The Swastik Upper Primary School in Godbhanga village of Orissa's Deogarh district looks, from the outside, like any other school in a rural area. But inside, however, it could not be more different from the norm, for it is home to an achievement that is quite rare in these parts. Elsewhere in the district, the drop-out rate from schools is rising, and education authorities are planning as many as thirteen special schools to arrest this trend. But at Swastik there aren't any drop-outs. Indeed, its success goes much further; the school produces more first class students than any other school in the area and possibly in the district too.

Forest protection

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 •  Orissa
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 •  Printer friendly version The school first came to attention two years ago, when a local newspaper highlighted the unparalleled forest protection efforts by the children with help of their Head Master and the support of the community. For the last fifteen years, the school children have been protecting the forest that stands on a hill behind their school. "We are keeping a constant watch on about 300 acres of the Pangulu Pahada (hill) which is sal dominated," says Ramakanta Pradhan, Head Master.

"Ninety per cent of this hill is officially non-existent as it is listed as 'submerged' by the reservoir of the Rengali Dam that was constructed around 1985," informs Bijaya Kumar Mohanty, Forest Range Officer of Barkote. But while all the other neaby forest areas were actually submerged by the reservoir, this one, which was back then a degraded forest patch, survived the dam waters. But with the surrounding forest gone, pressure on Pangulu Pahada increased, says Mohanty. Then Pradhan decided to do something about it, involving the children as well. He saw that such intervention would have the obvious additional benefit of creating a different learning experience for the children too, besides their classroom studies. The pioneering initiative has gained in strength since then, and the children see themselves as diligent guardians of their forest.

Children keeping a watch over 'their' forest
(Picture by Ranjan K Panda)

"The moment we hear an axe hitting wood, we go in a group of four to ten and fetch the culprit", says one of the older boys. The children are not afraid to confront anyone. "We are doing good for our humanity and serving God. Why should we fear anyone? Protection of this forest has become our religion," says a proud Pradhan. The Forest department has been supportive too.

Numerous achievements

But of course, in a school it's education that matters, and it's on this front that Swastik really stands out. "The school is actually something special," says Pabitra Mohan Sahu, Block Resource Centre Co-ordinator (BRCC) of Sarva Sikhya Abhijan (SSA), who has been trying to help the school. "I don't think there is any other school in the district which has given hundred per cent result uninterruptedly for so many years," he adds. Headmaster Pradhan says, "Last, in 1992-93 two children dropped out because their parents shifted to some other districts."

"Most of the parents whose children study here are daily wage labourers, and due to Pradhan's efforts their priority has changed over the period of time," says Raghumani Behera of the Puruna Barkote village, who is himself a daily wage labourer, and earlier did not choose schooling for his children. The headmaster has changed the mindset of many parents like Raghumani. Basanti, Raghumani's daughter, topped the school exams last year, and is now studhing in Daanr High School. Basanti's brother, who is now in class ten, also studied here. "It's only the headmaster who motivated me to send my children to school and now I am proud," says Raghumani.

"This year the school has produced 22 first class students, out of the total of 34, while all the nearby schools have shown discouraging results," says Sahu. That's a record in itself, which is growing year by year. Last year nine out of 26 students obtained first class, and the previous year six out of 25 students. "First class was unheard of in this area earlier", says Rudra Narayan Sahu, Principal of the Barkote college, who has been an active supporter of this school. Recent results from nearby schools highlight Swastik's achievements. Only 25 out of the total 43 children of the Kalla Nodal School, who appeared in the recently concluded Class 7 exams passed. Only 3 of them secured first class and the rest obtained a third class. Similarly, only 14 of Kalla Girls U P School's 24 students who appeared in the same examination passed. Similar is the fate of students of the Danra U P School where, out of the total 68 who appeared, only 38 passed.

"What Pradhan did was to start a hostel in the school with its existing infrastructure, and that has made a difference" Sahu adds. As always, there are difficulties, and these are a sign that the school has been impressive despite its limitations. "Our school does not even have the basic facilities like electricity, while many other schools have electricity, sanitary facilities, etc," says Raghumani, who is now an active member of the school committee. "We have pleaded many times for electricity in vain," rues Sabita Sahu of Godbhanga village, whose daughter Dipti just passed class seventh obtaining first class. Sabita further says, "Ours is a rare case. My husband works in the military and we can afford staying in Deogarh town, but education there is not only unnecessarily costly but also not qualitative."

Daitari Mahananda echoes this view. His younger son Tapaj is studying in Class 6 here. According to Daitari, "the Barkote school is nearer to my home and it has two teachers but no education. The teachers of that school are just working for their salary." His other son Rudra studied Class 1 and 2 there during 1995-97 but could not learn the alphabets properly. Daitari then got him admitted in Class 1 again in the primary school here. Rudra has just passed in second division from the Swastik school. Tapaj too is doing well. "I never expected this performance from my children", says Daitari.

