Mazin Mukhtar and Parmita Sarma started an innovative school that takes plastic waste as its monthly school fee. This school run by Akshar Foundation is set up in a space where children are made to work to help the family sustain itself. It is ending child labour, unemployment, illiteracy and plastic menace with just one solution.
More than 11 million adolescents were out of school in 2013 as per the UNESCO report. Stuck in a vicious cycle of fighting poverty and survival, a lot of parents prefer to send their children to work rather than school. Their argument lies that it will contribute to the household income. Indian schools, rather than adapting to the needs and challenges of such rural areas, continue with their operations unhinged.
The people of Pahomi village near Guwahati were caught in the same cycle. There was widespread poverty in addition to unemployment and alcoholism. Most of the children were either engaged in child labour or didn’t go to school at all. This finally changed when Mazin Mukhtar and his wife Parmita Sarma intervened with a new schooling model.
The couple established the Akshar School in 2016 that catered specifically to the needs of the villagers. Based on the understanding that learning, working and community need to go hand-in-hand for education to flourish in this area.
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Engaging ‘children’ to demolish ‘child’ labour
The couple decided to engage senior students as teachers for their juniors. The students are paid-in-kind that could be used to buy stationery, food, toys etc. from nearby stores. The move solved two problems at once. It increased the retention of at-risk teenagers while at the same time provided them with vocational training and leadership skills. The method proved a success as strength increased from a mere 20 to 100 currently in a short time. This created self-discipline among the students and also enticed the parents to send their kids to school. On the other hand, this Meta-Teaching method also reduced the burden on teachers.
These policies and innovations helped create a never-seen-before school model in India. Here, the entire school is a training facility and each student is a part-time teacher. The school has a military-like hierarchy. There is one qualified teacher who acts as the ‘captain’. The captain has 3 ‘lieutenants’ or local high school graduates enrolled in online college courses who help them during classes of teens or ‘sergeants’. These teen then further impart their knowledge and help improve the understanding of ‘cadets’ or small children. This military-like hierarchy is like a pyramid where beneficiaries can climb upwards and increase their wages in the process.
Plastic waste as School Fee
Mazin, the co-founder, says that education has to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children. Staying true to his words, the foundation has integrated environment awareness seamlessly into its curriculum. Instead of charging money, the administration instructed students to bring 25 items of plastic waste each week as their school fees. This step curbed down the widespread local practice of burning plastic to stay warm. The plastic collected is mixed in cement and used to construct tree planters, eco-brick etc.
A typical day at the Akshar School
A typical class seven student schedule would begin with a quick geography lecture in the morning. Then, the 7th-grade students teach the 3rd-grade students for a half-an-hour teaching session. The students then attend an hour of English class and another teaching session in the form of a one-on-one mentoring session. Students then take a 30-minute break. After which, they learn Math using lectures via Khan Academy (an online education portal). Each day a documentary or educational video is shown to children followed by a biology class. But the day does not end here. From 2 o’clock onwards, the kids spend the next four hours doing vocational training.
What’s next for the Akshar Foundation?
Foraying into higher education and further, the foundation aims to directly place students into a career. College or apprenticeship in a high skill trade is usually the roadmap that fixes it. A partnership with a solar firm and local retailers secures good entry-level jobs for their students. The students would move directly into a job in trade, apprenticeship or college. It also hopes to recruit many of the students themselves to work in the foundation as school reformers.
While the Assam model school is running successfully, the foundation has also started the Akshar School Reform Fellowship, sponsored by Motivation for Excellence and the Bhansali Trust, in partnership with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Education Alliance. The fellowship aims to transform under-performing government schools by applying the model of the Assam school. Akshar Foundation is working to reform its first government school in Delhi under this programme with around 100 students. This fellowship is another step in the right direction to further this innovative model and achieve their long-term goal of building 100 such schools in the next five years.
Education remains the sole method to reduce the vast indifference present in the country. Just like alphabets form the basis of any language, education forms the basis of a person’s social, economic and psychological development. Without alphabets, one cannot learn a language, and without education, there cannot be inclusive development.
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