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Pratibha Poshak Progress Report 2022

Primer


Pratibha Poshak is a talent search-nurture program for rural students based in Northern Karnataka in India launched by the Rajalakshmi Children Foundation (RCF), a NGO established in 2013. The program first began in 2017 and was expanded in scope upon receiving a FTX Future Fund grant in May, 2022.

In its current form, Pratibha Poshak identifies the top ~1% (n~200) of 8th grade students in STEM and analytical skills from 3 districts in Northern Karnataka who come from economically underprivileged families, defined as an annual income <$1800/yr (n~30,000).

These students are provided smart tablets+hi-speed internet packs and are connected in digital classrooms with highly-qualified and passionate teachers and professionally successful volunteer mentors for a period of two years. Students attend daily hour-long online classes in math, science, english and analytical reasoning (cohort sizes of 30) and weekly mentoring sessions (cohort sizes of 10). Classes are structured in a manner that emphasizes curiosity-driven and application-focused learning and are in addition to regular school. Mentoring sessions involve personal+career counseling and soft skill building. Bi-monthly in-person retreats are held to form stronger interpersonal relationships between students, teachers and mentors.

The ultimate goal of the program is to support bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their aspirations to pursue careers in fields like medicine, engineering, research, entrepreneurship and policy. 

The theory of change goes along the following lines. Post 10th grade, students in India have to choose a Pre-University (PU) college with a set track of study - between science, commerce and arts - with the choice of PU college and track having significant lock-in to future trajectories. Due to a lack of exposure and support, students from rural communities tend to significantly underestimate their potential and odds of success and many even drop out from the educational system. By identifying talented students during this ‘hinge’ period and nurturing their potential, we hope to enable them to pursue successful and high-impact careers.

Asks for Action, Advice and Feedback

Apart from increasing awareness on the work we are doing, I am writing this post with specific asks from interested community members. Below are some of the different categories of things we would appreciate and could benefit from (not an exhaustive list) -

  • Research : Are there bodies of literature or specific papers/models we should be engaging with as we proceed with the program? How could we best go about evaluating cost-effectiveness, considering some of the most relevant outcomes are either long-term (e.g. career outcomes are ~6yr+ away) or intangible/hard to quantify the counterfactual (e.g. aspirations raised from being a small business owner to launching a scalable startup)?
  • Collaboration : Are you or someone you know interested in collaborating with a digital school packed with 200 bright students? Some potential avenues include virtual guest lectures/series (especially if in Kannada which is the medium of most batches but we also have English batches), in-person events/retreats (would need to be in Karnataka), assistance with above research questions, or other avenues such as opportunities for scholarships for events/conferences/retreats for selected students in the program.
  • Funding : We had hoped to rely on the FTX foundation for multi-year support and had set the scale of the project accordingly. While we have resources to support the current batch, future batches might have to be scaled down unless we secure significant funding ($100k+). Suggestions/connections for large grants are very welcome. Individuals interested in contributing can do so easily (foreign currencies are accepted and donations are tax-exempt).
  • General feedback/advice/evaluation : E.g. could/how can we leverage recent developments in AI, broad or specific notes on things we could do/can do better/should avoid doing would be helpful. 
     

Background 

Rajalakshmi Children Foundation was founded in 2013 by two doctors Shashikant and Vijayalakshmi Kulgod (who happen to be my wonderful parents) with the mission of supporting the health, education, and overall development of underprivileged children in Belagavi, a district in Karnataka. RCF focused on developing deep relationships with local ‘government schools’ - run wholly on public funds, free to attend and generally lacking basic physical and teaching infrastructure - and working with them to provide funding, resources and services such as WASH facilities, libraries and labs, and anemia screening camps. The approach could be summarized as local-but-deep equitable interventions that seeked to increase the physical and cognitive floor of children. Currently, RCF is actively partnered with a cluster of 15 government schools and has intimate relations with city and district government teachers, officers and policy-makers.

Pratibha Poshak began with a collaboration between RCF and Dr Ravindra Guravannavar in 2017. Dr Guravannavar is a computer scientist and an ex-IIT professor who began voluntarily teaching science and math to students from select government schools in 2015. The students were self-selected as classes were held after-hours and were free to attend. In 2019, a dedicated learning center was established - Sadhana Mandir - where these self-selected students continued to attend after-hour classes and could learn independently and with each other. This program, called Sharadha Pratibha Poshan Upakram (SPPU), was able to continue even during the Covid pandemic through online classes. This provided motivation to scale up SPPU to serve communities from more rural and geographically inaccessible areas - Pratibha Poshak.

This next stage was facilitated by receiving a FTX Future Fund grant in May 2022. 

Implementation of Pratibha Poshak 

Team

Pratibha Poshak is directed voluntarily full-time by Dr Guravannavar and is led full-time by Dr Shivkumar, a previous professor in management studies. A group of 10+ high-agency and resourceful interns recruited from the first graduated batch of SPPU perform all operations and logistics.

Selection of Students 

At the first level, we use data from National Means-cum-Merit Scholarship Examination (NMMS) conducted every year by DSERT, Government of Karnataka. Only students having family income of less than INR 1.5 lacs ($1,800) per year and studying in Government or Government-aided public schools are eligible to write the NMMS Examination. The NMMS exam tests students on two axes - subject-level knowledge and analytical reasoning. We use a weighted average that emphasizes scores on analytical reasoning, shortlist the top performing students in each geographical area, and invite them to attend our briefing and selection event.

