Plastic waste as school fees?

Although sounds weird, yet a school in Assam’s capital city Guwahati has not only been helping over a hundred deprived children to continue their studies but at the same time spreading awareness against plastic that harms our environment and ecology.

The Akshar School (meaning ‘letter’ in Assamese) has been imparting formal education to 110 children belonging to economically backward category for a unique fees structure — deposition of at least 10 to 20 plastic waste items per week and a pledge not to burn plastic ever.

“Our school is different in many ways. We have designed the curriculum basically for poverty-stricken children. While they are regularly imparted lessons on mathematics, science, geography and so on, we have also incorporated vocational skill training so that they can become skilled professionals at the end of the course,” said Mazin Mukhtar, who along with Parmita Sarma founded the school in 2016.

“Most of our children are school dropouts. Their parents cannot afford to send them to school and rather they used to send them to nearby stone quarries to earn. We have motivated them and brought them back to the school,” said Parmita Sarma, who did her Masters from the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) Guwahati centre.

Hailing from New York, Mazin landed in Assam with a plan to open a school. He was for some months in Lakhimpur working for another school project but finally opened the Akshar School at Pamohi in Guwahati.

Parmita, who hails from Assam, helped Mazin to understand the social landscape of Assam, facing together the challenges of opening a new school. Both Mazin and Parmita, who share a common dream of working for the education sector, got married in 2018.

“Here we have noticed that use of plastic is huge. The plastics are not only harming the environment but also affecting the ecology of the area—we have the Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site nearby. People here also use to burn plastic during the winters to keep them warm from cold. So we hit upon the idea of recycling the used plastic and save the environment. We told the parents that they have to pledge not to burn plastic and that the students have to bring at least 10 to 20 waste plastic items every week as fees,” said Parmita.

The children of the school have already made some eco bricks using the waste plastic and built some plant guarder in the school premises.

“We plan to use these eco bricks for building toilets in the school and some pathways which will help the children to go from one place to another when the school campus is waterlogged. We can also build the boundary walls of our school using these eco bricks,” Parmita said.

Akshar School also does not have any age specific admission system like other traditional schools.

“Ours is not a typical school. Students of different age group attend same classes sitting in open spaces together. The idea behind this is to break open the conventional ideas of education. And so, instead of age-specific grades or class, we have levels, where students of various age groups study the same thing all at the same time,” she said.

“The levels are decided based on the knowledge of the students, tested at the time of admission—the school has tests every Friday. The students will then have to perform well to climb up the levels. This is to ensure that the quality of education is continually improving,” Parmita added.

“We have also been encouraging the elder children to teach younger children. In fact, the first thing we teach at Akshar is to become a good teacher. The elder students have to teach younger ones every day. This serves two purposes — one it makes them feel valued and important; secondly, we can have less number of teachers,” said Mazin.

The school that started with only 20 kids in 2016 now has eight bamboo huts to run their classes and two digital classrooms donated by some donors. As of now, Akshar has vocational courses like singing, dancing, solar paneling, embroidery, cosmetology, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics and recycling.

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