Home visits

Last month, we conducted home visits for the new applicants to the Education Outreach Program.

Those tin sheet/tarp/wood/cardboard structures are the homes.

Chatting with one of the mothers.

New applicant to the program (center).

Sikligar mothers, eager to discuss their children’s admission in the AIC Education Program.
* * *
One end result of the home visits last month? Naseem starts in our Ed Program tomorrow. Her two youngest siblings started in the nursery school a few weeks ago and she has been hanging around outside our gate every day waiting to pick them up. I have a good feeling about this girl. 🙂

The new school year in numbers

Here’s a little snapshot of life at the AIC Education Outreach Program since school started one week ago:
# of AIC students newly transferred to private or semi-private schools around the city this school year: 58 (English and Marathi-medium)
# of AIC students who require transportation to and from schools around the city every single day: 99, which means a LOT of rickshaw/van coordination!

# of notebooks distributed to students: 1,962 and counting

# of pens, pencils, erasers and sharpeners distributed to AIC students: Ummm, approximately a million?
# of new AIC nursery school students: 32, ranging in age from barely 3 to 6 and a half!
# of children on the waiting list to join the program: About 80 and increasing by 3 or 4 every day…

T minus zero

We are currently in the car on the way to Mumbai to drop Geeta off at the airport for her flight to the US – hooray for mobile technology!

Geeta, ready to leave!

Sangeeta’s farewell puja for Geeta’s journey

Saying goodbye to Aakash (the other kids were still at school and had said goodbye in the morning)


In the search for something to distinguish Geeta’s black suitcase from the 5 million other black suitcases at the baggage claim, Eric had the interesting idea of using stickers. Stickers left over from Rahul’s “Living/Non-Living Things” homework, to be exact. Though initially skeptical, I am fairly certain that Geeta’s bag will be the only one in the Newark airport plastered in Living/Non-Living Things stickers, so I suppose he has a point.

Driving to Mumbai

Safe travels, Geeta!

Just because…

…there’s no such thing as a bad time to share a silly Ramu (and Rahul) dance video.
(This video is from a recent trip to Chokhi Dhani, a farewell dinner arranged by an AIC family friend, Jim dada, before he left Pune. The kids had a fantastic time, but were sad to say goodbye…)

Six days and counting

Anyone remember this girl?
Well, this little Geeta of ours is not so little any more. In fact, in the 5 and a half years since she arrived here, we’ve been pretty blown away by how incredibly mature, compassionate and insightful she’s become.
And those days of speaking broken English? LONG over.
After much running around to government offices, Geeta is now the proud owner of a brand new Indian passport:

AND, after a harrowing few days at the US Consulate in Mumbai (seriously, I don’t know that I’ve ever bitten my nails so much in my life), last week Geeta received a student visa that will allow her to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy Summer Program, where she has been granted a full scholarship (!!) to attend the five-week program this summer.

I am so, so excited for her, and extremely grateful that the stars aligned to make this happen after our disappointment trying for Aakash last year. We’ve been so fortunate that everything was able to come together this year – government officials agreed to issue necessary documents, the passport came through in record time, the visa interviewer was compassionate and truly wanted to see Geeta have this opportunity, the Phillips Exeter Academy administration has bent over backwards to help us through this process in addition to giving Geeta a full scholarship, a very generous supporter stepped up to arrange for Geeta’s flight, volunteers and supporters around the US have come out of the woodwork upon hearing about the trip, offering to do anything they can…
[And for those wondering about what Aakash is feeling – you’ll be happy to know that he’s handling this well and is very excited for Geeta. He very graciously came to Mumbai for her visa interview, and has been supportive of her and helpful throughout this process. He has elected to skip 9th standard and take the 10th standard board exams externally this year, so he is knee-deep in studies at this point, and recognizes that it wouldn’t have been possible for him to try again this year anyway. We’ll see what kinds of opportunities come his way after his exams are over next spring, though…]
There is still much to do, and her departure date is THIS COMING FRIDAY. Oh yes, you read that right: in a mere SIX DAYS we will be putting Geeta on a transcontinental flight by herself. I feel like I should be nervous, or apprehensive, or something…but somehow, I’m not. I know that Geeta can hold her own and handle any new adventure that comes her way. Of course, I’ll still probably tear up a bit when the time comes to drop her at the airport, but only because I am incredibly proud of her and can’t wait to see how she takes this new experience and runs with it.
Six days and counting…

Mid-week photo blitz

Here are some photos from the tailoring + jewelry-making class that we started for the older girls in the Education Outreach and Residential Programs during their summer holiday. The girls have been having a great time learning to use the new sewing machines to make an assortment of mini sewing projects, as well as really incredible jewelry (see photos below). But perhaps the coolest aspect of the class – at least from my perspective – is the friendships that are developing between the Residential girls and the Education Outreach girls. In the month since the class started, they’ve become quite a tight-knit group!












