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Shadab Hassan turned down a corporate career to start a village school

H.H. High School, deep in the hinterland of India's Jharkhand State, transforms children's lives through education.

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    Shadab Hassan (surrounded by students) founded H.H. High School, where experts help teach the village children via Skype.
    Courtesy of Pritesh Gupta
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Salomi Tigga sells hadiya (a local rice-based beer) so that she can send her grandchildren to school. To Hamid Hassan High School, to be precise.

Her son and daughter have shown little interest in helping their children, so it is left to Ms. Tigga to feed and educate her grandchildren. And she does it because she thinks this school is the only hope the children have of getting ahead in life.   

Deep in the hinterland of Jharkhand State in India, in a village called Brambe, about 20 miles from the city of Ranchi, H.H. High School is a powerful beacon of light that is trying to banish the darkness of illiteracy and transform the lives of several hundred children.

H.H. High School was set up by Shadab Hassan and his father and mother on Jan. 16, 2010. Mr. Hassan was then just 25. A year before that, Hassan had graduated from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, one of India’s elite institutions. Armed with a degree in business management, he could have joined leading telecom companies Vodafone India or Tata Teleservices, from which he had received job offers. Instead, he chose to go back to his village and educate children there. That decision has changed the trajectory of his life and others’ forever.

His father, Shahid Hassan, must be credited for setting Hassan on this path.

“Dad struggled a lot during his childhood. His family was poor and could not afford to send him to school,” Hassan says. “Still, he worked his way through school by selling balloons and candies. Finally, he ended up becoming a professor in psychology. His life has been a great inspiration for me.”

Setting up a school was, in fact, his father’s dream; he did not want other children in his village to go through a similar struggle to receive an education.

However, drawing children to the school turned out to be anything but easy. Hassan and his team have had to fight an entrenched mind-set among the villagers, who’d rather send their children to work in the fields or in a store than to learn in school. Grinding poverty is the main reason: When merely surviving day to day is a challenge, education for children becomes a luxury.

One of the first things Hassan did was begin a campaign called Reach2Teach. Accompanied by his mother and friends, he went door-to-door around Brambe and the nearby villages, urging villagers to send their children to his school. Education could be a life changer, his team pointed out. They also told local people about the low fees to attend the school (at that time, it was about $1.60 per child per month).

The campaign bore heartening results. On the day the school opened its doors, 80 children were enrolled. Hassan’s mother served as the principal. With six teachers, the school offered classes from nursery to eighth year (today, it offers classes up to Year 10). The school was named Hamid Hassan High School in memory of Hassan’s grandfather, who had fought in India’s struggle to free itself from Britain.

For Hassan’s parents, it was an intensely proud moment.

“It had always been our dream to set up a school in our village – to begin a small movement of change. We were extremely happy that it had come true,” recalls his father. His voice betrays only a hint of his emotion.

The school offers an education that goes beyond textbooks and which draws from the expertise of people from around the world. Using Skype and Google Hangouts, it gets some of the best minds in the world to teach the students. Once, an engineer at Intel Corporation explained microchips to the children. Another time, an oil engineer from Kuwait demonstrated the process of oil extraction.  

The students love these long-distance lessons. They attend school unfailingly and hang on their teachers’ every word as if their lives depended upon it – and perhaps that is true.

They also throw themselves into every activity at school. Since most of them come from lives of poverty and misery, they find the school to be a refreshing change.

Hassan and his team realize this. That is why they have peppered the school’s calendar with games, festivities, competitions, and outings – along with the academic lessons, of course. Classes are taught mainly in Hindi (the local language), though English is taught as a subject.

Though the school is focused on showing and teaching empathy, the children are not spoiled. Hassan, his mother, and the other teachers try to instill character and self-discipline in the children. The idea is to engage both the minds and hearts of the children and mold them into well-rounded individuals.

Goonj is a respected nonprofit organization in India that does a lot of work providing clothing for the poor, as well as working on the issues of waste management and recycling. Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, believes that H.H. High School is doing something beautiful.

“It is addressing a vital, but neglected section of society,” says Mr. Gupta, who has been observing the school’s work for the past few years. “They have made a good beginning. A lot more needs to be done now.”

However, Hassan has shown fortitude, resilience, and vision that are far beyond his years in overcoming obstacles. In the beginning, when he did not have money to even buy benches and desks for the school, he rented them. When he could not find enough good teachers, he persuaded some of his friends to become teachers.

Finding that many villagers could not pay even the low monthly fee, he reached out to donors through Facebook and urged them to sponsor the children’s education.   

In the five years since the school opened, word has spread far beyond Brambe. The mind-set of the villagers has changed quite a bit, too, because they have seen how the school has given their children’s lives new meaning. Children from H.H. High School regularly win contests conducted by other schools and organizations. Recently, two of them gained admission into well-regarded St. Xavier’s College in Ranchi.

“Children come to us from broken families, poor families with alcoholic men,” says Sourabh Kumar, a teacher at the high school. “We are trying to mold them into good, compassionate human beings. At the same time, we are equipping them for a good career, too.”

Endorsement for the work of the school has also come in the form of awards. In 2012, Hassan won the Yuva Prabodhan Award, instituted by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a former president of India. More recently, Hassan received the Karmaveer Chakra Award, an award given by REX, a nonprofit mission that recognizes “ideas in action.”

None of this would have been possible without the unstinting support of his family and friends. Hassan’s mother handles the back-end work at the school and guides its progress. She leaves the more energetic duties to her son and his young friends.

In the next few years, Hassan and his parents want to set up a college as an extension of the school.

Funding remains a challenge. Since the school charges a very low fee for each child, and teaches many children free of charge, it is a struggle to meet expenses every month and fund the development of the school.

Still, Hassan is hopeful.

“I believe that if you need help, you should just reach out to people,” he says. “And help will come. It has happened to me before. It will happen again.”

• To learn more, visit http://bit.ly/BrambeHighSchool.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help people in India:

Greenheart Travel provides cultural immersion programs that change lives, advance careers, and create leaders. Take action: Volunteer and learn in India.

Child Family Health International offers community-based health education programs for students and institutions. Take action: Volunteer in India’s Himalayan region.

Globe Aware promotes cultural awareness and sustainability, helping communities prosper and not need to depend on outside aid. Take action: Help fight poverty in India.

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