Learning Curve (by Cindy Ryan)
Please, come in. Sit down. Will you take coffee? I want you to stay as long as you like. We can talk about things and enjoy each others company. An extra chair was quickly brought in to the office for Todd to sit on. Indu and I had already perched ourselves on the two stools that were brought in a few minutes before. We sat, knees almost touching, and made ourselves as small as we could so children and teachers could pass through the narrow doorway, past the glass-fronted filing cabinets filled with school records, dusty trophies, and aging documents, on their way to a classroom that opened onto the office. As guests of the school principal and founder, we were treated to small shot-glass cups of milky, sugary coffee brought in on a tray by the school helper.
Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan (English Medium School) is at a crossroads of sorts. The Indian government is discussing mandatory regulations regarding private schools, many of which Nandchhaya can’t meet unless they are able to build a new school on a large lot.
Mr. Nandkumar Baraskar and his late wife, Chhaya, opened Nandychhaya English Medium School in 2004 on a dusty pot-holed road lined with small shops next to a garbage dump. Located in a neighbourhood of chawls and slum communities bunched up against the brown hills in the background, Nandchhaya School, currently housed in a dilapidated, cobbled together building, teaches the children of these communities with a commitment to excellence.
Over the years Dirty Wall Project has paid school fees for numerous children to attend Nandychhaya School and despite the obvious problems of infrastructure, overcrowding and lack of equipment we are thrilled by the progress of our students under the guidance of this special little school.
Recently, Todd, Indu (and her baby Agya) and I spent a lovely morning with Mr. Nandkumar asking him questions about his school, his plans for the future of the school and the future of his students.
How many years has Nandchhaya School been operating?
- My wife, Chhaya, and I opened the school in 2004. The name is a combination of our two names: Nand and Chhaya
Why did you start the school?
- First, we love children and want the best for all children no matter their ability to pay. Second, my whole family are teachers. My two sons teach here.
How did you start a school?
- We started with Junior KG (age 3 1/2 years) and over the years we have added up to the 8th standard (11-15 years), building on as we went.
The two-storey building is a series of added on rooms, a steep staircase and caged in second floor balcony.
Why did you locate the school in Saki Naka?
- We live in this community and raised our children here.
Mr. Nandkumar lives with his sons and their wives and children in a chawl home only a few minutes walk from the school. We were invited as honoured guests to his home for Christmas treats.
Does the Indian government recognize the school?
- Yes, the BMC (municipal government) recognizes our school and we are accredited. We teach a government curriculum with inspections by a BMC Beat Officer to check school records.
What subjects are taught in Nandchhaya?
- We teach math, computer, social studies, science and English. All lessons are taught using English because we are an English medium school.
Poor families want their children to be educated in English as they assume this is a stepping stone to better employment.
How many teachers are employed at Nandchhaya?
- We have 25 teachers.
What are the teacher’s qualifications?
- They have completed college. Teachers need 2 years at Teachers’ College to become a teacher. The BMC has awarded our teachers for excellence and we are first ranked among all the schools in Saki Naka.
Saki Naka has many, many schools tucked away in lane ways. Dirty Wall Project pays school fees in numerous schools in the Saki Naka area as well as other far-flung neighbourhoods in Mumbai.
How many children are in each class?
- There are at least 45 children in each class in separate morning and afternoon sessions.
The classrooms are very small, barebones and mostly windowless. Children crowd onto benches that face flat writing desks they also share. Slate blackboards are mounted at the front of the class with a very narrow passage way leading between the benches to the front of the class. Fans keep the temperature bearable. As with all Indian schools, uniforms are required. Girls hair must be braided and looped, tied with ribbons, or if the hair is too short, it must be held back off the face with a hairband. The boys must have their hair slicked back, tidy and short.
How many children attend Nandchhaya?
- We have 600 students enrolled.
The students attend in morning and afternoon sessions to be able to accommodate them in few classrooms.
Private schools are a business as well as a school. Parents are required to pay fees (400 rupees per month – CAD $6.89) for the child to attend classes. What if a parent can’t pay the fees for their child or children?
- Many parents can’t pay some of their fees or all of their fees. We allow the children to continue their studies and hope the parents can pay something. We have scholarship classes for bright, dedicated children. Standards 4 to 7 have access to scholarships which amount to 500 rupees (CAD $8.62) per year to qualified students. Students are required to pay 50 rupees (86 cents CAD) to attend exams.
Nandchaaya is one of few schools that is lenient with parents who are not able to pay their child’s fees. We have paid for more than a few students who have been expelled from other schools because their parents can’t pay. At other schools, some of the teachers have expressed surprise about the children we pay for, letting us know, in one particular instance, that the boy we were paying fees for was not bright enough to bother with. This was said in front of the child. She said she had much brighter candidates for sponsorship and that he should just quit. DWP gladly paid his fees and he is attending classes everyday. Parents believe that a private school has a better quality of education. Their only other option is to send their children to abysmal free public schools where classes are only taught in Hindi or Marathi, housed in dismal, prison like buildings where teachers tend to not show up.
