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December 20, 2011

ISF students over-performing the UP state average

Filed under: Schools — Annie @ 1:24 pm

The India School Fund (ISF) has once again conducted a performance evaluation of the academic learning process at the two schools it created and manages, the one in Rajugela and the Linklaters school in Samarua. Using the tools and method developed by Pratham and used across India to measure skills in Math and Hindi, the examiners tested the students’ ability to conduct Math operations and to read. The local management team had indeed been trained by Pratham in 2007 to conduct standard Pratham evaluations. To ensure transparancy and accuracy of results, members of the community including parents were invited to witness the evaluation process.

The results demonstrate great progress once again both over time and in comparison to other schools in the state of Uttar Pradesh, using the Uttar Pradesh results in the Pratham’s Aser 2010 Report. Interestingly, Uttar Pradesh has recently embarked on a campaign to improve its educational system, nearly doubling its share of the elementary education budget between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010. Yet, performance at ISF is still higher than the average school in the region.

Some interesting findings are described below:

The Math evaluation reveals that real progress has been achieved over the year, and ISF schools clearly over-performing the average in the state of Uttar Pradesh (see fig. 1). In particular, progress can be seen in the share of ISF students who are able to perform simple Math problems such as subtractions, going from 44% in 2010 to 50% in 2011. The average in Uttar Pradesh in 2010 was just 31%. By contrast, the students who can compute divisions increased from 23% to 26% at ISF. In the state of Uttar Pradesh only 13% reach that level. These results show that ISF has been improving its teaching method over time, becoming more effective at sharing rather complex ideas with students.  Still progress needs to be done, in particular for the bottom of the class.


As far as the Hindi language is concerned, the picture is encouraging as well (fig. 2). Students who can read at least simple Hindi words have jumped from 53% to 67% over a year, while those who can read at least few sentences in a paragraph increased from 42% to 52%. The number of students at the lower end of the class declined sharply: those unable to read any Hindi at all dropped from 16% to 12%, although there is a slight decline for the top category. The good results at the ISF schools in 2011 all exceed the average in the state of Uttar Pradesh, as shown in dark blue in the graph.


According to Basha, ISF’s Chief Academic Officer, the reason we are seeing progress this year compared to last year is because we introduced new material in this year’s curriculum. ISF recently purchased story books and supplemental readings from the southern educational institution RIVER for grades 1 and 2. The new material has been taught extensively to the teachers before being given to the students, with local content and local specificities added to make it more relevant to the ISF audience. Moreover, the school introduced textbooks published by the NCERT (National Council Of Educational Research And Training). Although textbooks are not absolutely required in the multi-grade methodology, parents considered their usage as a testimony for quality education and were continuously pressuring the school administration to use them. To maintain good relationship with the community, the academic staff organised workshops to ensure their relevance and successful integration in the ladder of learning.

To further increase student performance next year, Basha mentions his priorities – among which the acquisition of the remaining material from RIVER beyond grade 2, which will be partly ready by the end of 2011. The senior academic staff at ISF participated in a national workshop organised by RIVER earlier this year to design and strengthen the curricula used in multi-grade classrooms across the country. This one-week intensive work allowed teachers from different states to share best practices and lessons learnt while directly contributing to a state-of-the art curriculum that is easily adaptable to local customs. ISF is currently looking for sponsors to purchase and test the grade 3 curricula in January 2012.  Second, ISF needs to outsource the development of the English curriculum because it doesn’t have the capacity in-house to do so. Some organisations working in rural areas must have already invested important resources in this area – and they need to be identified! In the next issue of the ISFQuarterly, we will analyze in details the progress students have done in English.

December 18, 2011

Creating more effective governing bodies

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 7:31 am

India recently embarked on a vast campaign to fundamentally improve education of the millions of children enrolled. The ambitious Right of the Child to Free and Compulsory Education Actis a proof to the commitment of the Government of India.  One of the measures in the Act pertains to the creations of Parent-Teacher-Associations (PTA) and School Management Committees (SMC) in each Indian village.  Since its very beginning, ISF has worked hard to create a sense of community around its schools. The guidelines created by the Act offer a very good opportunity for ISF to create a more formal environment where discussions can take place and challenges solved more effectively.