Naseeb

Yesterday was Day #2 of admissions at AIC. It was also probably one of the most exhausting days we’ve had in a while.

We had (foolishly) assumed that upper standard (non-nursery) admissions wouldn’t take too long, and had planned to set up camp in the Health and Community Centre from 1-3pm to take down information about children seeking admission into our program for all standards higher than nursery. [Ha. Hahahaha…]
By the time we arrived at 12:30 to set up our computers and meet with Rashmi to review the procedure, the entire 2-story stairwell was completely packed with parents and children, many of whom had been waiting since early morning for their spot in the line. By the time we started calling the parents and children in at 1, the line was out the door and filling the alley next to our building.
Needless to say, we quickly realized that there was no way that we were going to be finished by 3, and we were right – we said goodbye to the last sets of parents at 7pm. Over the course of our nonstop-six-hour-long admissions marathon, we talked with and took down information about a dizzying assortment of children and their parents. Sadly, there will not be space in our program for most of them, so we will soon begin reviewing the list and paring it down to the neediest and the most likely to benefit from our programs, with preference given to girls.
One girl whose situation truly broke my heart yesterday was that of 11-year-old Naseeb, the oldest of her parents’ five children.

Naseeb is not enrolled in school (nor are her 9-, 8-, 5-, or 3-year old siblings) and spends her days helping her mother with roadside metalwork. In the Sikligar community, it is exceptionally rare for women to work outside of the house due to strict cultural taboos, but Naseeb’s mother explained (through tears) that her husband is an abusive alcoholic who stopped providing for the family years ago, and she has had to take over the traditionally male-oriented occupation of metalwork to support her children. She earns, at best, Rs 1,500 ($35) per month, which her husband also dips into to pay for his alcohol habit.
Going through the typical admissions questions for Naseeb and her younger siblings, it became apparent just how heavy the burden that Naseeb carries truly is, as her mother detailed Naseeb’s role working alongside her in a dangerous, often injurious trade, taking care of the younger children and helping with the housework. When we asked who would pick up and drop off the four younger children from the AIC Education Centre each day, Naseeb’s mother said that Naseeb would do it, as she (the mother) cannot take time away from working, and her husband cannot be trusted with the children. When we asked about medical problems, Naseeb’s mother mentioned that Naseeb often suffers from dizziness and faints. When we asked how many meals the family eats per day, the mother confided quietly that there had been no food in the house all week, and the last time any of them had eaten was two days earlier. When we offered the children food, Naseeb’s younger siblings ate the chapatis and bhaji hungrily, but Naseeb hung her head in shame and wiped back tears, while insisting that she wasn’t hungry and gave her portion to her baby sister.
We see poverty and desperation on a daily basis in this line of work – heartbreaking stories, inconsolable tears, medical conditions could have been prevented – you name it, chances are good we’ve been confronted by it. And yet somehow, this girl and the weary, downtrodden look in her eyes struck a unique chord with me. While we haven’t narrowed down the admissions list yet, I will certainly be advocating for Naseeb’s spot on the list, because I see so much potential in her uncomplaining selflessness, hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice. And although she’ll be getting a late start to her education, I believe that, with our support, she will go far.

Admissions

Wednesday marked the beginning of AIC’s nursery school admissions process…

Rashmi, Aakash and Eric, discussing a child’s application with his mother

There is more admissions excitement still on the horizon, but in the meantime, here is a sneak peak of some of our possible upcoming nursery students:

More updates soon!

An Earth Day Creation

[Erm, yes, I am aware that Earth Day was LAST month. Ooops. Hoping I still get points for better late than never?]

Lots of more recent things to post, but I wanted to get these gems up on the blog first, even though they’re a tad late. Partly because they’re just nice pictures, and partly because – wow – can we talk about how adorable/awesome it is that our soon-to-be-16-year-old, Sanjay, spent his afternoon creating an Earth Day watercolor painting on canvas for the occasion?? It seems like so many kids his age, especially boys, wouldn’t be into Earth Day, and wouldn’t think it was “cool” to paint a picture about taking care of the Earth…I don’t know, maybe I’m just jaded about “kids these days,” but all I can say is that I love that Sanjay is so earnest and enthusiastic about everything that he does.

