A school that does not believe in rote learning or the concepts of “pass” and “fail” in exams

What is common among Pranitha Vardhineni (coach, Sports Authority of India; also represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in archery), A Raju (gold-medallist at the 2010 World Archery Championship), V Sharada (3-time gold winner at the Junior National Archery Championship and now employed with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police) and dozens of other sports achievers who I have no space to write about here?

They all studied at RDF schools (which you may be forgiven to think are archery coaching institutes). My discovery of the Rural Foundation (RDF) schools was quite amazing.

The Journey
It was a gorgeous-looking drive. The rains had just freshened the Telangana countryside (but apparently, they weren’t enough to end the drought), and there was greenery all over. The heat wasn’t for a city-dweller like me, though. If you’re not accustomed to these temperatures, the afternoon sun can make you dizzy.

The kids at the RDF schools don’t care. They’re a happy bunch, and the blazing sun is only a minor needle prick in their simple, frugal, innocent way of life. This, despite the fact that they are in school, not at a playground. Their school gives them a lot to learn, sure, but it also gives them a lot to play with.

What Is RDF?
Rural Development Foundation (RDF), simply put, runs schools in rural areas. However, what is impressive about their project is that they don’t stop at just constructing buildings, hiring teachers and admitting students. Their stress on quality education makes this a very ambitious project, one which requires a vision and intensive commitment, and robust execution.

The Edge
RDF schools follow creative and interactive teaching-learning systems. RDF has made ample use of various educational programs that have sprung up in the country. During the initial years of RDF, Andhra Mahila Sabha helped the schools teach kids through play & interactivity, and also in training teachers in these principles for 9 years. Later, CfBT and Erik Kaeding from US helped out for a couple of years each.

Silver Oaks – The School Of Hyderabad,Magic Bus Foundation and Butterfly Fields are others that have contributed to RDF’s curriculum. Concepts are demonstrated and learnt using learning aids, and there is a strong emphasis on group work. The teachers are regularly sent to workshops, their skills constantly upgraded.

The RDF philosophy is to create a school that is strongly integrated with the local community, inculcating traditional ways of living into the life on campus. So everyone at an RDF school wishes you “Namaste”. And footwear is left outside the classrooms.

RDF’s curriculum is what sets it apart from other schools, privately-run or government-run. One NGO, Magic Bus Foundation, helps RDF schools implement a program that teaches children topics using physical activity like simple group-based games. Donors have also donated science kits and math learning aids through other educational NGOs.

Independent of external collaborators, RDF schools have their own little systems and processes to encourage learning. As an example, RDF Redlawada has a noticeboard on which quiz questions are posted every day, for everyone in the school to think about the answers and submit them. Then, there are the weekly fairs, called “Balanandam”, that are used for children to showcase what they have learnt.

It is evident that RDF is eager to adopt meaningful practices – whether traditional or contemporary – in every activity here. A task as simple as a teacher calling out a student’s name in class to ask him or her a question has been well thought out – the teacher carries around a stack of ice-cream sticks bearing roll numbers, and picks them at random. This approach is intended to: a) eliminate the tendency of the teacher to unwittingly call out the same students’ names repeatedly; and b) keep students alert.

Everyone is in uniform. Students are dressed in blue, the lady teachers in plain single-coloured sarees (this year, it was violet; and the colours are changed every year), and the male teachers in white shirts and black trousers.

The mid-day meal is a tranquil event. Kids are seated, and after a prayer, are served the freshly-cooked mid-day meal in steel plates. Typically, the younger kids are served by the older ones. And there are no “designations” or distinctions. Anyone can sit down and eat in a particular batch, or choose to serve.

The schools discourage practices that foster a submissive attitude in children. To begin with, teachers are referred to as “mentors”. The classic “finger-on-your-lips”, “fold-your-hands-and-sit” traditions are simply disallowed. Enforcing discipline, you say? I didn’t find any teacher raising his or her voice at a child, leave alone a cane. And I didn’t find unruly kids anywhere.

RDF’s zeal to educate the kids in these villages.