Annie Bertrand (AB), co-founder and President of ISF shares her insight with us:

Why is it important to create a PTA and SMC at ISF under the Right to Education Act?

AB: To make sure that parents see the value of education and most importantly, to ensure governance in rural areas. According to independent studies, teachers do not show up 25% of the time and do not actually teach another 25% of the time so students actually learn during only 50% of school hours. Additionally, when the community is involved, problems can be solved more quickly. Without involvements, small issues often become big problems waiting for the government or outside organizations to be solved.

Our PTA will automatically include all the teachers and all the parents of students studying at the school, though only one of two parents will have the right to vote.  As for the SMC, it will include 9 members among student guardians with a minimum of 4 female members, 1 or 2 teachers, the Academic Director, the School Head Master, the Community Leader, the School Manager, an ISF representative and a Student.

The philosophy at ISF has always been to involve – as much as possible – the community and parents in particular. Were there limits to such an ‘informal’ involvement that make formal bodies necessary?

AB: Very good question – yes formal institutions with clear definition of roles, processes and objectives are absolutely necessary. We did start to involve the community even before we opened our first school. For example, children and their parents were invited to lay a brick on the school foundation before the construction started and a big event was organized.  A PTA was established but without formal procedures to elect SMC members, who would then be responsible to make decisions and ensure implementation all the way through, it was difficult for the community to see how their involvement in the PTA was making a difference.

What is your timeline for establishing the PTA and SMC?

AB: Our community leader will chair the first PTA meeting in December so we hope that members of the SMC will be elected during the meeting and start monthly meetings.

A large share of the SMC goes to parents: what perspective do you expect them to bring to the table? What has been their response to these new bodies so far?

AB: We followed the government guidelines established in the Right of Education Act to decide on the composition of the SMC. Parents must have a greater representation because they represent our most important stakeholders as a non-profit organization – the children. Since sometimes parents do not have all the information necessary to make

decisions for the best interests of students, we also need some representation of day-to-day school management. Bringing all the relevant constituents together in formal discussions about strategic planning and budgeting will hopefully result in greater enrollment, attendance and educational outcome overtime.

What top issues will be discussed in the PTA and the SMC in the near future?

AB: The first objective of the PTA is to elect members of the SMC. The first objective of the SMC is to prepare a 3-year school development plan with annual sub-plans along with a budget. In order to achieve this, members will have to conduct a thorough assessment of educational needs, constraints, issues, etc.

How do you expect the PTA and SMC to increase enrolment of all non-enrolled children in practice? How will they help you fight absenteeism?

AB: During the assessment of educational needs, the SMC will have to count the actual number of out-of-school children in need of education over the next three years per grade level and plan appropriate resources such as teacher, infrastructure, school material and transport accordingly. The greatest challenge however is not to enroll all children but to make sure that all enrolled children are actually learning. In Uttar Pradesh for example, 70% of students with complete primary education still cannot read a simple sentence. This in turn can have substantial consequences – a waste of time for students, a waste of resources for parents and the government, and lost opportunities for children. Even worse, the decline in self-confidence. In terms of absenteeism, it is not so much an issue at ISF, except of course during harvest. Last quarter, student attendance was maintained at 82% on average compared to 50-60% for the state of Uttar Pradesh. Attendance always decreases drastically during harvesting but it would be hard to change local customs. On the contrary, we adapted our educational methodology to local customs by allowing children to start again where they stop.

Because children work in small groups following an individual ladder of learning, they can progress at their own pace without penalizing fast learners. So far, this methodology has worked so well in the region that a few of our 4th graders have passed the 6th grade assessment test in other schools.  We plan on involving the PTA and the SMC in supervising the student examination process and reviewing results per gender, classroom and grade level. If for example the community realizes that academic results in one classroom are much lower than in others, we will take the necessary actions such as terminating employment after appropriate warnings and training.