At the second level, we brief students and parents about the program and conduct an independent test where we teach a new mathematical concept and assess their ability to understand and apply the concept to solve non-trivial and practical problems. Students who score the highest as well as those who display unusual creativity in solving problems are selected for the program. These students are invited to the launch event for their geographic district where they are given smart tablets and SIM cards and are counseled, along with their parents, on the structure and needs of the program.

Finding Teachers and Mentors

In parallel, we conducted interviews for teachers to identify highly experienced, qualified and passionate teachers for math, physics, chemistry, english and analytical reasoning. An important requirement was for teachers to be fluent in Kannada, the state language of Karnataka, which was the primary language for most students. We expected teachers to possess strong first-principle understanding of their domains and be well-versed in communicating digitally. We ended up conducting many interviews to find individuals who fulfilled our criteria.

We also reached out to individuals in our networks who were successful professionals (e.g. Google employee, corporate manager at large multinational firms, chemistry professor) and were willing to volunteer to be weekly mentors to students for a period of 4 years. Mentors are expected to counsel students on personal and career development and provide some financial support to students.

Digital classrooms and in-person events

We were able to launch the first batch of 90 students along with 8 teachers and 9 mentors by mid-August in digital classrooms hosted on the platform TeachMint. The first bi-monthly retreat was hosted in mid-October. The second batch of 100 students was launched in mid-November. Classes have been well-received by students, have full attendance, and teachers report a high level of engagement by students.  Mentors have remarked on the motivation and aspiration of the students. One mentor noted that when asked about their career aspirations, answers ranged from wanting to work at SpaceX, being an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer and pursuing careers in medicine, engineering and research.

Expenses

There are primarily five sources of expenses for the program - 

Smart tablets : 40%

Teacher salaries : 30%

Team salaries : 15%

In-person events - Food, Transport, Lodging : 8%

Internet : 7%

It costs $120k to launch the first 200 student batch  and $50k to continue the program for that batch (total $170k). It costs slightly less to launch and continue Batch 2 ($150k). To launch and graduate two batches of 200 students (400 total), it costs $320k.

Future trajectory

Additional enrichment

We hope to start a guest lecture series consisting of expert speakers talking about cutting edge science and technology, anticipated opportunities and challenges of the future, entrepreneurship, cultivating agency and developing altruism. A constraint is that most students speak Kannada and although we are providing English classes, it is unlikely they will develop enough proficiency for information/technical-dense lectures in English to be useful.

We are optimistic about cohort network effects that come from being in a group of talented peers to offer powerful leverage to students going forward and hope to continue to build platforms and cultivate community and culture in the batches.

Evaluation

A natural outcome to measure one axis of effectiveness would be to evaluate the differences in NTSE scores (National Talent Search Exam administered to almost all 10th grade students across India that tests domain-knowledge and analytical reasoning) between selected students and shortlisted but not selected students. This data will be easily accessible to us in 2024 and will provide some feedback on the value of our program.

Expanding Scope

We plan to begin the process for selecting Batch 2 by March 2023 and launch the program for all districts by June 2023. If we are funding constrained, we expect to have to drop the batch size by 2x-4x (n=50-100).

Finally, we believe that if this model proves effective and we are successful in raising funds, we have the capabilities and are motivated to expand to cover the entire state of Karnataka within this decade.

Parting Remarks

On the merits of not-scaling

I’ve noticed a general sentiment in EA that believes effective charities are those that specialize in a particular intervention and attempt to radically scale in scope. While this is likely true, I don’t think the corollary is necessarily false - that charities that take a generalist and local approach are not as effective. Focusing on implementing broad interventions in specific geographies and populations over long periods of time builds valuable social and human capital, engenders trust and allows for insight into the complex nature of problems. These are benefits that don’t fit neatly into a GiveWell CE spreadsheet.

This local-but-deep base of RCF created valuable resources for Pratibha Poshak. A concrete example was in the seemingly simple process of acquiring the NMMS data that were used for the initial shortlisting. This data was extremely easy to acquire for the Belgaum district, where RCF is based, taking something like a few phone calls over a span of a couple of weeks. Getting the data from the other two districts turned out to be a Herculean task, requiring multiple in-person visits to government offices and wrangling with various contacts to grease the wheels of Indian bureaucracy. There were many such instances where the Foundation’s reputation, familiarity, and partnerships eased open doors.

Another concrete example is the huge asset that the team of graduates from the first small-scale program, whose familiarity with the area, high levels of agency and tech savvy, and dedication to the mission allowed us to be very strong on the operations front. We expect to be able to continue relying on such remarkable human capital.

Unexpected benefits

A potential benefit we observed that we had not anticipated was the immediate ripple effect amongst the peers of selected students. We heard from many sources that selected students invited their classmates to physically join in on classes and shared their learnings. Students in lower grades reported feeling more enthusiastic and inspired to take their academic prospects more seriously. 

Optimal timing

Finally, it is worth mentioning how various factors conspired to make the timing of the program ideal. The pandemic ensured that even schools in extremely remote parts of India had some exposure to digital learning and students and teachers were familiar with the technology. Recent telecom investments mean that India has the 5th cheapest Internet prices in the world (1GB = $0.17, source). India in the 21st century is also one of the best countries to run a talent search program - a large and relatively untapped population, an emerging economy with vast opportunities (and inefficiencies), and strong links to the rest of the world - all imply higher relative returns to raising the aspirations of talented young people.

 

Get in touch

Please feel free to get in touch by emailing rcfbgm@gmail.com. More information is available on our website - https://www.rajalakshmifoundation.in/home 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:18 PM

I am so excited about this project.