Planting a new tree of knowledge

Published May 18, 2007

Remember the old Little House on the Prairie episodes when Laura Ingalls and her siblings filled a one-room schoolhouse and learned lessons from young Miss Beadle?

In the new millennium of sparkling schools, computer labs and specialized classes, the 19th century approach seems antiquated.

In rural India, however, a unique one-teacher effort provides an education for more than 600, 000 students.

The grass roots movement popularly known as Ekal Vidyalaya receives support in India and the United States, and a local group will stage a multimedia fundraising concert Sunday at the India Cultural & Conference Center.

India's devotion to education drives members of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation. Since the country gained its independence in 1947, national leaders have made financing education a top priority.

Tampa physician Chandresh Saraiya, one of the organizers, noted that the cost of his entire education - even medical school - equals what he spent on a single year's tuition at his son's private school last year.

The result? A high-tech boom in the nation's major cities.

Yet in the rural and tribal areas, government-funded schools experience only limited success.

"In some places, the government has schools, but the children have a responsibility to take care of siblings or help dad and mom earn a living, " Saraiya explained. "School classrooms sit empty, and the school becomes defunct."

While the nation as a whole posts a literacy rate of more than 60 percent, tribal literacy languishes below 20 percent.

Ekal Vidyalaya bridges the gap. One teacher, usually a person from the village who doesn't have to overcome language and custom differences, guides children through basic math, reading and health lessons. Villagers help choose the teacher, who receives training.

"Some of us had the benefit of visiting the schools to see firsthand the impact they make, " retired radiologist and Tampa resident Ram Reddy said. "We returned a year later to see the kids, and they looked brighter and they looked smarter.

"The brains are there. It's just a lack of exposure."

And all that comes from one teacher working with the most limited of resources. Never mind a one-room schoolhouse - try a one-tree schoolhouse. Some of the lessons are taught in the shade of the tribe's largest tree or under a thatched hut.

The cost? One dollar a day.

That's right: The nontraditional schools operate on an annual budget of $365. Reddy estimates that about 92 to 93 percent of the money collected makes it directly to the schools.

The goal is to create 100, 000 schools by 2012, but what impresses me most is that many of the local organizers are natives of India who could simply enjoy the American life they worked so hard to achieve.

They choose to look back and help, instead of simply looking back and lamenting.

That's all I'm saying.

If you go

The Path to Peace Concert

When: Sunday, 5 p.m.

Where: Indian Cultural & Conference Center, 5511 Lynn Road, Tampa.

What: A benefit with dance, music and drama.

Cost: Adults $25, Children $15. Includes dinner.

For more information: www.ekal.org.