Editor’s Note: This article was written before the coronavirus mandated quarantine all over the globe.
Staff at Sanjeevni Divine Academy (Photo courtesy of Nogol Andishehjoo)
Two Highly Educated People From Vastly Different Backgrounds, One Living In San Gabriel, The Other In Pasadena, Have Never Met, But They Have One Common Goal In Mind; Improve Education Opportunities In India.
By Cheryl Cabot
Only the poorest children go to public schools in India. The private schools are too costly for many families. The government mandated that all children, ages 5 to 14 be provided a hot, mid-day meal at schools. As a result, many parents send their children to school just so they can get a meal.
Nogol Andishehjoo, of Persian heritage, is a California girl, growing up in the San Gabriel Valley and now living in San Gabriel. She is a high school teacher and Department Head at Central City Value High School in Los Angeles, teaching 10th Grade Biology, Honors Biology, AP Biology as well as physiology. In addition, she is currently attending grad school to earn her Ed.D., Doctor of Education, in Educational Leadership.
Dr. Gajanana Birur
Dr. Gajanana Birur grew up in India, coming to the United States to earn his Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He was working at JPL when he met his wife, Dr. Sabrina Peck, who was working on her Ph.D at UCLA. They have lived in Pasadena for many years. “Gaj” is retired from JPL where he helped develop and worked on the Mars Project. He currently works part-time at JPL as a consultant.
Although they both felt a need to “give back” to society, neither initially planned to work with schools in India. Nogal first considered Africa, while Gaj was thinking about working with schools in South America.
Birur Education Foundation for Children
After some consideration, Gaj decided it would be best to go back to his home county where he knew the culture, the language and had family connections. He talked to his older brother, a retired automobile engineer, back in 2002 and they decided to start the Birur Education Foundation for Children (BEFC). As an American citizen, Gaj cannot serve on the board, but serves as an advisor, with his brother serving as board president.
One of the goals of BEFC was to reverse the trend of young, talented people moving from the country to the city. It took two years to determine what they would focus on and in 2004 they began their endeavor. They determined to work with elementary public schools, ages 8-14, to provide resources such as books, notebooks, pencils, uniforms, and sometimes even shoes. They picked three schools and worked with the teachers, parents and community asking what they needed and what would help them.
The Foundation only works with a school for 3-5 years, because as Gaj said, “We want to teach them how to fish, not give them fish. And, hopefully the community sees what can be done.”
Five years ago, they moved the program to Bangalore where Gaj’s brother and family live. They had been focusing on rural communities, but “There are also very poor people in the cities, many coming from the rural areas for jobs. They live in slums and the kids go to the public schools.”
Graduate students in social groups come as volunteers to help with teacher workshops, held once or twice a year. In India most of the teaching is done by rote simply because they don’t have other facilities. In addition to training the teachers in math and leadership skills, they teach hands-on science using very inexpensive materials, such as bottles, straws, magnets and small motors. With these very basic materials they learn how to prove scientific principles. The Foundation has provided schools with chemistry sets as well.
Gaj, in the front with navy blue shirt, with young adults from “Teach for India” (Photo courtesy of Gajanana Birur)
Dream Design Robotics Program
Two years ago BEFC started Dream Design Robotics Program teaming up with “Teach for India,” a non-profit providing fellowships for college graduates to work with inner-city schools. The Fellows serve for two years at a school. One of the Fellows working in Bangalore, Varun, had some students interested in robotics and proposed a project. The Lego robotic sets cost $800 each. The Foundation provided Varun and the school with two sets, but more were needed.
One of the graduate student volunteers had worked with another non-profit that had a robotics project they had abandoned, but still had all the sets. Gaj contacted the organization and was able to borrow an additional eight sets, placing them in eight different schools. Each school had a team of eight, four girls and four boys, to compete in an end-of-the-year competition.
“These kids come from families that are construction workers, street sweepers and other low-wage jobs,” Gaj said. “We want to give the kids the opportunity to see other possibilities in life. They learn not only to work with robots, but to work as a team, learning communication, team play, programming and many other skills. They are given a set of problems. They have to set up a maze. Then they have to program the robot to go a certain distance, turn and go back. The graduate volunteers from “Teach for India” serve as judges.” The first competition was on “9 News” in Bangalore, India.
Dream Design Robotics Project,” a robotics training program at thirteen government higher primary schools in Bangalore, is holding its second annual competition at Vijaynagar Club on February 8, 2020. The project is a cooperative venture started in 2018-19 academic year organized by BEFC with support from Teach for India (TFI) foundation and Akshara Foundation in Bangalore. The project started with eight primary schools in Bangalore in 2018-19 school year and expanded to thirteen schools in 2019-20 year. Each TFI fellow has been training about eight students, drawn from standards 5-7 at each school. Akshara Foundation has given thirteen Lego ‘Mindstorm’ sets for this project in 2019-20 school year. ( BEFC press release).