Thank you Annie.

March 1, 2011

Where ISF stands now, and where it is heading to

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 2:48 am

by Annie Bertrand, ISF PresidentIMG_1661_(Large)_(2)[1]

The India School Fund (ISF) experienced great challenges and successes again this year. Thanks to our volunteers and closest partner – the law firm Linklaters – 114 children in Samarua and 173 in Rajugela received quality education from grade one to six. With an enrolment increase of 37% from last year and an attendance rate of 82% on average, our 287 students and 12 employees are proud to be part of ISF.  Below, we present the progress of our school operations for 2010 using a balanced scorecard. This management tool was introduced this year and its metrics will continue to be improved over time.

Educational value

The academic progress of students per subject has been relatively stable since the previous year, as illustrated in the tables below. In the main resource center located in Rajugela where curriculum development and training are taking place, 12% of students have begun mono-grade classes (compared to 7% last year). Such change in the education methodology is necessary to (a) address the scarcity of higher skill requirements among teachers and (b) better prepare students for their transition to traditional classrooms should they choose to transfer to other middle-schools.  In order to compare student results across classrooms and schools before they complete their primary education, we developed an evaluation tool which was implemented last September. These results will allow teachers to address any weakness in their approach for each subject and validate the alignment of our curricula’s learning objectives with that of the government. We also partnered with Pratham, a reputable India non-profit organisation, to measure the understanding level of our students in comparison to students across the country. This independent evaluation process will validate our student outcomes in Hindi, Math and English every year. The progress will be analyzed during our next examination period in May 2011.

Relationship with the community

  1. 1. Community-based curriculum

The quality of our curriculum depends on various aspects. The learning objectives must be aligned with that of the government but to be understood and remembered, they must be meaningful to the students. In other words, the closest the content of the teaching cards is to the day-to-day live of students, the easiest it is to learn. Therefore, we engaged students in a community survey where small groups visited each household to collect information on 16 topics such as festivals, animals, etc. The results were used to prepare the Environment and Science (EVS) curriculum for grade three and four. This community-based curriculum development is effective for primary level but as we progress to higher levels, we may not have the qualification in-house to maintain our quality standards. We will need to purchase the curriculum developed by our partner Rishi Valley and adapt the content locally next year.

  1. 2. Text books, school uniforms and healthcare

The relationship we maintain with the community is critical to encourage enrolment and avoid drop-outs. Therefore, the perception and satisfaction of parents and influential people are critical even if they are not always aligned with the most cost-effective decision-making process. At the beginning of the year, we conducted a market research to identify the reasons for the slight decrease in enrolment during our first and second year of operations. Two important issues were highlighted and addressed promptly. First, we found that a lack of text books was considered as an important weakness of our school despite our conviction that they were unnecessary in multigrade settings. We made some adjustments to our curricula to integrate text books in a meaningful manner which made parents delighted. Second, school uniforms are an expenditure that we did not prioritize given the scarcity of our funds but when we discovered that they were perceived as an important aspect of the quality of our school, we provided school uniforms to the poorest among students while wealthier parents agreed to pay themselves. These school uniforms are less likely to be sold or used for other purposes, which happened after we donated clothes two years ago.

We also organised a medical camp during the dengue epidemic this fall where doctors and nurses came to provide health check-ups, counselling and medicines. The mobile hospital van was well equipped to conduct blood-tests and other relevant support to not only students but villagers as well. The villagers were overwhelmed and thoroughly appreciative of our efforts, especially given that two kids had died and few others were admitted in hospitals in nearby cities during that period. One month later, we organised a similar health camp with an eye doctor and two assistants which also benefited the community.

