This is a guest post by Alexandra Tsiolas, a college student at the University of Oslo, Norway. Alexandra visited an after school village kindergarten program in Mandya near Bangalore, India operated by Hippocampus Learning Centres (HLC). Alexandra also caught up with HLC’s CEO to hear more of his journey to starting HLC and what he is learning.
Walking into Hippocampus Kindergarten in Mandya town, Karnataka, India, I was excited and looked forward to spending the day at a Hippocampus Learning Centers venue. Talking to Umesh Malhotra, the founder of HLC, had given me a great deal of hope regarding the educational possibilities for India’s poorest. Education in India, especially in the rural areas, is of poor quality and close to half of the children drop out before completing school. Moreover, statistics show that a majority of fifth-graders lack basic literacy and mathematical skills.
Children from the poorest families naturally receive little support at home and tend to struggle at school. Initiatives such as HLC, gives an opportunity to all children to realize their best potentials and excel in school.
During my visit at the kindergarten, I met close to 30 energetic and clever children between three and six years old. I was greeted with an excited “Good morning miss!”, huge smiles and curious looks. The rest of the day turned out like a dream. Not only could the small children communicate in basic English, they knew the alphabet and the numbers by heart and we had great fun during play-time building lego-castles. The learning environment was warm, imaginative and apparently very effective. Of course, the teacher deserves much of the credit. The teacher was kind but firm and was a very good inventive educator. The walls were full of art and paintings made by the children as well as by the staff and were used to teach numbers, letters, shapes, colors, animals and so on.
It was fantastic to see how the children had developed confidence and took great pride in their talents and liked to show off.
At closing time, I met the parents who had come to the center to pick up their children. The happy faces and the relationship between the children, teacher and parents were indicative of a largely successful and effective kindergarten. There is no doubt that this initiative has provided the community with a tremendous help for the children growing up in this area. Healthy, happy children, learning in a playful creative manner must be the goal of education in all countries, throughout the world.
Interview with Umesh Malhotra, Founder and CEO of Hippocampus Learning Centres
AT: How did the idea to create Hippocampus Learning Centers take form?
UMESH: Well, back in 2003, after visiting and experiencing the libraries in the US, we thought that free libraries for middle-class and poorer children was really needed in India. So, we started setting up libraries across the Bangalore-area, which turned out to be a hugely successful project.
A few years later we realized that educational quality in India was very low and saw a need to do something about it. In 2010, after working hard with my team to develop a model for how HLC could work, we finally established the first HLC centers.
AT: Tell us about how HLC works and is organized.
UMESH: So, HLC is a basic after-or pre-school help center which provides the children with basic skills, support and training. We have a focus on offering a creative and resourceful learning environment, contrary to what many children may experience in the government schools. We have kindergarten centers, primary education centers for bigger children, and we’re working on setting up video-based coaching centers as well.
The monthly fee is affordable because our goal is to reach out to children from low-income families. Fortunately, a lot of parents have recognized that a budget to improve their children’s education is necessary.
A part of the HLC-model is that local women are trained and offered jobs as teachers. Thus, we provide them with a livelihood and empower them by giving them skills and opportunities. Currently, HLC employs 68 teachers and reaches out to over 1,000 children. We think HLC is a sustainable way of providing help to children who need support and guidance throughout their education.
AT: How did the investment from Unitus Ventures (formerly Unitus Seed Fund) impact your operations?
UMESH: Prior to the investment from Unitus Ventures (formerly Unitus Seed Fund), we had mainly been supported by individual angel investments. The investment from Unitus Ventures (formerly Unitus Seed Fund) gave us a great deal of confidence in the sustainability of the model. It feels good to know that our model is recognized as efficient and scalable.
Furthermore, the investment means that we now have resources to scale, and by June 2012 we are hoping to have 250 teachers, across 80 villages.
AT: You’re running a business focused on social impact – what is your motivation?
UMESH: Previously, I worked in Infosys and had very exciting jobs but the drive was purely money-oriented. Now at HLC, I wake up every morning feeling a buzz, eager to get up and get to work. I’m extremely inspired by my surroundings, my team and the cause we work for. It brings a feeling of satisfaction. After all those years working with a profit-oriented outlook, I guess I just asked myself: Who are you benefiting by doing what you are doing? When the answer was; “me and my life alone”, it was just not good enough. Something needed to change. I needed to work for more than myself.
AT: Do you think HLC has been a successful initiative?
UMESH: It’s still early stages as we are only in our second year of operations. Our assessments at the end of year 1 show that learning outcomes are good. Parents report that their child’s performance in school is better. The behavior of children has also improved. The teachers we have selected locally and trained have been successful in teaching the curriculum that we have developed.
AT: Do you have any stories of children from your learning centres?
UMESH: Sure, here are a couple of stories from our last school year.
Dakshayani from Kodipura village is 9 years old. She was socially inept, reclusive and had a speech problem. Four months after joining a HLC primary education centre (PEC), the transformation according to field staff is heartwarming. She stammers very little now, is happy and comes forward voluntarily to take part in class play acting.
13 year old Akash from Lokikere village is another PEC student whose reading skills in English and Kannada (the local language in their village) was very poor. After joining the PEC, he has moved up 2 levels in reading and is also beginning to speak English with confidence. His mother is delighted and is now an active campaigner to start more centers and encourage other children to join the PECs.
Generally parents report that children:
- Seem happier and are more talkative and outgoing
- Pay attention to neatness and personal hygiene
- Are more courteous in their behavior
- Are more active at home and not dull
- Are eager to go to school, more eager however to attend the centres in the evening
And parents are delighted that their children are learning English.
AT: Lastly, how do you picture HLC’s future?
UMESH: Once we have tested and proven our curriculum and the model, and we are happy with the learning outcomes and the impact we are having on education in these districts, we will move into other districts in Karnataka before we move to other states in India. In the future, we aim to be self sustainable and that our centres to be synonymous with enjoyable learning and quality education that is affordable and accessible to all.