Sanjay with his masterpiece. He’s been really into watercolors recently.

A close-up of Sanjay’s painting.

And another close-up.

May I take this opportunity to mention that, in addition to being an aspiring artist, Sanjay is also an excellent student, inordinately athletic, an awesome big brother to the littler ones? He really gives “well-rounded” a whole new meaning.

He’s also probably going to be totally embarrassed to read all of the mushy things I’m writing about him (he is almost 16, after all…), but oh well. Sanjay, you’re great.

IEPs, Chickenpox and Birthdays

[Alternate title for this post: How NOT to Have a Relaxing Weekend.]


It is Sunday night and I am looking around, wondering where on earth the weekend went.
Saturday was a blur of meeting with teachers, non-stop (ok – full disclosure – we did take a 5 minute bathroom break midway through) from 10am until 6:30pm. Eric, the AIC teachers and I began the arduous process of going through literally every single student in the Education Outreach Program and writing end-of-year reports (IEPs) about them. In some cases, it was one-on-one with an individual class teacher, in other cases (such as the nursery classes, which are team-taught by 4 teachers) there were many voices to chime in, as well as consideration of the reports from the volunteers, formal school reports and AIC student evaluations.
In the reports, we discussed and noted down information about each child’s academic progress and performance this year, individual strengths and weaknesses, family issues, attendance, and a variety of other things, focusing primarily on what changes (if any) need to be made this coming year to make sure that we are meeting each child’s individual educational needs as thoroughly as possible.
In some cases, the plan for meeting the child’s academic goals the next year was straightforward – promotion to the next standard in the same school and continuation of normal services through AIC programs.
In other cases, we will be making changes to fine-tune our support for these students and ensure that nobody falls through the cracks – separating trouble-making trios into different tutoring classes (and in one case, different schools), remedial tutoring time for some children, investigating medical issues that the teachers have observed, taking children for ongoing counseling with therapists, working to advance (older) child ahead multiple grades at a time, holding some students back to repeat the academic standard again, changing a few children from Marathi- to English-medium education, and others from government schools to private schools. It was definitely heartening to see how many of our government school students our teachers could wholeheartedly and confidently recommend for competitive private school admissions – especially the girls! Now we have to try to finagle some spots in the schools…
So that was basically all of Saturday. And we only finished planning for about half of our students! The rest of the meetings will take place this week. Whew.
Oh, and before that even started – on Saturday morning, we noticed that the few mosquito-bite-looking red spots on Ramu’s arms and chest from Friday had suddenly morphed into many unpleasant-looking raised welts overnight. Oh yes. Ramu has chickenpox. And ours is a family of children with dubious varicella vaccination histories (um, probably none of them, to be perfectly honest) and only vague recollections of childhood illnesses (“I think maybe I had itchy bumps once when I was really little? I dunno…”), so it is entirely possible that Ramu’s little chickenpox episode is in the process of developing into a full-blown AIC Residential Program epidemic; only time will tell!
It could be worse though, and Ramu has been pretty happy running around in only his underwear all weekend (wearing clothes makes his welts itch); just another little kink to make the weekend more…interesting. To round out the weekend, we also had a fun little appointment for Tushar with the oral surgeon, Rahul’s consultation with the periodontist and visits from the welder/electrician/carpenter/washing machine repairman. AND, to top it off (but in a good way), we celebrated Pooja’s birthday today!
Lots lots lots going on here. Sometimes I need to remind myself to stop and catch my breath or it’s easy to get steamrolled along through the craziness. But life is good. Busy, but good. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish my To Do list wasn’t perpetually 4 pages single-spaced. Or that the day had 30 hours instead of only 24. Or that weekends didn’t whiz by with no change of pace or opportunities for down time. But stepping back for a moment – writing end-of-year reports for the Education Outreach students and watching the list of high achieving students’ names grow in front of my eyes or celebrating birthdays for the Residential kids and reflecting upon how they’ve grown and how far they’ve come – everything comes into focus and the extent of what we’ve actually accomplished becomes clear.
Aaaand on that note, it really is time to get to bed before the start of another manic Monday…
Happy weekend from AIC!

Normally they’re football fans…

…but last night, our Residential kids were transformed into cricket fanatics! Along with their 1.2 billion fellow citizens (literally – I kid you not – you could have heard a pin drop on even the largest highways in Pune last night), they were mesmerized by the India-Sri Lanka ICC World Cup finals.
Their despair at not having a TV to watch the game on mounted as the night went on and the game became closer in score. They started the afternoon off glued to the radio (the volume wasn’t working properly, so their ears were actually pressed to it), then changed tactics and started following the live scorecard on ESPN.com with occasional peeps over the fence to watch from the neighbor’s TV through the window. When the match had come down to the last 20 balls, they begged to run down the street to the barbershop to watch the end of the game:


And, in case you don’t follow cricket or don’t live in India (yes, those two were pretty much mutually exclusive last night), the winner was….