Gaj was recently in Bangalore preparing for the 2020 robotics competition.
Nogol with students Photo courtesy of Nogol Andishehjoo)
Nogol and Jaipur, India
While Gaj had connections in India, Nogol did not. She began looking for volunteer programs about two years ago and found an organization called Aii Group, a for-profit business and volunteer exchange program. They partner with different companies globally, supporting all types of interests from helping elephants to photography and teaching.
She was going to do some traveling but wanted to have a purpose. “Why not check out educational systems, volunteer, dedicate my time and see what happens. Let’s see where life takes me,” Nogol said. “It has always been my passion to be a part of schools in other parts of the world, especially in evolving countries.”
Contacting the Aii Group, she got to know the founder and they became good friends. She told them to put her in a school. She just wanted to teach, so they sent her to Jaipur, India. The first time she was in the city, she felt very welcome and very comfortable. Jaipur is very large and very expensive, the second most expensive city in India. It’s very crowded with a lot of rural communities. There are extremes; extreme poverty and extreme wealth.
It was summer break, so instead of children she was told to work with women, empowering them. However, there was a language barrier. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Nogol said, “so I just decided to ask them their names and what they do. I discovered, not only do they not speak English, but they are illiterate. A lot of the women take pride in being illiterate, ‘because it’s easier to find a husband.’”
After that experience, Nogol asked to please work with some children. The founder gathered some children together and she brought board games to play with them. The kids called her “Dede” which means “big sister,” and asked her to please come back. “So, I kind of left my heart at that school with those kids,” she said. She felt that, with all her teaching experience, she could do more.
She wanted to start a school, but felt very alone and lost, not knowing how to even begin. She began by researching India’s system of education. There are two types of schools, government and private. She started making connections, and wrote a business plan, thinking, “If I ever do this, what will it look like?”
“The first thing I thought was, I have this model of education that should work, and would be good for kids regardless of their background. It should be very universal. A holistic education where you are caring for their happiness, well-being and social life. Then it should work. I have this information and I can create this model, this curriculum,” Nogol said. “I decided, I’m just going to go there and meet more people. My heart is in Jaipur and that is where I want to do this.”
Sanjeevni Divine Academy before and after (Photo courtesy of Nogol Andishehjoo)
Sanjeevni Divine Academy
She began making more connections and met with the director of a school called Sanjeevni Divine Academy, located in Vatika, a rural area of Jaipur, serving kids from pre-K to 10th grade.
The director of the school told her there were a lot of challenges. When Nogol heard the challenges, she thought, “These are not challenges, these are catastrophes! But at least the physical school was there and I didn’t have to start from scratch. There are about 21 rooms, about 10 of which are used. Just imagine a big room that’s broken in every sense with chipped walls and broken windows. There is running water, but questionable quality.
“It is literally in the middle of nowhere. You have to drive and drive to get there and it’s super-hot! It’s always 105, 115 degrees. Super humid.
“All the windows in the school are completely broken with sharp glass. There is no air conditioning or fans. It’s very dirty with no soap, no hygiene and horrible paint. Little kids just urinating out in the yard. Some are not wearing shoes.
“Research shows that a good physical condition is very critical for learning. This facility is zero. Below zero.” Nogol said.
The principal, Danish, told Nogol about other challenges they had such as transportation and money. The families are very low on the social economic scale and even though the tuition might only be $10 a month, it’s difficult for the parents to pay. With tuition often late, he has a hard time paying his teachers. There is no meal provided (even though it is mandated by the government, not all resources reach to the very rural areas yet). The children bring meals from home, and some may not even be eating.
“For the limited amount of resources they have, they are doing great, I think. The training for teachers is very limited, but their hearts are in the right place, and they try very hard,” Nogol said.
She wanted to get the community and parents involved in the cleanup of the school, using whatever skills they had. This would not cost them anything. Plus, it would give parents an emotional investment in the school. The kids could also help and take pride in what they have done. Even the younger kids can paint a small part of a wall.
In November, Nogol returned with some of her new board members to begin cleaning up the school. Family and friends wanted to help, but she told them that instead of buying a ticket to go there, give us those funds, because the cost of ticket would go a long way in Jaipur in buying supplies.
The transformation is amazing! The building is clean, broken windows replaced and the building is painted. There is still much to do, but spirits are high, and the kids, parents and staff of Sanjeevni Divine Academy are grateful for their “Dede”, Nogol Andishehjoo, who wants to expand her program to other impoverished areas, but part her heart will always be in Jaipur.
Note: Gaj and Nogol have not met yet, but when their travel and jobs allow, they plan to meet and share information and contacts.
Cheryl Cabot covers community news and events. She’s a retired school teacher, a free-lance writer, a political activist in the San Gabriel Valley, and an avid lawn bowler.
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