It was Kavita Saraf’s love for children and a need to channelise their energy that guided her to set-up an elementary school. With 23 years of experience in the Montessori field, Saraf reveals that she always had an inner desire to open a playschool. With encouragement from her husband, Anil Saraf, she established Alphabet Play School in January 2009.
Today, the school that started with just four teachers and 20 children has now multiplied to 20 teachers and 200 children in the age group of one to five-year-olds. The icing on the cake? Alphabet Play School was chosen as the official elementary school for the U.S. Consulate, ensuring a good mix of children from various cultural backgrounds.
Saraf traces back her steps as she says, “I used to be a Montessori teacher in Kolkata. I shifted to Chennai 20 years ago, when I got married and taught in schools like Sishya and Bambino. At home, I would constantly talk about the children in my class to my husband and he encouraged me to start a school on my own.” Personal commitments beckoned and for a while, Saraf was busy raising her 11-year-old twins Stuti and Suyash. It was only in March 2008 that the Alphabet Play School went from being an idea to actuality.
With an initial investment of Rs. 2.5 crore, Saraf converted the garden of her house into the Alphabet Play School. “The main challenge I faced during that time was getting good, experienced teachers. It helped that we launched big with advertisements in papers and a big launch event. We also advertised for teachers and word-of-mouth publicity got around,” says Saraf. There was, however, the problem of attrition to deal with. “Sustaining qualified teachers was not easy. In fact, none of the initial teachers we hired are working with us now.”
How did she solve the initial problem? “Our teachers are highly paid because I consider them as our main strength. And I have hiked their salaries to make sure they are monetarily satisfied. Also, Alphabet is a women’s place and I make sure that they feel included in any decisions we make about the school – if they have any concerns, they can always approach me.” Saraf personally trains every teacher who joins the school. “I am very fussy about the quality of learning techniques and I want my teachers to follow it as well. I observe how they teach and respond to the children,” she adds.
Play to learn
Setting up a curriculum was not too hard given Saraf’s experience. “I fixed the curriculum by myself. Many elementary schools use traditional methods of teaching but I did not want something that was too study oriented. Learning through play is my focus. And, we also use phonics to teach alphabets, as we do not like to pressurise the children to learn fast. We have animated storytelling sessions and try our best to give a practical experience about what they learn. We also constantly work on improving the curriculum for each term,” she says. Tying up with the American franchisee FasTracKids was a move in this direction. When the Sarafs saw how well the teaching method worked on their nephew, they decided to approach FasTracKids. “FasTracKids concentrates on topics as varied as astronomy, biology, earth science, drama and they teach through experiments and interactions that the children enjoy taking part in. The evening classes started simultaneously as the playschool and concentrates on children in the age group of five to ten years. We have 80 children who attend this and two separate teachers coached according to the FasTracKids’ methodology,” says Saraf.
A look at Alphabet Play School’s financials is fair indication that the play school segment is the place to be. In its second year of operation, the school made a profit of Rs. 70 lakh. “Initially, I did worry about breaking even, which we did by the end of the first year. Everyone would tell me to give it three years’ time but I am happy with its progress,” shares Saraf. Speaking of competition, Saraf admits that players in this field are very competitive; however, she does not feel threatened by them. “There are many elementary schools in Chennai and each has its own strengths. I think where our school stands out is the attention to infrastructure. We make sure we provide the best amenities from glass boards, CCTV cameras, air conditioned rooms to safe toys and healthy snacks,” says Saraf. In the same vein, Saraf states that as each school has its own fee structure in accordance to what it provides and hence, standardisation is not a feasible option. “I cannot afford this infrastructure if all schools had to follow a standard fee structure. We are open about the fact that 95 per cent of our parents are from the upper crust of the society. We charge Rs. 60,000 per year and Rs. 20,000 per term for those parents who wish to enrol their children term-wise,” adds Saraf.
Though Saraf did receive franchisee offers to expand Alphabet to other cities, she was not too convinced that they would share her level of enthusiasm. “I was very wary that franchisees might not bring the same passion that I bring to my school, everyday. There is still time to expand later, for now I am concentrating solely on these 200 children and hopefully, more will join them next year,” she says on a parting note.
The Twos – Age: 2 – 3 yearsToddlers – Age: 1 – 2 years
Young – Explorers Age: 3 – 4 years
Young – Learners Age: 4 – 5 years
FasTracKids – Age: 5 – 10 years
Festivals celebrated: Diwali, Christmas, Halloween, Birthdays and Anniversaries
Events: Community Helpers, Field Trips, Colour Day and Splash Summer Camps