Shobha Balakrishna, Swarna Educational Society, Holenarsipura, Hassan
Shobha Balakrishna sat across from us, her eyes gleaming with a fierce determination. As she spoke about her journey, her voice quivered with emotion, and her words carried a weight of conviction that left us spellbound.
She told us about how her maternal grandfather had started the school back in the 80s, and how he had run it with a firm commitment to education and idealism. “But, due to various reasons, he had to retire and handed over the reins to me,” Shobha told us. She was married by then, with two children of her own. Her husband was always supportive of her dreams even when she completed her MSc post-marriage.
What inspired you to become a promoter of a school?
Her reply was simple yet profound. She told us about a dance tutor she knew, Ambale Rajeshwari, who had taught her children. Rajeshwari was middle-aged, with just primary education, yet was a Vidwat in classical dance. “She was a source of motivation for me. She had taught many children and was self-sufficient, and her dedication to her craft had left a lasting impression on me,” expressed the visionary leader.
Shobha currently serves as the Chairperson of the Swarna Educational Society, which operates several schools and a college in Hassan. These include Manasa Kids, Manasa Convent, Swarna High School (offering both Kannada and English medium), and Manasa PU college (offering Science, Commerce, and Arts streams).
Her maternal grandfather founded all of the above institutions in the 1980s, with the exception of the Science and Commerce streams at the PUC level, which were introduced in 2007.
Listening to her story, we realized that Shobha’s success was not just due to her hard work or her grandfather’s legacy, but also because of her fierce determination to overcome every obstacle in her path.
As she spoke, it was clear that the words “I can and I will” were not just a motto but a way of life for her.
Her passion for education is palpable, and it is evident that she sees it not just as a business but as a way of empowering the community. She talks about the various schools and colleges that the Swarna Educational Society runs, and how they are all focused on providing quality education to the children in the area.
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What challenges did you face during the initial days?
Shobha’s journey was not an easy one. The challenges she faced during the initial days were daunting and seemed insurmountable. But she was determined to make a difference and create a positive impact on the lives of the students who were under her care.
She had to start from scratch, with no knowledge or experience in the education field. But her passion and determination drove her to pledge her jewelry to raise funds with the help of her cousin brother, and start Little Flower convent primary school at Hassan. Even though she did not have sufficient knowledge in the education field, she ran the school along with 4 of her friends, and the school functioned successfully for 5 years.
Then, in 2006, Shobha said, “My grandfather approached me to take over his school. This was a completely new challenge for me as I was not aware of the problems that came along. Only after taking over the school, I realized the many problems that it faced, including lack of students, no vehicles, rented buildings, and not even primary documents.”
On top of that, she faced stiff challenges from the existing staff. Provident Fund dues had piled up, and this had become a legal issue. The headmaster resigned as soon as she took over. In a school that had in excess of 900 students, the HM issued TCs for nearly 800 students within a span of a week during the time of her taking over. The fact that her grandfather also had publicized his inability to run and intention to sell the school did not help. The school not adhering to prescribed guidelines laid down by the Government in terms of the medium of instruction being in Kannada up to 4th standard was also a problem.
Shobha was not deterred by these challenges. “I took them up as a challenge and faced them head-on. With the support of my husband and father, who was a Sub-Inspector, I was able to face the legal hurdles that came along the way.”
“I arranged for a vehicle for the students and purchased new furniture for the classrooms. It took me a few years to sort out all the issues, but I was finally able to do it.”
Today, Shobha can proudly say that her school has 1050 students, a major growth from the 190 students when she took over in 2006. “It has been 14 years since the school started, and I am more than satisfied,” she proudly stated.
How did Varthana enter into a relationship with the school?
She added “I had no intention of seeking loan funding. However, Varthana coincidentally contacted me in 2010-11. With the funding from Varthana, I was able to purchase land from internal sources and complete the construction of a three-story building. As a result, the student enrollment increased to 1000 by 2011. Prior to owning the land and building, the school operated out of rented premises with a monthly rent of Rs. 550. The previous building was small, with only 15-16 rooms with dimensions of 10ft x 10ft. Thanks to the support from Varthana, the school now has a full-fledged campus.”
What about the academic achievements of the school?
Shobha excitedly replied, “Since 2007, my school has consistently topped the Taluk and District. In 2021, it was even honored as the Best School by the District administration. The Education Department has commended our school’s administration and felicitated me. At the PUC level, the school has achieved a 100% pass rate.”
Venturing further, she added, “I have gained immense respect within my family, and most importantly, I feel proud that all of Hassan District recognizes not only my achievements but also those of my school.”
What features set this school apart from others?
With confidence, she replied, “The school environment is exceptional. I make sure to provide the best study materials to my students, personally testing them well before the start of each academic year.”
How has the pandemic affected you and the running of the school?
“The pandemic caused a setback in our operations. We faced difficulties in tracking our students and communicating with their parents. Our financial burden increased, and government decisions about school functioning had an adverse impact on us. We had eight school buses parked for nearly two years that required repairing, and we had to invest in new buses last year,” Shobha recalled the distressing situation.
“Online classes were not a perfect substitute for traditional classrooms, and I was unsure if they were being conducted properly. We still had to ensure timely payment of salaries despite having no earnings/sources. Building maintenance did not happen either. Meanwhile, I was living in Mysore and had to deal with personal issues for about three months when my husband contracted Covid.”
She continued on a positive note “I went back to work at the school after recovering from Covid. I hired new trainee teachers to help students relearn the basics. Last academic year, we focused on the fundamentals instead of stressing about the syllabus, and we are now back on track.”
Has the learning gap that arose during Covid been bridged?
She confidently answered, “Yes! The students are still enthusiastic about learning, and the sense of paranoia associated with Covid has dissipated. We conduct 2-3 events every month, ranging from KG level to 10th standard, and have been able to stabilize for the past 3-4 months.”
What kind of support was expected from Varthana?
Shobha reflected on her relationship with Varthana, stating that it has been eventful and sometimes challenging, with instances where she was unable to pay and the loan had to be restructured. “Later on, Varthana approached me with newer products, but I hesitated to venture into them, preferring to settle my existing loan first.”
She expressed that there is immense pressure from students, parents, and authorities, and that private bankers should provide some order and discretion in the recovery process. However, sometimes lines are crossed and people start shouting, leading to more stress. The leader appreciated Varthana’s understanding and rectification of this issue after Covid, and shared that she has almost settled the loan, which she is grateful for.
Regarding the current education landscape, she highlighted, “There are various avenues for Varthana to reach out to schools and students, given that students don’t have to be physically present in schools these days. The culture of students having to be physically present in schools should be reinvented, as technology like tablets and TV screens are prevalent and teachers are losing their proactiveness, resulting in students needing to download class recordings. This is detrimental to students, especially for those in rural areas, and it’s not financially feasible for tier 3 towns.”
She also proposed, “Varthana could collaborate with schools to devise plans to sort out these logistics, including training faculties and providing some sort of continuing professional education (CPE) for them. The quality of teachers has declined, with most of them completing B.Ed via correspondence courses, and the smart ones not willing to work in small towns for low salaries. Varthana could work on this issue with the schools.”
Despite everything, Shobha Balakrishna hasn’t let anything stop her from pursuing her academic interests. She shared, “I enrolled in a Ph.D. program three years ago, just before the pandemic hit, and have already submitted my research thesis. I’m now waiting for the results.”
Shobha is a highly motivated individual who refuses to rest on her laurels and is always eager to take on new challenges. She is a true inspiration!