How RDF is Different
What sets RDF schools apart from regular schools is the management’s focus on quality education. This core philosophy is driven by Vandita, who doesn’t believe in rote learning or the concepts of “pass” and “fail” in exams. In the schools I visited, I found lots of learning aids, and activities that encourage to all-round development of children. Vandita also says she believes children must be able to “rough it out”.

The kids are kept active, both intellectually and physically. Children are sent to exhibitions and exposed to the world outside their schools and villages, and the staff are continuously trained. There is also a lot of field-level commitment by the management at Hyderabad, something which trickles down to the schools.

Sustaining The Community
The idea isn’t just to educate the children, but mainly to sustain the community by encouraging pass-outs to be gainfully employed within their villages. Some of the alumni of RDF schools go on to join their own schools, as teachers. RDF’s management will also proudly tell you how their teachers never resign – many of them have been around for 17-18 years.

RDF’s relationship with its students doesn’t end with Class 10. There are alumni who come to Hyderabad to look for jobs or study further, and such people are sheltered by RDF, sometimes in Vandita’s own home. (Job-hunting in the city is understandably not a cake-walk. Vandita tells me that when she comes across youth who do not seem to have the potential to survive in the city, she tries to counsel them into living their own villages and making money there and thus financially support their families instead of earning measly salaries in the city and living in miserable conditions.)

So Many Medals
RDF students have won dozens of medals in sports. Like I mentioned earlier, Pranitha Vardhineni, a Kalleda student, even represented India in archery at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In archery alone, 16 students won 30 medals in archery at the national level, and 23 won 33 medals at the state level. In athletics, 30 medals were won by 4 students at the state level, and there was one student who won 15 medals in national level athletics.

Academics Too
Traditionalists need not fret.The schools Kalleda, Rollakal and Matendla have fared well in the state board examinations. Some children win awards for science projects. Alumni go on to study further, with a few pursuing engineering and polytechnic courses. Several RDF alumni go on to contribute to their own community, some joining back RDF schools to become teachers.

Fees
The fee is around Rs. 7,250 per year. Some students are partly funded by donors, while a few students are completely exempted from the fees. RDF is now also considering providing health insurance for the teachers.

GiveIndia funds have sponsored stationery in the RDF schools at Rollakal and Redlawada, which are described below. Also, the Australian Consulate General funded toilet blocks in these two campuses, through its Direct Aid Program (DAP).

RDF Rollakal
Established in 2006, this is a lively school on a large tract of land. There are 231 students here. Children have lots of trees to play under, where even classes are conducted sometimes. The school’s infrastructure was funded by corporates that include Infor and Cognizant. A lot of teaching aids were used in classrooms.

An English teacher for the primary sections was brought from Hyderabad to spend a day with the teachers and train them in rendering nursery rhymes. I witnessed the session – there was a lot of emphasis on “action”.

The bright children of this school usually receive good exposure by being sent to exhibitions and workshops at other RDF schools. One student Maddiraju, from class 10, was eager to demonstrate to me his project on thermodynamic energy – a project which won him an INSPIRE award (a Central-government-sponsored programme that encourages children to pursue science and mathematics).

RDF Redlawada
This one was started in 2005, and I am told that until a few years ago, classes were held under trees here. The school has 217 students. The “original classroom”, a large tamarind tree, is still around, and serves as the location for teachers to conduct their outdoor activities.

Redlawada student teams have played volleyball at the zonal level.

The RDF school at Redlawada has managed to complete two buildings with the support of the founding family and their connections. It is in need of more classrooms, and a dining hall. Construction is underway, though.

How You Can Contribute
Through RDF’s standard sponsorship option, you can sponsor a child’s education.

What I saw in my visits was that both the schools, Redlawada and Rollakal, are in need of benches.

Further, there are also proposals to explore alternative sources of power here – something which I think is slowly turning into a necessity because these schools are located in inaccessible villages that have hardly any electricity. RDF tries to support them with backup, but apparently, that isn’t enough. Solar power units, generator sets, UPS units and batteries are the alternatives that they are looking for, depending on suitability.

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