As per UNICEF, the pandemic and lockdowns have led to the closure of more than 15 lakh schools in India and impacted more than 25 crore children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. However, for a developing country like ours, the pandemic was just an added blow as more than 60 lakh boys and girls were out of school even before the pandemic. Efforts are being made by individuals and organisations to bridge this gap, especially post covid. Recently, Abhishek Shukla, the founder of Shuruaat — Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, opened a school for underprivileged children in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, named Shuruaat Play School. The children studying here are given quality education … and a lot more … for just Re 1/day. Why Re 1? Because that’s how much one tends to give to children who beg at traffic signals. The tagline of the campaign is quite apt – ek rupaiye bhiksha, ya ek rupaiye me shiksha … how would you rather spend your Re 1? By giving it as alms to a child or towards his/her daily school fees?
“When we started a few months back, many children would not even take bath or brush their teeth before coming to school. They did not know the importance of hygiene. It wasn’t their fault. They came from extremely poor pockets of the city. We would bathe them, and dress them up in clean uniforms,” said Abhishek Shukla, 31, who opened Shuruaat Play School in April this year in his hometown in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh.
“The main purpose of the school is to teach these children moral values, apart from the regular subjects. They come from extremely underprivileged and poor backgrounds. Their parents are daily wage earners and make a living by driving autos or by picking and sorting garbage. Some are unemployed and most consume alcohol. These children go through a lot mentally and emotionally. We have identified some of them and encouraged them to join the school,” he added.
Around 90% of the children studying in the school are first-generation schoolgoers. For now, owing to the space crunch, Shukla and his team of volunteers have identified 50 children who desperately needed help. Some 30-40 are still waiting and thousands are yet to be identified.
“It’s a play school, so technically we should have given admission to 3-5-year-old children. However, because of their background, these children were never admitted to any school, and most are in the age group of 6-8 years. In fact, there are 2-3 girls studying in upper Kindergarten (UKG), who are 11-12 years old. It’s the first time in their life that they are going to school. Some children are orphans and the parents of some can’t even afford to pay the fees of Rs 30/month. However, we have allowed them to continue,” said Shukla.
The obvious question that came to my mind was why anyone would expect children from underprivileged backgrounds to pay Rs 30/month when there are many Anganwadi centres and government schools that are teaching children for free.
“The reason is, when parents pay fees, even if it’s as nominal as Re 1/day, both parents and children start taking school seriously. Besides, paying for their children’s education instills a sense of pride and self-respect in the parents. Also, when we take fees, our responsibility and accountability automatically go up,” said Shukla.
He added: “The reason why children drop out from government schools is that they don’t have to pay any fees and hence there is no obligation for parents to send their children to school or children to go to the school daily. The children don’t get any help or motivation from home as their parents don’t understand the importance of education. Gradually, they lose interest and drop out. These are the children we see begging at railway stations or traffic signals. They do odd jobs, or worse, start doing drugs, or end up in juvenile homes.”
High school dropout rate is indeed an issue. Data speaks volumes. As per the findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted in 2019-21, the most common reason reported for children dropping out of school is a lack of interest in studies. This was the main reason found for children abandoning their education in previous rounds of the survey as well.
The key is to keep the children interested and invested. For this reason, Shukla and the six volunteer teachers working at the school have adopted innovative methods of teaching. The regular pattern of textbooks, classwork, and homework does not appeal to these children, so the teachers try to educate them through games, pictures, and paintings.
And what will happen to these children once they pass out of the play school? Shukla has cracked this. It’s not the first time he is dealing with underprivileged children and trying to integrate them into the mainstream education system.
It all started in 2016. Shukla was preparing to be a civil servant. One day, he was waiting at a traffic signal. A little girl came begging. She was carrying her baby brother in her arms. She told Shukla that her mother had passed away, her father was an alcoholic, and it was her responsibility to raise her brother. Shukla did not buy her story and went along with her to the slum where she lived. What he saw there changed his life. There were so many children who were miles away from any form of education. He decided to put his dream on hold and educate as many children as possible.
A few volunteers joined him and together they started teaching children in slums, on railway platforms, in parks, and on the streets. Many children were addicted to drugs or would beg and were violent. It wasn’t easy, but the team persisted. Gradually, they started enroling these children in government and government-aided schools. It was a huge motivation when some of these children started performing well. The team continued to work even during the 2020 lockdown. Recently, class 10th and 12th board exam results were announced and some of these children, especially girls, from extremely poor backgrounds have cleared their boards with flying colours.
Shuruaat Play School was conceptualised because teaching children in open spaces is difficult. The plan is to open many more such “Re 1” school.
“We need help. Right now, we have managed to collect funds through public fund-raising. People trust us, they have seen our work and hence they have contributed. But this is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The rent of the building where I run the school is Rs 22,000/per month. I am not even able to pay the sweeper Rs 1,500 from the fees that I collect. We are in the process of figuring out a sustainable financial model for our school, but for now, if people could donate to our fundraiser, that would be great,” said Shukla.
What keeps Shukla going despite the hardships and roadblocks can be gauged from the incident that he narrated.
“There is a lady named Rita Vishwakarma. She works as a house help. A few years back, we helped her two children get admission to a government school. A class 10 pass out, she got married very early and had to kill her desire of becoming a schoolteacher. She joined our school and for one-two years concentrated on brushing her knowledge. Later, she joined as a schoolteacher. When we were starting the play school and scrambling for funds, she pleasantly surprised us by donating Rs 20,000. She had been saving a little from her earnings for 5-6 years so that she could buy a computer for her son. She did not think twice before donating that entire amount to our play school because she believes in our cause. It is this goodwill that keeps me motivated and I am sure I will continue to get help,” said Shukla.
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