Mazin Mukhtar and Parmita Sarma have started an innovative school that takes plastic waste as a monthly tuition fee. This school managed by the Akshar Foundation is installed in a space where children are brought to work to help the family meet their needs. It ends child labor, unemployment, illiteracy and the plastic threat with one solution.
More than 11 million adolescents were out of school in 2013 according to the UNESCO report. Caught in a vicious cycle of fighting poverty and survival, many parents prefer to send their children to work rather than to school. Their argument is that it will contribute to the household income. Indian schools, rather than adapting to the needs and challenges of these rural areas, continue to operate without any articulation.
Residents 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 working or not going to school at all. This eventually changed when Mazin Mukhtar and his wife Parmita Sarma stepped in with a new model of schooling.
The couple established the Akshar School in 2016 which specifically catered to the needs of the villagers. Based on the understanding that learning, work and community must go hand in hand for education to flourish in this area.
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Engage “children” to demolish “child” labor
The couple decided to hire senior students as teachers for their juniors. Students are paid in kind which could be used to purchase stationery, food, toys, etc. in stores nearby. The move solved two problems at once. It increased the retention of at-risk adolescents while providing them with professional training and leadership skills. The method has proven to be successful as the strength has increased from only 20 to 100 currently in a short period of time. This created self-discipline among the students and also prompted parents to send their children to school. On the other hand, this method of meta-teaching has also reduced the burden on teachers.
These policies and innovations have helped to create a school model never seen before in India. Here, the whole school is a place of training and each student is a part-time teacher. The school has a military-type hierarchy. There is a qualified teacher who acts as a “captain”. The captain has 3 local “lieutenants” or high school graduates enrolled in online college courses that help them during teenage or “sergeant” classes. These adolescents then pass on their knowledge and help improve the understanding of “cadets” or young children. This military-like hierarchy is like a pyramid where beneficiaries can climb up and increase their salaries in the process.
Plastic waste as school fees
Mazin, the co-founder, says education must be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children. True to its words, the foundation has integrated environmental awareness seamlessly into its curriculum. Instead of charging money, the administration asked students to bring 25 plastic waste each week as school fees. This step helped curb the widespread local practice of burning plastic to stay warm. The collected plastic is mixed with cement and used to build tree planters, ecological bricks, etc.
A typical day at Akshar school
The typical schedule for a class of seven would start with a quick geography lesson in the morning. Then the 7th grade students teach the 3rd grade students for half an hour of instruction. Students then attend one hour of English lessons 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 mathematics with the help of lectures through Khan Academy (an online educational portal). Every day, a documentary or an educational video is presented to the children followed by a biology course. But the day does not end there. From 2 p.m., children spend the next four hours in vocational training.
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What’s next for the Akshar Foundation?
Foray into higher education and beyond, the foundation aims to place students directly in a career. College or apprenticeship in a highly skilled trade is usually the road map that fixes the problem. Partnering with a solar company and local retailers ensures good basic jobs for their students. Students would go directly to a job in a trade, apprenticeship or college. He also hopes to recruit many students themselves to work in the foundation as school reformers.
While the Assam Model School is operating successfully, the foundation also launched the Akshar School Reform Fellowship, sponsored by Motivation for Excellence and the Bhansali Trust, in partnership with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and Education Alliance. The scholarship aims to transform underperforming public schools by applying the Assam school model. The Akshar Foundation is working to reform its first public school in Delhi under this program with around 100 students. This scholarship is another step in the right direction to advance this innovative model and achieve their long-term goal of building 100 such schools over the next five years.
Education remains the only way to reduce the great indifference present in the country. Just as alphabets are the basis of all 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 can be no inclusive development.
Read also: Bengaluru boy wins Diana Award for getting 5,000 underprivileged children back to school
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