A Journalist Turned School Leader Is Making Education Accessible In Punahana

A Journalist Turned School Leader Is Making Education Accessible In Punahana

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Baba Dev Khan Public Schoo

Tofeek Ahmad, Baba Dev Khan Public School, Punaha, Haryana

This school started a month before the pandemic hit us in 2020. And, just as things were looking up, the nation went into lockdown. There was no reason for this school to have survived. But it did and how! Things looked glum but Tofeek Ahmad, founder of Baba Dev Khan Public School, Haryana, thrived in the face of adversity. He changed his strategy, bounced back from the tragedy and made a positive change in enrollment and this was when the pandemic was in rage. He became a game-changer in his village, doing what no one could.

Tofeek Ahmad of Baba Dev Khan Public School

So, Mr. Ahmad, tell us a little bit of yourself and the journey that led you to open up a school in a small place like Punahana in Haryana?

I have degrees in TV Journalism, B.Ed from Jamia Millia Islamia University. My ambition was to become a Journalist, but my father always wanted me to try my hand at teaching. However, after completing my graduation, I took up a job in Haryana News as an Editor and Producer. During one of my assignments, I had the opportunity to visit Mewat district, where I was born. It felt strange to come back to a place that had changed dramatically since I left in 2007. 

Mewat, nestled in the foothills of the Aravalis, was facing high unemployment, and its health, basic infrastructure and education were all suffering. Only 2.37% of girls in grades 8 and up went to school, with 27% enrolling in grade 6 and 7 and 37% enrolling in grades 1 to 5. In 2001, nearly 43% of boys and girls attended school, rising the number to 53% in 2011. Later, the NITI Aayog also labeled this district as backward, stating that Mewat had low ratings in health and education but that there was room for improvement. This math blew my mind. This was the moment I realised that I didn’t need to be in Delhi; I needed to be in Punahana, a small village in the district. I wanted to change the way people led their lives here, how education was the most overlooked factor and how little attention was paid to it.

A school was established to serve Mewat and its young children. My father, who couldn’t study much but was always enthusiastic about education, and my brothers helped me make this idea a reality. We wanted to create a platform where every child, especially from low-income families, can get low cost education.

You studied journalism and could easily find work in the media if you wanted to. However, you have chosen to be a part of the vast education system, which will always be a never-ending learning field, even for school leaders like yourself. So, tell us Ahmad, what sets your school apart from the competition in that area and why do parents place such a deep trust in you that they send their children to your school?

Because we concentrate on infrastructure. We took our time strategically constructing a school that children would enjoy visiting every day. I wanted a unique look for the school building that would appeal to both parents and students. 

This is something I learned in journalism class. My professor used to say that no one wants to read boring page after page of content in a newspaper, but if the headlines are catchy, everyone will pick that paper from the lot. Same goes for schools. Quality teachers and education are equally important as quality building and infrastructure. It retains students. Parents will always want the best education for their children and will send them to school with the hope that it will meet their demands. However, if you are unable to ensure a high standard, they will find another school.

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So you started the school in early 2020, and then there was a lockdown in March. How did you deal with the stress that COVID-19 had placed on you?

It took a lot of effort for us to start the school in a place where no one was interested in getting educated. I was chastised for being an outsider, and our vision was widely overlooked. Then came COVID-19, and the problems multiplied. The negativity and discouragement took me down but I never gave up. We began going door to door to promote our new venture, explaining to each and every one of them how safe it was for them to send their children to our school, which strictly adhered to the government’s COVID-19 guidelines. But this wasn’t enough. We stayed in touch with them, became emotionally involved and assured quality. Finally, some of them put their trust in us. 

Varthana helped us retain that trust. They helped me gain the trust of parents, allowing them to send their children to my school while also engaging students in learning. Trust is built on the outcome and we have a reasonably strong infrastructure to show for it. We were also excited to use Varthana’s E-kinder program when it was first launched. It included activities that not only kept the child engaged but also helped their cognitive and social development. These types of fun activities, video-based learning, e-content and exclusive programs like Unlock School booklet, which Varthana had made available to us, were not available at any other school in the area. Now students were studying from home, free of cost. They were happy, so were the parents and so were we! Parents felt that not only was our structure strong, but our teaching method was exceptional. 

During the pandemic, we also created an online platform for students and unemployed youth called Mohalla Pathshala. A single Punahana block had 127 pathshalas where 567 students were being taught for free. Baba Dev Khan Public School took a novel approach that miraculously worked during the lockdown. And, we are still going strong!

 

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