Chennai: It’s nearing 5pm. Twentyone-year-old Sathya, who goes by just one name, briskly sweeps out puddles from a morning downpour and rushes to roll out mats on the terrace of her parents’ one-storeyed home in Vadanallur village, 75km from Chennai, to start evening tuition classes. Every weekday she settles down in a circle with about two dozen chattering 10-year-olds to teach them Tamil, English, arithmetic and science. Her friend Kavitha P. sits a few feet away on the same terrace and teaches 7-8 year olds.

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All these students attend primary classes at their village school during the day. But when a simple reading and writing test conducted by educational non-profit Association of India’s Development (AID) revealed the schooling wasn’t really making them educated, several parents agreed to nominate local youngsters such as Sathya to help out through after-school coaching.

The guides: (Top) Students at a centre run by the non-profit Association of India’s Development; (above) teachers at a training programme. Ganesh K/Mint

“Our goal is to ensure that children are able to read and comprehend Tamil and English, do problems in mathematics and understand concepts in science," says Ravishankar Arunachalam, joint secretary of AID. “It isn’t a tough-to-reach finish line, but the sad part is that even these normal expectations are not achieved by most children."

AID lays the blame on the one-size-fits-all curriculum favoured by state-run schools. Its tutoring programme, therefore, takes a more flexible approach to education, allowing teachers to deal with students individually and even sculpt their own content to make it meaningful.

The organization has set in place a structure that makes the flexibility work. A content team, working out of AID’s office on the ground floor of a bungalow in central Chennai, simplifies learning material and tests its usefulness before moving it to the teaching division.

“The challenge for us is to come up with something that is customizable by the village volunteers," says Chandra Anil, content head for pre-primary education at AID. “We give them scope to innovate but at the same time we have to give them some common content and objectives that they can use to bring out the intended outcomes."

Some 40 district programme coordinators take on the task of talking with parents to illustrate the gaps in conventional education through a basic reading and writing test for the children. They also assist parents to nominate teachers from the community.

Then there are 108 trainers who hold classes for the 1,000-odd teachers every two months, tutoring them in the basic curriculum devised by the content team. Each trainer is in charge of five villages, which they tour every week to monitor the programme, keep abreast of the modifications to the basic curriculum being introduced by teachers and suggest changes themselves.

Indeed, the more innovative teachers get to become trainers themselves, or even join the team that creates the curriculum and periodically coaches the group of 108 trainers.

Among them is Vijayalakshmi Raman, 24, who has studied up to class 12 and was hired as a teacher. She showed enough initiative in suggesting curricular changes to move up the ladder all the way to the content division.

On the first floor of a two-storeyed building opposite the Chengalpattu post office 60km from Chennai, Raman leads a Tamil training class for about 20 trainers. The innovative spirit that has brought her thus far is visible here as well.

Aware of the soporific effects of a post-lunch session on a rainy day, she starts off with a game of Unna yaaru ketta? (Who asked you?)

It’s a story comprehension game with a twist. Raman tells a story and intermittently throws out a question—not to be answered by the participant it is directed to but by the one sitting to the person’s right. As the game proceeds, some participants mistakenly blurt out the answers. The room is soon filled with laughter, and everyone is wide awake.

Such training sessions are held every two months, and goals are set for the teachers. Ahead of Raman’s Tamil training session, A. Tarnas, 61, a retired mathematics teacher, stressed the introduction to fractions as the goal for November and on like-fractions as the goal for December. In every session, trainers are asked for feedback, and the training process and curriculum are tweaked accordingly.

The feedback is crucial to ensure that the AID initiative doesn’t lapse into the same stiffness that bedevils the curriculum of state-run schools.

Earlier this year, for instance, AID developed a set of picture cards to go with matching word cards as part of an interactive learning activity.

Students who could read were supposed to hold up a picture card, and those with low reading skills were supposed to pair it with the corresponding word card.

The activity was a hit at tuition centres but teachers and trainers soon realised it wasn’t quite serving the purpose. Students who knew the words were holding up the cards, and those who didn’t were then matching it with picture cards. The students whose reading skills needed improving were not benefiting.

Balaji Sampath, founder of AID, says Eureka SuperKidz curriculum development and feedback process focuses as much on how not to do an activity as on how to do it.

“It is saying, ‘I don’t care what activity you have done, I want to know what skills your student has.’ And so, anyone can come and test that this child knows two-digit subtraction," says Sampath.

The teachers, he adds, are basically education researchers with a fixed goal. “They are not (highly) qualified educationists, but they have an orientation to look at alternate ways of teaching children."

“The growth of after-school classes shows that the existing school system is not meeting academic demands and parents do not have the power to change the workings of a school," says Amukta Mahapatra, director of Chennai-based SchoolScape, a content development group that also trains government school teachers. “The key is in providing activities to meet every child’s needs and that calls for individualization of content by teachers."

Each teacher is paid Rs400 a month by AID, in addition they charge each student Rs20 a month. Of the total, they pay Rs40 to their district programme coordinator. The student fee, although low, ensures attendance and parental involvement.

This payment by parents also lessens the burden on AID, which is struggling to meet the cost of running the programme: Rs50,000 per village per year.

Currently, individual donors to the Eureka SuperKidz programme support nearly 125 of the 445 villages covered, while the remaining villages are supported through previous donations to AID.Sampath is trying to cut down the content printing cost of Rs15,000 per village per year by trying to rope in a corporate sponsor or a low-cost publisher. This, he hopes, will at least help raise the teachers’ salaries. AID plans to launch the next phase of the initiative in the coming years, covering 2,500 villages, as well as introduce special teaching programmes for top performers.