live another day,” she explains.
Jaipur, which is famous worldwide for its jewellery, carpets, handloom and handicrafts, naturally has thriving industries. "If you take the jewellery industry, child labour is in demand. Boys have small hands which makes it easy for them to hold a stone and give it a perfect finishing touch. Girls, on the other hand, are either married at a young age or are made to do household chores. Burdened with responsibilities, children drop out of school as quickly as they enrol. It's nearly impossible to convince parents to stop sending their children to work. So, we had to devise ways to make our school work, for both parents and children," Sumeeti explains.
To counter this problem, Pratham Shiksha came up with many pioneering initiatives.
- Flexi-classes – Apart from introducing pre-primary classes enabling children to get accustomed to school environment from an early age, Pratham Shiksha has flexible timings. At the beginning of each academic year, students can opt for a timing convenient to them, enabling them to do both; work and study. All these cost Pratham Shiksha Rs 8,000 per child per annum and the entire expenditure is borne by Sumeeti and her husband.
- Incentivising education – Round the year, students are provided free healthcare and nutrition. Along with this, they also receive uniforms, bags, stationery, and get an opportunity to go on cultural tours and participate in extra-curricular activities. The reason? As Sumeeti puts it, “Healthier students lead to more productive, more successful students. Given that they are nurtured, they work hard to succeed in the school. And those who consistently don’t, are replaced with the many students who are on our wait list.”
- Classroom size – At Pratham Shiksha, classes are capped to manageable sizes of approximately 25 to ensure teachers are able to give personalised attention to each student, many of whom might be entering the school for the first time. The school has 14 teachers and one principal.
- Involving parents – Sumeeti says, "Earlier, every time we held a meeting for the parents to discuss their child's progress, the attendance was abysmal. This was because parents can't afford to miss a single day at work. So, we started holding the monthly meetings on the day of Amavasya – a day where Rajasthan's labour class don't work." This has increased regularity and seeing children’s progress, encouraged parents to change their mindset of prioritising work over education to a great extent.
Doctors, engineers, and future changemakers
As of today, Pratham Shiksha has educated over 5,000 slum children, in the city of Jaipur alone. Though the school has facilities only up till Class VIII, Sumeeti and Pratham Shiksha’s staff ensure that interested students are placed in partner schools and continue their education. Deepesh is one such alumnus. His mother, a simple teacher earning Rs 3,000 per month, would spend all her salary treating his father’s cancer. There was little money left to sustain her two children’s education. She brought her son to Pratham Shiksha when he was in Class XI. Realising his potential, Sumeeti helped him complete his education and he secured admission in Poornima College of Engineering. After his first year, Sumeeti helped him get a bank loan to complete his education and today, he’s a software engineer.
Talking about the impact of this humble effort, Sumeeti says, “There are at least 40 students who have completed their Bachelor’s in Arts and over 100 who have completed their nursing.”
It’s indeed a matter of pride what Sumeeti has achieved. For her unrelenting efforts, Sumeeti was recently selected as #100Women in India by Government of India's Women and Child Department and her school, Pratham Shiksha, was recognised at the Make in India Awards for Excellence - 2015 under the NGO category for its contribution to social development.
More work to do
In 2012, Sumeeti also started RoboGalaxy, to provide her students access to the universe of robotics, by building a platform for practical application of science and mathematics. Since then, students have represented the company at the World Robot Olympiad for three consecutive years in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Russia.
Sumeeti now plans to expand Pratham Shiksha till Class X and start vocational courses for her students equipping them with skills in areas such as tailoring, plumbing, electrician, and more, for children who are keen on pursuing both; education and work.