  1. 3. Addressing community challenges

The perception of community members will always be a challenge in such a conservative environment. Some parents of higher social status share a concern for diversified classrooms across castes and although we have no intentions of binding our policy on diversity, we must improve our activities and marketing efforts to ensure that the benefits of our education system is more valuable to them than the respect of some traditional customs. Experiences in other areas have demonstrated that organizing community events and multiplying interactions with villagers can create more interests for the school and acceptance of small progressive changes. To that end, we organize a weekly assembly on Friday mornings where students perform music and dance in front of all students. Community members are always welcome and impressed by the performances as they promote the local culture.  However, we must organize more regular parent-teacher meetings as well as large community events next year to prevent future drop-outs and encourage full enrolment. We suspect that some children in the villages are still not attending schools so we must find a way to ensure education for all. Closer supervision and training for our staff will be required to address these challenges.

Effective and efficient operations

  1. 1. Teacher retention

Teacher retention has always been a challenge for several reasons. Teachers leave the organisation because of the intensity of the work; low wages; the obligations of our schedule or other personal reasons.  We implemented a new HR policy this year with clearer procedures and paid holidays and maternity leave. This should improve the situation since three women teachers are expected to return to work after their three-month leave. However, we must investigate the teacher-retention issue more thoroughly and identify a way to foster motivation and attract more qualified people. Hiring an experienced director of operations with closer supervision and support will help address this challenge.

  1. 2. Teacher coaching: training and English teaching

Although we provide intense one-month training for all new teachers and ongoing support, we found it necessary to send our senior staff to the Rishi Valley Institute for Education Resources in the south of India where the multigrade classroom methodology was originally developed. The trip was extensively discussed in the preceding issues of the ISFQuarterly. The institute has a professional training program for improving classroom management towards student learning and blossoming. This training enabled the implementation of a few practices that will benefit children over years. Additional tools will be refined and implemented over the coming year.

English as a second language is difficult for children in remote areas because of the limited opportunities to hear the pronunciation and practice a different alphabet. Although we received the visit of an international English teacher this summer to help with the curriculum revision and teacher training, we are still unable to achieve the progress desired. We must identify a more comprehensive solution and invest in professional teacher training going forward.

Managerial oversight for expansion

Our biggest challenge remains overall supervision and support. We lost our school principal this year for personal reasons and we learnt over the past three years that we must invest greater resources in a different type of leadership to not only oversee current operations but also ensure future growth. Among other things, we must upgrade our curriculum for grades 6-7-8 and diversify options for students as they become young adults. Our goal is to provide various skills and knowledge that will eventually help develop the local economy and create employment, rather than channel all rural children to traditional universities in overcrowded cities. Therefore, we need an entrepreneur who will ensure that we identify the comparative advantages and market needs in the region and set-up the appropriate technical, vocational and entrepreneurship training for those who complete elementary levels. We also need somebody who can address other challenges such as English teaching, computer training, and teacher hiring as we move up the ladder. We have been looking for such qualified person for a long time and we may have found the perfect candidate but this will increase our costs greatly. As new first-year children come every year and older ones remain longer with us however, this cost will be leveraged effectively over years.

December 24, 2010

Holiday’s Greetings

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 2:50 am

p>The India School Fund (ISF) team of founders, teachers and volunteers wishes you a wonderful holiday season filled with joy and peace. Thanks to all of you, 2010 was another successful year for ISF: attendance rate of students and teachers continues to be well above the rural average, while academic results – evaluated by Pratham – remain strong. We all look forward to offering high quality education to more children in 2011, giving them self-confidence and helping break the cycle of poverty.

ISFQuarterly  Editor.

November 14, 2010

Swati Apte – ISF’s Board Member

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 1:46 pm


Swati Apte is one of the founders of ISF and members of its Board of Directors. After getting her MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2005, Swati joined McKinsey in New York.

She now lives with her husband and two children in India, where she is involved in non profit work. Swati reflects on ISF’s past and future.

It has been more than 5 years since the first HBS trek arrived in the village and the seed for the idea of the school was born. In that much time, we have achieved so much – designing, building and now running an institution that offers 250 young students critical access to quality education they did not have before.  As I celebrate this achievement for us all, I also feel it is a fitting time to take stock of where we stand, our challenges and what lies ahead for us as we drive to create the same opportunities for 10,000 more children in the next 5-10 years.

