Signal Shaala or the Signal School, is a school like no other. For one, it does not stand tall in a well-structured building. Signal Shaala is a shipment container transformed into a mini-school, sitting smug under a bridge in a heavy-traffic area of Thane city. The container shuts out the noise from the traffic above.
It is not just this structure that sets the school apart. It is the only school in Mumbai and Thane that exclusively educates street children often found begging at the Teen Hath Naka signal. Hence the name, Signal Shaala. At present this school has 17 students.
Started in June this year, Signal Shaala is the brainchild of Bhatu Sawant, CEO of Pune-based NGO Samarth Bharat Vyaspith. He says, “Education is the only way to alleviate poverty. Countless people come to Mumbai every year and start selling small products like hairpins and flowers at signals. Their children sells these items and often beg. They save up to Rs. 500 per week. Education is not a priority..”
Sawant decided to begin a process that will prevent the next generation of signal residents and beggars from continuing the unfortunate practice. Signal Shaala was established with the help of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and a crowdfunding campaign at Milaap.
There are two major hurdles that Sawant and his team faced after establishing the school. The first was getting these children to come to school. The second was making sure that the children came to the school and went back after school.
Sawant elaborates, “For a lot of the homeless, their children are their source of livelihood. Asking them to give up even a part of their children’s time meant losing a part of their income. We appointed experienced counsellors and staff to constantly communicate with these parents. When they understood that this could give their children an opportunity to not beg, they started letting them come.”
The second hurdle was more difficult for the team to overcome. “We didn’t want children to think of this place as a permanent place of residence or the children would always be here. The idea was to educate them in their own backyard and help them get out of it. Prepare them for the world beyond these surroundings,” says Sawant.
This isn’t the first initiative to educate the underprivileged. The problem with such initiatives is the lack of a long-term structure. It is easy to start with vigor, but only a few stand the test of time. There is also passing off education initiatives as teaching a few words and textbook lessons. Children are “educated” for a few years, gain no footing outside their environment and go back to the life they came from.
How does Signal Shaala plan on preventing this from happening to its students?
Sawant says, “Unlike a lot of child education initiatives, we are a registered school. This means we have to follow the curriculum set by the state board. We have periodic checks and have to pass tests. We conduct education according to age and standard.”
Since these children have never had streamlined education, how does a 10-year-old cope up with Grade 3 curriculum? “This is where efficient teachers come in. We follow a curriculum with a set structure. Our teachers take particular care to measure each student’s aptitude and teach them accordingly. We speak to them in their own language – the language of the street and slowly ease them out of it. Since most of the children here speak Marathi, we follow a Marathi curriculum,” Sawant explains.
Great care has been taken to ease children into the education process. For the first one month, all the teachers did was make them comfortable at Signal Shaala. This included cutting their hair, testing their health, providing them medical care, buying them uniforms, making them watch films, engage in proactive games, create a play area outside and build communication.
“As children, you and I grew up dreaming about fairies and magic. Our imagination worked differently. For a street child, the only thing he imagines is the next day’s meal or whether a rat is going to bite him at night. To actually make these children build dreams beyond that of survival was itself a humongous task. This is why we appointed professional in-house counsellors,” says Sawant.
There’s a silver lining to the life they have led, that comes handy in education. These children are extremely observant and attentive. They do not get distracted by sounds and noises, because they’re so used to it.
The teachers there say, “We don’t have to try hard to get them to concentrate. They pay attention to what we say and ask us questions with a hunger to learn. It’s unlike anything we have seen. It’s a privilege to teach them. We ourselves learn so much about attentiveness and conviction from these kids.”
Signal Shaala may just be a container, but the idea of it is not to be contained. Sawant plans to bring in more children from nearby signals in Thane and Mulund. In addition to the 17 children it already educates, Signal Shaala has roped in 17 more children. To accommodate them, a new shipment container is being brought in.
The ultimate aim of Signal Shaala is to truly get these street children out of the confines of their poverty stricken life. “We want to make a child, a child again. We want them to build a different life for themselves and end the cycle of poverty,” concludes Sawant.
Signal Shaala is above childcare. In a world where privilege defines lifestyle and society, Signal Shaala stands as a platform for street children to break free of classism and outgrow circumstances. It is proof that reality does not necessarily have to be bleak.
SHRUTI SUNDERRAMAN | TOC
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