Agatha Thapa

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Nepal
Fellow Since 1989
Seto Gurans National Child Development Services
This description of Agatha Thapa's work was prepared when Agatha Thapa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Agatha Thapa is a Nepali who taught primary and secondary grades in Lalitpur in the 1960s and early 1970s, and who has since founded two pre-primary schools and an organization that introduces, champions, and helps others take up pre-primary child care and educational reforms. Her focus is on poor mothers and their children.

The New Idea

Young children need intelligent, supportive stimulation if they are not to fall behind even before first grade. Agatha has been developing practical ways for poor mothers and society to provide such stimulation, despite Nepal's financial inability to pay for any new preschool program of significant scale.Her initiative, "Entry Point," is a culturally adapted pre-preschool program for poor children aged one and a half to three years old. Almost entirely self-supporting financially, it requires the mothers of these young children to take responsibility by forming rotating teaching teams of three or four.Agatha's "Seto Gurans National Children Development Services Centre," which she founded and directs, provides each of the rotating teams of mothers with a box of prototype exercises, most designed by Agatha, and easily duplicated from commonly available wastes or agricultural by-products. During their rotation in charge of the center, the responsible group of mothers uses its set of materials to challenge and stimulate the children. When their turn is over, another group with another box takes over. Only the children of participating mothers can enroll.Agatha has demonstrated in a good many villages that her idea does work. She's now struggling to create adequate incentives to ensure the model's spread and long-term viability. In addition to the missionary work she and her colleagues will undertake, she envisions the child care centers for children aged 3 to 6, which she developed and spread earlier, giving admissions priority to Entry Point's local graduates.Agatha is also thinking of how to get the Forestry Department, banks, and others to recognize the contributions and capacity of the participating mothers by giving them priority access to their respective services. Agatha is also having to struggle with helping these child care centers gain new support now that the UN is withdrawing and the Nepali Government cannot step in.Agatha has also begun impacting the problems poor children face in the first grade, where most of them now fail. Her two preschool programs should help as they spread, but even so she feels that the materials used in first grade create unnecessary barriers for poor children. Agatha has begun creating new readers using familiar, and thus more readily absorbed, vocabulary and subject matter. She intends to weave into it useful topics, such as hygiene. She also is developing early childhood development field training picturebooks for illiterate mothers and a teacher training program for her pre-primary centers.

The Problem

The typical Nepali mother works eleven hours a day. She is consequently forced to leave her children unattended or in the care of only slightly older siblings much of the time. In some cases, such as if her house is near a dangerous cliff, she may feel compelled to restrain an infant with a cord when she is away gathering fuel or hauling water home.As a result, her child, left to play in the dirt, gets far less stimulation than a more privileged age-mate. This deprivation provides much of the explanation for the extremely high first grade failure rate (40 percent even of those who do start school in Nepal) and ultimately for the failure of the children of the poor to escape their parents' fate.

The Strategy

To succeed, Agatha must meet two challenges. First, she must develop institutions and methods that truly can stimulate and enrich the children of the poor. Second, she must find how to reach roughly one million such Nepali children. She is working on both parts of the puzzle.When she left traditional teaching, she started "Seto Gurans," a preschool for untouchable children with no educational prospects. Over several of what she describes as her most satisfying years, she created an institution whose graduates are succeeding in good schools. Ever since that time, she has been developing new methods and materials. She is also expanding the age group with which she works, extending from one and a half years old to the first grade of primary school.She has had some success with the second challenge, although it has proven more difficult. The government of Nepal has decided that its limited education budget should go first to extending primary education to more children. UNICEF has only limited initial funding. Hence her focus on finding a structure run and supported by local mothers -- and, if possible, reinforced by other collateral incentives. Agatha is also starting to expand the scope of her impact through a series of introductory videos and back-up pictorial manuals for parents and trainers.

The Person

Agatha went to school in Darjeeling, India, but completed her B.A. at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. She has taught almost every class in primary and secondary school. Nepal recognized her excellence as a teacher by sending her to further training in Haifa, Israel. She came back from this eight month sabbatical knowing that she would do something to help the children of the poor.She never went back to her old position. Instead, she devised an approach, and then began visiting the homes of untouchables to persuade the parents to send their children to the new preschool she had decided to start.