We have come such a long way…to a path ahead that is full of opportunities and challenges. We have built two centers and we are planning the next steps of our organization if we want to continue to break the cycle of poverty through education.

ISF is now at a junction. Over the Summer, I accompanied our Principal Amit Singh, as well as members from the management team on a trip to Southern India, to visit the renowned Rishi Valley Education Centre, an amazing center with over 20 years experience and a true model for ISF  (see Amit Singh’s report on the trip in the ISFQuarterly Summer 2010 issue). As a board member, I wanted to help the team brainstorm new ideas.  The trip was a very good learning experience for us all and we have already started to implement educational tools after coming back from our trip.

As one walks around the ISF classrooms, it is remarkable to watch the students learn as a group and support each other. Everyone feels extremely engaged and the teachers work hard and their commitment is palpable. The multi-grade model has worked well and gained support amongst the parents as well. This is different from year one when parents, hereto unexposed to such creative methods needed convincing that this was indeed an effective way to learn. But I also noticed that while our operations on the ground worked reasonably smoothly, there were challenges. First, our location makes it difficult to create continuous access for the principal and the content developer to other creative educationists. They missed the interaction and the exchange that comes from it.

Second, we need to expand the support we have in the greater Rajugela area and in Samarua where our second school is located. Currently, the village of 800 has been a partner in our efforts but as we expand, we will need to find similar buy-in from the region so as not to be seen as aligned to any one village.  Finally, as we grow our model, decision making gets more complex. More parties are involved (e.g., our funding and partners are now coming from multiple geographies, types of entities, etc.), we will within the next few years have 1-2 more schools of over 300 students  to manage, etc. This expansion mandates that we institute procedures and formalize processes for decision making. This is the natural progression for any growing organization and absolutely critical to get right.

Now that I live in India, I am more actively involved in the oversight of operations on the ground and in defining a growth plan. This trip we made this summer was very important for us. What I found encouraging was the fact that we are in the same place Rishi Valley was at its beginning when it had just a few centers. The growth that happened to Rishi Valley in the last two decades has been amazing and a source of inspiration for us all as we plan the future of ISF.

October 24, 2010

Shadow puppets

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 3:37 pm

h2>A forgotten but terrific form of entertainment

by Chris RichardsonShadow puppets

I was lucky enough to visit the ISF schools in Uttar Pradesh this summer, and was overwhelmed by the dedication and passion for education that the staff had, and truly touched by the students’ warmth and hospitality.  Whether it was practicing English (replete with giggles) or teaching me a new schoolyard game, the students showed the kind of confidence and kindness that every teacher and parent wishes their children to have.

But one experience in particular left me with a surprising feeling of both warmth and nostalgia.  I had been called into a classroom on my last day in the village.  Inside, dozens of students stood and sat in a semi circle facing the door.  Two children were holding a large white sheet with their backs to an open window.  I was told the students had prepared a show for me.  What ensued was a musical, theatrical puppet show involving a confident young narrator, and a handful of the oldest students who made paper puppet cutouts dance and chase each other around the backside of the sheet.  The whole group of students occasional burst into song at appropriate moments creating a surround sound effect of young voices that Dolby Laboratories would be jealous of.  The show lasted a surprising 15 minutes or so – quite a
feat of memorization and coordinated effort for the boisterous group.

In an age of ‘massively multiplayer online gaming’ and seamless 3D iPhone Apps, it’s refreshing to see that kids somewhere still know how to have fun with the timeless shadow puppet show.  I know I did.

October 18, 2010

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 4:18 pm

Of Mice and Men

by Chris Richardson

It isn’t easy running an organization without the aid of technology these days.  But it isn’t always easy using that technology in places like rural India, either.  ISF is lucky to have several laptops, but ironically, can’t use the l

Chris teaching computer skills to ISF teachers.

