The lone teacher

Meet Ushakumari, the lifeblood of a school in a forest settlement in south Kerala At 7 a.m., even before the sleepy Amboori village in southern Thiruvananthapuram is fully awake, R. Ushakumari begins her day. The only teacher of the Kunnathumala Agasthya Eka Adyapaka School (one-teacher school) inside the Agasthyavanam biosphere, she does not want to be late. A two-hour trek through a steep stretch of tropical forest takes her to the Kaani tribal settlement in Kunnathumala. The school functions between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and she handles all subjects for the 14 students from Classes 1 to 4. This has been her routine for 16 years. It was in 1997 that Ms. Ushakumari reached the settlement as a volunteer of the District Primary Education Programme, an educational initiative of the Kerala government started in the mid-1990s. Her task was to gather data on children who had dropped out of school and to motivate them to rejoin. Today, the residents of the settlement consider her one of their own. Till the time the school got a building in 2000, classes were held on rockbeds and under the shade of trees. When it rained or when she fell ill, she would stay with the tribespeople, as the daily trek was impossible. At present, 40 families regularly send their children to the school and most girls continue their studies and land jobs.

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