Our First Year at Central Square Foundation

January 3, 2013 by Ashish Dhawan, Central Square Foundation

Dear Friends of Central Square Foundation, Earlier this summer, I stepped down from my full-time role at ChrysCapital and founded the Central Square Foundation, a philanthropic fund focused on providing excellent education to children from socially and economically disadvantaged families. I have loved every moment of my second career – the meetings with passionate social entrepreneurs, the smiles on the faces of school children, the hopes and aspirations of parents, the occasional interaction with an inspiring teacher, and the conversations with committed bureaucrats. I am now convinced that systemic change in education is around the corner. Our aspiration is to be the hub (much like the “central square” in a town) for the reform movement. As this year comes to a close I wish to thank you all – friends and well wishers of the Foundation – for your support and share with you the exciting journey and key milestones we have achieved so far. We have made our first few investments (all nonprofits), hosted public forums for International education reformers in India including Sarah and Gordon Brown (Former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Education), created platforms to sensitize journalists to education reform issues and for school leaders to share best practices amongst themselves. We have also been featured in Forbes magazine. I am excited to share a little bit about some of our more innovative investments here. School leaders, like leaders in any organisation, are the highest point of leverage for transforming schools. I was astonished to know that our country with 1.3 million schools, arguably the largest education system in the world, had no institution for developing great school leaders. India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), a Central Square initiative in partnership with Akanksha, Teach For India and KIPP (USA) is an attempt to fill this gap. The ISLI programme is inspired by leading international school leadership models such as KIPP, New Leaders and NCSL (UK), but with the content completely contextualised for India. The first cohort will start in May 2013 and will train school leaders through experiential learning over the course of a year. We believe that technology can be a game-changer in education. The Central and many State governments are now giving out Aakash-2 tablets and laptops to school students. However, without high quality content on these devices and teachers trained on integrating them with their lessons, this investment in technology will have little impact on children’s learning. There is a need to experiment with blended learning models that integrate technology into schools to see what works best for first generation learners. Mindspark Learning Centres in Delhi, in partnership with Educational Initiatives, is a step in this direction. Our other investments so far are developing excellent English-medium school networks with 3.2.1 Schools and the Akanksha Foundation in Mumbai, and a pilot with Khan Academy for dubbing their videos in Indian-accented English to make the content easier to understand for children with limited English proficiency. As we’ve gone around meeting over a hundred education organisations during the course of this year, we’ve seen many models of excellence out there, but limited sharing of knowledge in the ecosystem. This spurred us to partner with Centre for Civil Society to create a best practices sharing platform, the NISA School Leaders Summit, for affordable school principals, which attracted nearly 150 participants from across the country. Recognizing the need to bring international best practices to Indian education, I spent the summer visiting several education nonprofits and foundations in USA and UK to study and learn from the reform choices these countries have made. During my visit, I realized that many internationally recognized education reformers are interested in India, because of the Indian education system’s massive scale and complexity. At the Central Square Foundation, we have taken the lead in hosting some of these prominent educational reformers – Norman Atkins, co-founder Relay GSE (a new Teacher Training effort); Mike Feinberg, co-founder KIPP Schools (the largest charter school network in US that provides high quality education to 40,000 low income children) and John Danner, co-founder Rocketship Education (a leading network of blended learning schools) – on their India visit. We also hosted a dinner for Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America on her recent visit to Delhi. We hope that learning from other reform movements will help us leapfrog in our own reform efforts. As we all know, policy is the strongest lever for change and for maximising impact. Research-based evidence is essential for driving robust policy decisions. We have begun a series of initiatives to bring more information and data into education policy making, including:

  • a series of workshops for media people on various reform issues in partnership with NUEPA (National University of Education Planning and Administration)
  • a landscape report on Education Technology, based on secondary research and our interaction with over 100 organisations in India and abroad, to be published in 2013
  • an open web-based data platform that will create greater transparency by aggregating education related data – including expenditure, input data and learning outcomes – in partnership with CCS to be launched in 2013.

I spoke at the 2012 New Schools Conference in California and was overwhelmed by the presence of over 500 social entrepreneurs who were at the centre of the education reform movement in the US. In India, we only have a small group of such reformers and so there is an urgent need to seed the reform movement with the next generation of education leaders. At Central Square Foundation, we are committed to incubating innovative nonprofits that will strive to create new models of excellence. The status-quo is no longer an option. Our nation is at risk and we need to act now. Passionate about the difference I wished to make, brimming with the willingness to learn, I teamed with a group of equally committed individuals who form the Central Square Foundation. Our professional team is extremely committed to “raising the bar” so that one day all Indian children will get a great education. Please join us on facebooktwitter and linkedin, so we can update you of our progress and solicit your feedback. Furthermore, I plan to write to you in this format on a quarterly basis. The Central Square Foundation team joins me in wishing you a very happy 2013 and we look forward to your continued support in the New Year.


Ashish dhawan signature

Ashish Dhawan