Chak de!

Academic-y Updates

We secured Rahul’s admission yesterday at the same school that all of the other Residential kids (and 11 of the Education Outreach kids) attend. Admission in all standards higher than kindergarten at this school has been closed for years because there’s such high demand and thus there are never any empty spots to fill. So, yey – HUGE VICTORY!

Rahul will be going into 3rd standard, which is still a couple years behind, age-wise, but this particular school has always been great about helping us work with our kids to allow them to skip 1 or more grades at a time if they are capable of doing so. So the bottom line is if he works hard this coming year, he can advance quickly. [I just told him about his school admission and he’s currently upstairs, learning number spellings and writing away furiously in preparation…cute.]

* * *

We have just finished conducting end-of-year evaluations for the kids in our nursery program – ha. These are a riot. Videos are forthcoming.

Based on the evaluations, teacher feedback and a wide range of other factors, we will be dividing the kids into three groups – those who will move up to lower kindergarten (LKG), those who will stay behind and repeat another year of nursery, and those who will be in an accelerated kindergarten class (combining the two years of kindergarten into just one). The majority of the students will be moving up to regular kindergarten, but there are certainly some who will need to do another year of nursery. Many of the kids in the repeat-nursery group didn’t start nursery school this year until after Diwali, and some started as recently as January, so they will greatly benefit from another year in the nursery class.

On the other end of the spectrum, we were excited to see the rapid progress of some of our older (5-7 year old) nursery students and will be putting them in the special accelerated class so that they can move up to 1st standard a year from now instead of having them spend two whole years in kindergarten.

* * *

There is only a one-week summer holiday for the students in the Education Outreach Centre this year. This is a first for us – in past years we’ve always given the students and teachers 4-6 weeks off, but we’ve decided to get a head start on the upcoming year’s syllabus over the summer. Not to worry, though, we’ll also be running some activities and extracurricular programs for them, so it won’t be all work and no play. 🙂

The reasoning behind this decision is basically that AIC students come from such disadvantaged backgrounds and family situations that we feel it is necessary to give them a bit of a running start to the school year, if you will. Additionally, with the increasing food insecurity problems we have been noticing in our students’ homes recently, we know that closing the Education Centre for more than a month will result in many, many of our students going hungry during that time. So we’ll have a shortened summer schedule (10am – 6pm instead of the usual 5:30am – 7pm) to balance everyone’s (directors and staff included!) desire for a break from school with the need to continue to support and stay in daily contact with our Ed. outreach students for the duration of the summer.

Also, there is so much to get done in the coming weeks! On the never-ending To Do list right now: working on planning the school and tuition schedules for the centre starting in June, prepping the students for scholarship exams and admission interviews, finishing 10th standard distance learners’ board exams, hiring new teachers, resigning contracts with our current teachers, parent meetings, developing IEPs for each and every one of the students, revising and updating student files, handling new Ed outreach program admissions (we’ve had almost daily inquiries about new program admissions since December), sorting out birth certificates for our document-less kiddos (which is oh, basically all of them…), going through all of the books and educational resources to sort and inventory, and so much more. AND, to top it all off, we have to move into the new Education Outreach centre, which will be another entire project in and of itself!

Whew. Just re-reading all that needs to get done by June makes me tired. But one step at a time, slowly, everything will come together – it always does. And for such great kids, it’s hard to argue that the long days and late nights aren’t worth it, right?


Merchildren

The Residential kids have been studying nonstop for several weeks now. They attend school from 7-10am, come home and study from 10:45 – 11:45am, break for lunch, study from 1-3pm, break for snack and then study from 4:30-6:30. And, if it’s a Friday night, they have their regular Hindi/Marathi study time with Sangeeta after dinner from 8-9:30 (Oh yeah, we know how to do Friday nights here at the AIC home!). Final exams start this week and will continue for almost 2 weeks, so we’ve been living and breathing practice worksheets and revision questions for days on end.

But NOT TODAY!

*Awesome lunch/snacks and afternoon of swimming at the pool courtesy of Jim dada. (THANK YOU JIM DADA!)

**Awesome underwater photography courtesy of volunteer Kalya didi’s cool camera.