Pratham Bay Area Gala Raises $375,000 for Education

14 Oct

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Legendary entrepreneur and venture capitalist Kanwal Rekhi was honored for his contribution to community service at the 2011 Pratham San Francisco Bay Area’s sold-out annual gala, held Oct. 8 at the Silver Creek Valley Country Club here, which raised $375,000 for India’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to education.

“Education made all the difference to our family,” Rekhi told India-West, noting that his father was the first person in his family to finish high school.

“I have given half my money away to education-related charities,” said Rekhi, who is estimated to be worth more than $500 million. “I was the lucky one to go to IIT Bombay, and now the entire next generation of my family has attended college,” he said in a pre-event interview on the terrace of the Country Club, which overlooked the vast vistas of the Silicon Valley.

“The tragedy of India is that we have not educated our children properly,” asserted Rekhi, noting that Vietnam and China have a 97 percent literacy rate, while India lags far behind with a 65 percent literacy rate. Expressing doubts about India’s new Right to Education act passed last year, Rekhi said, “I’m beginning to see the value of priva
te initiative in this sector, which is filling a void that the government has left.”

Rekhi was also honored by the Foundation for Excellence in 2010, to which he has contributed $5 million to be granted to low-income students who are in pursuit of a higher education.

Economist Rukmini Banerji, director of Pratham’s ASER Center – which annually tests 700,000 children in math and reading levels — told India-West about the success of an initiative launched last year, the Education for Education program, which offers comp
uter training to Pratham’s army of volunteer teachers who work with the Read India program to teach math and reading to low-income children in 47,000 villages across India.

In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, more than two million children participated in the Read India program, and Pratham expects to scale up its efforts and involve four million children in the Read India II program.

This year, the Education for Education program will layer on additional coursework in spoken English for its volunteer teachers who will receive classroom instruction, as well as access to downloadable files that stress correct pronunciation of words. Volunteer teachers will also receive access to a call center where they can chat with native English speakers for a few minutes each week.

Interestingly, said Banerji, finding people to teach English has been more challenging than finding computer instructors.

Also on the horizon is computer training outside of classroom environments, said Banerji, noting however that this new initiative is still in the preliminary stages.

In her keynote speech at the gala, Banerji noted that enrollment was not a problem in Indian schools since 95 percent of children are registered. “But how do we ensure that an 8th grade child gets an 8th grade education?” she queried.

Pratham works at the village level to find volunteer teachers, noted the Indian American educator, adding that the organization’s teachers usually teach in their native hamlets.

The next challenge is getting parents engaged in their children’s education even though they may be illiterate themselves, explained Banerji, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

During her presentation, Banerji used Cisco Telepresence to connect to children at a Pratham school in Delhi. In a heartwarming moment, the young children introduced themselves to the gala’s audience, and answered Banerji’s questions in English, sometimes breaking into giggles, before ending with a fast-paced version of Rollie-Pollie, a school game.

Pratham ambassador Yogi Patel gave an emotional speech, noting his own pathway from a poverty-ridden childhood in an Indian village to coming to the U.S. for his education in chemical engineering.

“My dad was an illiterate man,” said Patel. “We couldn’t study because there was no kerosene for our lamps,” he said in a quivering voice.

As he boarded the train from Anand village in Gujarat to Mumbai to catch his flight to the U.S., a family at the station bought the young man his first pair of shoes. Another family gave him shirts and pants so that he could go to college properly dressed, recounted Patel, who worked with Chevron for several years before embarking into the lodging business.

Four hundred million people in contemporary India can still only sign their names with a thumbprint, said Patel, asserting, “The most powerful tool in a country’s development is education.”

In March, Pratham received a $1.2 million award from the Skoll Foundation to identify and train a new generation of teachers and leaders.

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