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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Aussie social worker struggles to keep Pune school afloat

Reading Time: 5 minutesAs an 8-year-old, Melinda Parker read Ploughed Under by Amy Carmichael, a story that began her affair with India.

“I read about a British single woman who rescued girls who had been abandoned. She had a large children’s home in India. Her life of service was inspiring to me,” Melinda told Indian Link.

The Sydney-based Indophile and social worker helps run an English medium community school for local children in Keshnand village near Pune in India.

AT A GLANCE

  • Australian social worker Melinda Parker began managing a school in rural Maharashtra in 2006 and is now remotely serving as its Honorary Director
  • Gyanankur public school tries to provide quality education to children from non-privileged backgrounds
  • During COVID times, the school has been struggling to operate at full potential in terms of funding and connectivity

Gyanankur students learning about water vapour.
Gyanankur students learning about water vapour

Gyanankur public school is an NGO (not for profit) and serves seven other villages around it. Gyanankur, which is Hindi for “seedlings of knowledge”, educates kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We do our best to nurture every precious seedling that comes to our school,” Melinda revealed. “We have many families that can pay our fairly low fees and many who can pay half or none and we adapt accordingly.”

Describing the process of implementing a system of quality education, she said, “Our staff are local or come in buses from Pune city. We have very strong core values that we endeavour to implement in all everything we do – values of joy, transparency, dignity and service. Things like honouring our local struggling farmers in our school culture, honouring the ladies who do cleaning work in the school, making classes and learning a joyful experience for our students”.

A wall painted with Gyanankur's core values of Transparency, Joy, Dignity and Service
A wall painted with Gyanankur’s core values of Transparency, Joy, Dignity and Service

The challenges, however, include functioning within a system of education which is “rife with corruption”.

“We work especially hard to do our work without engaging in bribing. A trustworthy board manages our accounts and this board in no way benefits from the school’s income, instead, they see it as a privilege to serve,” Melinda stated.

Gyanankur students operating an old model of a computer
At Gyanankur, students learn how to use computers

The pandemic has posed an entirely new set of challenges. As soon as COVID-19 hit, Gyanankur had to shut its doors. Melinda narrated the wretched ramifications of the COVID-19 lockdown in India, on the students, their families, the teachers, the funding, and functioning of the school.

“Many of our parents have lost their jobs. We have kept all our staff on but have had to give only half salaries since March, which I find heartbreaking. Inflation is fairly high in India and food for a family of four is close to 2000 rupees.

“The staff are struggling to pay their rent and paying for data to work from home. We are doing our best to help the staff especially those facing difficult landlords. Even our school premises are rented from two brothers – one is much more supportive than the other. The staff who have mortgages now have had the mortgage moratorium stopped. Many of our school parents also lost work, and not to mention, health costs are high,” she expressed.

Parents receiving groceries donated through Gyanankur
Parents receiving groceries donated through Gyanankur

Some of the students do not have the luxury of electricity at home and others do not have mobile phones. Moreover, most of the teachers at Gyanankur do not have laptops. They have had to upskill themselves and teach online using their phones.

“Our staff also have faced a lot of challenges to connect to parents with constantly changing numbers, internet outages, power outages etc. However, I would say our staff have a solid connection to 80% of our students.

“We also collected funds in Pune and bought grocery parcels for some of our staff and many local families. We have always worked at being the Gyanankur family rather than just a place to work,” Melinda explained.

Underneath my simple answers there are a lot of complexities about dependency and charity, government and politics, systems and corruption, the right to education of every child and why public schools aren’t meeting the need.

READ ALSO: A Melbourne educator’s experiments with Gandhi

When Melinda Parker was 29, she was invited by some Indian leaders to run an adult education program. Since rote learning was the prevalent method of instruction, the popular style did not allow some children to perform well in school.

Melinda Parker distributes bouquets at Gyanankur in 2012
Melinda Parker at Gyanankur in 2012

The people she interacted with were not straight-A students, and gradually, she noticed that these Indian adults possessed an idle reservoir of important cognitive skills.

“This programme was based on enquiry and asking questions and I learnt during that time about the impact of the rote learning approach left by the British. I loved seeing adults who often didn’t do well in school realise how smart they were and develop critical thinking skills,” she expressed.

Besides having found a fulfilling purpose, Melinda Parker also met her husband, a fellow passionate educator, in India. The pair shared similar values of social work and volunteering which led to them staying back to work in the country. Towards the end of her work in India, Melinda’s journey took her to the steps of Gyanankur, a rural school set up by the father of a friend.

“I got into the school because a dear Indian friend whose dad started it asked for help. My experience at traditional Indian schools made me very passionate about the untapped potential of many young people, especially those from lower-income backgrounds who didn’t get an opportunity for quality education.

“I always want to do something to fight poverty, invest in people’s potential, and develop communities. At Gyanankur I see all the time the tremendous potential of the rural kids,” she expressed.

Gyanankur students stabnd in line, all dressed up for a school event
Gyanankur students dressed up for a school event

Currently, Melinda lives in Sydney as a part-time social worker and is a mother to two young adults. She explained that she finds it hard to help nearly as much as she would like.

“I know there is a lot more that can be done as our staff are all working very hard and I fear that the stress of doing all this from home, many on phones only, will wear them down.

“I also really want to stress our team in India are wonderful and are doing so much problem solving and creative thinking. I am a very small part of the team and I so want to honour each of them for the incredible work they do whilst facing their own challenges,” she said.

To donate to Gyanankur and help Melinda continue her work, click here.

READ ALSO: Toilets bringing social change in rural India

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Bageshri Savyasachi
Bageshri Savyasachi
Truth-telling, tree-hugging journalist.

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