Say goodbye to traditional school fees at Akshar, plastic paves the way

Have you ever thought about the possibility of using something as simple as plastic to pay for school instead of money? While traditional schools demand a financial toll, there's a hidden gem Pamohi village in Assam, that challenges this norm – Akshar School. Here, education takes on a new form, where over 100 unprivileged children contribute not in cash but in bags filled with plastic waste. This is no ordinary school. It's a place of change, where education meets innovation, and where plastic finds a purpose.

(Times now)

The birth of Akshar School

The story begins in 2013 when Mazin Mukhtar, who had come to India from New York for a school project, crossed paths with Parmita Sarma, a dedicated Social Work Masters student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Their shared passion for education set the stage for a journey that would later change the lives of many.

Originally from Assam, Parmita guided Mazin through the social landscape of the region, ultimately leading up to the idea of starting Akshar, a school that can bridge the gap between conventional academics and vocational training.

The founders realized the need for education to be socially, economically, and environmentally relevant for the local children. One significant challenge was to convince the villagers to send their kids to school instead of working in stone quarries, where they could earn Rs 150-200 per day. Unable to match this monetarily, Akshar proposed a mentorship peer-to-peer learning model. Older students started teaching younger ones, and in return, they earned special toy money. This toy money could be used to get snacks, clothes, and toys.

Transforming Plastic into Purpose

One of the key moments that shifted Akshar School's focus on recycling was the toxic fumes filling classrooms during winters, as families burned plastic waste to keep warm. This led to children coughing in the classroom. To change this,  the parents were asked to send their household plastic with their children to school, but almost none of them agreed.

So they thought of starting charging fees, which they could pay either in cash or in plastic waste from their homes. This resulted in 100% compliance from parents who also pledged to never burn plastic again. And from there on, the school became a hub of creativity and sustainability. Students, with the help of teachers, turned plastic waste into construction materials which also helped in making the school campus different and beautiful. 

What started with 20 kids, has now grown to over 100, with each student contributing a minimum of 25 items of plastic waste every week.

Unconventional mode of learning

Unlike traditional schools, Akshar School doesn't have fixed standards or grades based on age. Instead, it customizes education according to each student's knowledge level, tested at the time of admission.

The founders realized that one of the biggest problems with the education sector, especially in villages is the relevance of education. So, the school's curriculum is now designed as per industry standards and student’s preferences and offers vocational courses ranging from singing, dancing, and solar panelling to embroidery, carpentry, and recycling. This way they get the right blend of theory and practical knowledge that could enable them enough skills for various job opportunities

The commitment of Akshar School goes beyond its walls. The school has set up a recycling plant, collaborating with the Government of India to implement the Indian Education Model in 100 Assam schools. Their innovative practices also extend to daily private mentoring, ensuring every child receives personalized guidance.

Towards a Sustainable Future

Akshar ensures every young child gets daily mentoring from an older student, under the guidance of an adult teacher. ​This way the teens, who are often forced to drop out and start earning, find empowerment through employment at Akshar. They earn points as wages which can be redeemed for rewards like school supplies and clothing. As the students progress academically, their salaries increase. These “earnings” enable them to stay in school, rather than drop out to perform casual labour and they also learn that staying in school leads to higher earnings.

In the last few years, the school has had no dropouts. The older students easily make Rs. 6000-7000, depending on their talent and the work allotted. Many have even bought cell phones from their earnings, something their parents still can’t afford to do.

Akshar has also developed a software, the Akshar Kolibri app, which tracks the student's learning level and provides custom-tailored exercises to suit their needs, in Assamese, as well as in Hindi and English. Older students are introduced to coding and robotics.

In their pursuit of a brighter future, Akshar School students are more than just learners; they are changemakers. They make furniture, repair fixtures, and collect plastic waste from nearby homes, creating a model for other schools.

As the school aims to create 100 such institutions over the next five years, the Akshar School shows the transforming power of education when combined with creativity, sustainability, and a deep understanding of local needs.

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Meghna is a highly motivated and experienced freelance content creator with a Master's degree in History and ongoing studies in International Relations from Amity University, Noida. Her commitment lies in making valuable contributions to discussions surrounding climate change and other challenging social concerns. With a strong background in research and writing, Meghna is adept at conducting research, synthesizing information, and creating compelling content that informs, educates, and engages her readers. She has contributed to several academic journals in the past, and her writing reflects a deep understanding of complex social problems and their potential solutions. Meghna's expertise in writing and research, combined with her strong work ethic and attention to detail, make her an asset to any organization or individual looking to create high-quality content that resonates with their target audience. In summary, Meghna is a talented and committed freelance content creator who bring

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