Chris teaching computer skills to ISF teachers.

aptops as often as they can go to the cybercafé.  The problem is electricity.  In rural India, locals struggle to get electricity for more than a few hours per day, and when they do get it, they risk power surges that can blow out their
valuable electronics.

While working with the ISF administration on the ground, I wanted to explore any work-arounds to help them get on their computers more often.  Each computer seemed to have a different kind of problem, but the really hard part was that even when we figured out a fix for a funky keyboard, or dead battery, the stubbornly lazy power grid had no permanent work-around.   ISF has a generator, but burning petrol anytime we want to type a letter or update a balance sheet isn’t a sustainable solution to the problem.

In the end, the temporary work around was to charge the laptops at the local cybercafé while using the internet (previously they had left the laptops in the office and used the cybercafé computers).

Once we knew we could at least triple the computer hours available to the staff, the next step was to increase computer literacy from just the administrators to the full teaching staff.  We hope this gives something back to our hard working teachers, and will allow all ISF staff to utilize the efficiencies personal computers offer.

But learning the ins and outs of a PC and new OS isn’t as obvious as it seems. The mouse alone proved to be a complex and awkward tool that provided the ISF teachers-cum-students with plenty of laughs as they watched their peers become comfortable with the speed and sensitivity of the hardware.  In the end, everyone became very comfortable with turning a laptop on and off, using the mouse, manipulating windows, launching important programs like Word and Excel, and typing in Word.

I hope that all the staff will now have the opportunity to use the ISF computers on a regular basis and can even begin using them as teaching
and lesson planning aids.  I, and the rest of India, also hope that the power grid becomes more dependable in the near future (the new road and new water pipes recently built in Rajugela give cause for optimism).

August 6, 2010

Interview with Naveen Tewari, ISF Chairman

Filed under: Schools — Esmeralda @ 4:39 am

p>Naveen Tewari, ISF ChairmanHello Naveen, you are the Chairman of ISF. Tell us about your background
I am currently the Founder & CEO of a mobile internet advertising company, InMobi. I founded this company in 2007 and have been working on growing it since then. The company now has 150 people spread across 6 countries. Prior to InMobi, I had received my MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS) and used to work for McKinsey & Company.

Why did you decide to found ISF? And what role did you play at the beginning?
The background to founding ISF was a trip that I organized for about 100 students from HBS in 2004. As part of that trip to India, we visited a village called Rajugela. The experience of interacting with people in that village moved everyone so much that we all decided to help in uplifting the village through education. Once the emotionally charged group decided to contribute in providing education to the villagers, I had to take the lead in making sure that it is done in a way that has an impact and is sustainable. Thus ISF was born along with few other folks from HBS.

After a couple of years of operation, where does ISF stand now?
Right now, we provide quality education to about 300 kids in two schools, our first main center is in Rajugela with its branch in the nearby village of Samarua. Since our model is scalable, we expect the unit cost to go down below $100 per year as soon as we are able to expand to other surrounding villages.

How do you see ISF growing in the coming years? Will you continue the model of building new schools and running them?
In the coming 2 to 3 years, we need to open 5 more schools so we have one hub & spoke system. This will allow us to reach economies of scale. During that time, we also want to lay down the basis for a new hub by centralizing resources between schools, and running more operations out of Delhi.

One of the questions that we always hear from the general public is “why doesn’t ISF work with the government instead of operating on its own?” What’s your take on this Naveen?
We don’t rule it out, but to work with the government requires scale! So maybe in a few years we will have reached a critical mass and we will know how to run large operations. We do have very good relations with government schools though.

What is the biggest challenge of ISF today, and what are we doing to address it? One of our main challenges is the recruitment of quality personnel for the school. The living conditions in this part of the word are hard so it’s difficult to recruit from outside. We also favor hiring locally to promote the local economy and build stronger relationships with the community. However as we move up to middle-school, we find that few people in the community understand intermediate academic concepts so we need to strengthen our training of teachers and provide extra ongoing support. This is our main focus at the moment.

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