By Amanda Lean Yi Qing
In a place where most parents work tirelessly to send their children to school, a school in the northeastern state of Assam in India, has taken it one step further.
The Akshar School, started by married couple Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar in June 2016, currently has over 100 students ranging from ages four to fifteen enrolled there. Besides making education more accessible to underprivileged children, it also encourages the formation of eco-friendly habits.
Mazin said in an interview with Efforts For Good,“the local villagers would burn their plastic waste every few days during winter, causing toxic fumes to waft into the classrooms and linger in the neighborhood”.
A few months later, they included the ‘plastic school fee’ in their list of recycling projects. Instead of using money, which many students could not afford, they were asked to collect all dry plastic waste from their homes to be handed over to the school. They also pledged not to burn plastic, which is a fairly common practice in the village.
Every week, children line up with grocery bags filled to the brim with plastic bottles, packaging, straws and others. Each pupil is highly encouraged to bring at least twenty five plastic waste items per week – a small matter, as families usually collect plastic waste anyway. Previously, they used to burn plastic waste, unaware of its hazardous health and environmental effects.
Students are then taught to recycle the plastic waste in mini construction projects, where they make eco-bricks, used to make garden fences and walls and also plant guards. Boundary walls, pathways and toilets are also being planned to be made from plastic as well, in the hopes that it will help students to move around during the wet monsoon season. This indirectly spreads awareness regarding the plastic menace among the students’ families.
The school has two senior teachers and four junior teachers, who teach subjects such as Science, Geography and Mathematics. The school also provides vocational training in carpentry, gardening, embroidery, caring for stray animals and solar technology, which can help students with employment upon graduation. They are also adept in technology, effortlessly using tablets and laptops in lessons.
A peer-to-peer learning model is widely implemented in the school – senior students are allocated a group of junior students to tutor. In return for the time and effort put in, the older students are paid in ‘toy currency’, which is valid in local shops, enabling them to purchase snacks, toys, shoes and clothing.
The older students are usually former child labourers who are taught first by the teachers and encouraged to mentor young children, to boost their confidence, sense of responsibility and strong work ethics. By receiving toy money, they also learn to handle finances. This helps to break the norm in low income families that sending their children to work, is the only way to earn extra income. By sending their children to school, they can learn a plethora of life skills which can help their families to break the cycle of poverty.
The school’s initiatives have been widely accepted by the surrounding community, with many shops and houses spreading the eco-friendly message. The villagers have also ceased to burn plastic, now actively participating in recycling drives to create widespread environmental awareness.
Following Akshar School’s success, the founders intend to set up a hundred more similar schools in the next five years.