How do you manage to pay the teachers when some parents don’t pay the fees required?
- Everybody is paid, but it is a struggle – we struggle but we are not fighting!
What becomes of students who are failing or not completing their assignments?
- We try to help the student improve with extra tuitions classes after their regular class.
Many students in the Saki Naka community attend private tuitions classes after their regular school day. The fees for tuitions vary from teacher to teacher but average approximately 250 rupees a month per child. (CAD $4.37). In India, attending tuitions classes is considered a necessity for most children to get ahead.
What disciplinary measures are taken when students misbehave?
- There is no physical action taken, no hitting or slapping a child at Nandchhaya. We simply solve the problem as quickly as possible.
During our rounds of numerous schools to pay fees, we have noticed that discipline can be severe and that slapping a student is common for minor reasons.
There are many children of different castes and different religions attending Nandchhaya. Do you have problems because of this?
- The teachers and students are respectful of each other and we encourage good behaviour at all times. We don’t discriminate about religion or caste. Equality and education are important for everyone.
Some of the schools we visit to pay school fees have lists of the caste types that represent their student body on predominant charts on the walls in the fees offices.
What problems do you have with parents regarding their children’s education or behaviour?
- No anger is allowed. Parents are always informed (about issues) before things get out of hand.
What about the building? There are two levels, 8 classrooms and 3 toilets for 600 students and no running water in the building. There is no outside sport or play area attached to the school. How do you manage all the students in small cramped classrooms and so few toilets?
- We manage but we also hope to see a day when we will build a new facility on a bigger plot of land. We always need more or newer equipment especially computers and science equipment. We wish for music classes, room for exercise and the ability for our students to attain international level education. Our present school is too small for progress. The standard of education is improving and we need to keep up with bigger classrooms and more technology. If we were to get a new school we would teach to the 12th standard.
The Right to Education Act, introduced by the Indian government in 2009, has ordered all schools to have an outdoor place to play, and separate toilets for boys and girls by March 31, 2014. It also requires a ramp for disabled children to be installed at every school. While these are great initiatives, small private schools such as Nandchhaya that primarily serve the poorest members of society would have to increase their fees to afford to make the necessary changes. An increase in fees would be unaffordable for most, if not all, of the parents in the Saki Naka pipeline community. Already vulnerable, these parents would probably send their kids to work instead of school. Many children in the Saki Naka community already work instead of attending school and this would be a viable alternative for many families. Nandchhaya School could face a fine or be closed by the government if they can’t afford to make the necessary changes. This would impact hundreds of families who were hoping for a brighter future for their children.
Do you have a school library?
- Yes, we have a small library of books and students are allowed to take books home.
The empty lot next to the school is used for outdoor play and exercise. Is this part of Nandchhaya’s property?
-No, but we are able to use it for exercise and physical sports.
The lot is surrounded by wire fencing on one side and a low cement wall around the other sides. The ground is covered in small stones and fine dirt that turns to puffs of dust when walked on. During sports days, the children run in socks or barefoot on the uneven ground. DWP attended a recent Sports Day at Nandchhaya. The children look forward to these events and huddle in ochre clouds of dust on the sidelines eager for their turn to race. In a ceremony at the end of the day the winners in each category received the appropriate medal . The gold medal winner stood on three stacked stools, the silver medal winner stood on two stacked stools and the bronze medal winner stood on one stool while teachers shook their hands and the students bowed to receive their medal strung on a ribbon.
Do the children get to go on picnics (field trips) outside of the school?
- Yes, we have educational picnics at a science centre once a year.
When a child graduates from Nandchhaya where do they go?
- They can go on to higher education at a different school accredited for that purpose.
Nandchhaya School is all about the right to education in a warm, encouraging environment. The children who attend school here are used to compromises and difficulties in their community and their homes. Should schools like Nandchhaya (and there are many) be forced to close or increase their fees these children will not have access to a life that their parents can only imagine. A life of opportunities, better jobs, and for the girls a window on a world that is too easily shut on them. These children deserve a place in the “new India” that for now is not accessible to the millions living in slums. An education could provide the key to the lock that dangles just above their heads.
DWP paid school fees for 47 students for the school year 2013-2014
Nandychhaya School: 22 students
126,900 Rupees (CAD $2188) - 5769 Rupees (CAD $99.46) average per child
Other area schools: 25 students
111,190 Rupees (CAD $1917) – 4447 Rupees (CAD $76.67) average per child
Each child’s needs were different. We paid partial fees for some children and full fees for others depending on the parent’s ability to pay. Some children’s fees were substantially higher due to the school or the standard (grade) they are currently in. The average school fee for the year is approximately 7,250 Rupees (CAD $125.00) per student which includes computer classes.
We also provided school shoes (390 Rupees each – CAD $6.72) for three students (Sneha, Nikita, Raju) and a uniform for Raju (565 Rupees – CAD $9.74) and prescription glasses (500 Rupees – CAD $8.62) for Raju whose home was demolished.