A constant endeavour

Swastik's story of success is certainly heartening. But what is the secret of its success? For educators, this is the key question; large education programmes of the Centre and the States alike are interested in identifying the key contributing factors to good outcomes in public education, particularly in remote areas. If whatever contributes to the success of Swastik can be introduced in other schools too, perhaps the overall scenario of public education can be uplifted, at least in this area. Their hopes may be a little dashed by the answers, however. For a large part of Swastik's success is due to the constant endeavour of its headmaster, and the support of the local community, and neither of these can be easily re-created elsewhere.

A dedicated headmaster and his pupils
(Picture by Ranjan K Panda)

Years of struggle fighting the odds have helped Pradhan achieve the success that is so evident today. Originally aiming to join the army, he failed to qualify for any post there, and therefore decided to take charge of the newly formed Middle English school - 'Middle English' an old term for Upper Primary schools - in the village in 1989. Until then, the village had only the Upper Primary school which was established way back in 1960, and had been relocated at this new site only a few years back - when the dam submerged the old Godbhanga village. The villagers started the school and Pradhan was one of the initiators. "Our children were deprived of higher education and hence we decided to start a M.E. school even though we did not get any aid from the govt." says Raghumani.

"When the submergence took place and people resettled in this new area, the government did nothing to rebuild the school and initially for two years it was run from two rooms built by the villagers" informs Pradhan. "I took it upon myself to obtain technical education for two years, and then I came back to take charge of the school. I saw the people who had already lost all their lands to the Rengali dam, and they were not interested in educating their children, as they needed them to work instead." Undeterred, he began his mission with a tangential approach first - organising the communities and children to protect the forest. "With the forest protection, a link could be established with the community, and that give me a direct access to the villagers. I then started convincing them about education".

Once he began drawing children to the school, he felt the need for a hostel. "The school had a limited number of rooms, and it was very difficult to convince the parents to leave their children to stay", he says. "We also don't have electricity, while the villagers have electricity at their homes". He began by talking to his own relatives first, some of whom had children in the school. A few parents agreed to let their children stay in the hostel.

"The hostel here is the same classroom where the children read at daytime and stay at night", says Dalagobinda Pradhan, who works as a superviser with the Orissa Forest Development Corporation and whose daughter Manjeet Priyadarshi has just passed Class 7 from the school, securing a first class. "Manjeet was staying in the hostel and that made all the difference" says Dalagobinda. "Unlike in urban areas, where extra care means extra money, here it's more focused attention because the children don't study once they are back home", he adds. His second daughter Sunita also stays in the hostel. "Staying in the hostel has improved my preformance many times," says Sunita. "By staying over, these children get extra tuition - which comes free - and care", adds Pradhan.

"This year the school has produced 22 first class students, out of the total of 34, while all the nearby schools have shown discouraging results."

 •  Driving up attendance
 •  Rural relations

Pradhan's personal stature was key to many parents' decision to put their children in the hostel. Dolagobinda, for instance, has a comfortable house with some of the modern amenities, but he prefers to send his children to the hostel. "Had the hostel and the headmaster not been there, my children would not have studying now", he admits.

The key value provided by the hostel is not lost on Pradhan on the others. Pradhan recognises that having the children remain with the school even after their reading hours is important, lest they fall into the social and economic trappings of their deprived homes. So does not mind that each year he has to get permission from the office of the Deputy Inspector of Schools to run the hostel. Similarly, to get kerosene, he has to fight with the PDS dealers. The hostel is also kept affordable to all, by an unusual pricing scheme, and even those who cannot afford to send their children to the hostel are encouraged to do so, with a little adjustment. "Here people who can pay money contribute Rs.200/- per month and 15 kilos of rice, while people who can't pay can send home-cooked food", informs Sahu. "We now have 25 children who can pay and another 50 others who cannot."

The entire village, as well as local government officials are now all in praise for Pradhan, and the school is in high demand. "Ever since our forest protection activities first drew media attention, more and more villagers came to know about our school, and each year we are getting greater demands for admissions. However, we will not take students beyond our capacity to manage," says Pradhan.

There is still much to be done. Sahu admits that while the government provides support to the school through its regular grant schemes, many of these do not add up to much. "The collector has promised some help, and we hope our electricity problem will at least be solved by next year," says Pradhan. "If our children get electricity in the school, they will perform even better", says Dolagobinda. For now, Pradhan remains the spark that ignites the school, and while he is at his job, Swastik promises to remain well above the other schools. Deograh district itself, meanwhile, needs many more Ramakanta Pradhans, who will in turn need many more hostels.