In India, Using Plastic Waste as Tuition at a New School

A school combines accessible education with environmental responsibility through a creative program.

Photo of plastic waste by  John Cameron  on  Unsplash .

Photo of plastic waste by John Cameron on Unsplash.

In 2016, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar founded Akshar School in Assam, a state in northeast India. Initially, the school struggled to enroll many of the children living in the area. Most families could not afford private school tuition, and relied on the $2.50 per day wage their children could make working in the nearby stone quarries.

In the winter months, many families in Assam burned plastic waste to keep warm, unaware of the health and environmental hazard this created. The fumes would often linger in Akshar’s classrooms, and ended up giving Parmita and Mazin the idea that would transform the school.

Instead of tuition, Akshar began requiring students to bring 25 plastic waste items to school every week. “We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area,” Parmita told Better India.

Through the use of plastic waste as tuition, students who would not have been able to attend the school were able to learn, and the surrounding environment benefitted. Under the new tuition system, the school blossomed, and now enrolls 100 students ages 4 to 15. Before the tuition program was implemented, Akshar had only 20 students.

To compensate for the wages that children could be making working in the mines, Akshar established a tutoring program, where older students can help younger ones with their work in exchange for currency tokens that can be used to purchase snacks, toys, shoes, and clothing. The students can even exchange the tokens for real money to purchase items online. But financial compensation isn’t the only rationalization for the tutoring program. Through teaching, older students are able to develop useful life skills, practicing communication, leadership, and compassion.

Tuition isn’t the only unusual aspect of the school. Parmita told Better India that the goal of the school is to break with traditional curriculum. Students take class in open areas, and grades are divided by level rather than age.

“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children,” Mazin told Better India. That would mean not only providing an accessible education, but one that would enable children to find jobs after graduation. To this end Akshar offers career focused classes alongside traditional ones, enabling students to gain skills in cosmetology, solar paneling, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics, and more. The school is also willing to adapt to create the best education for its students. Mazin told Better India that when the school noticed a spike in landscaping in Assam, they began to draft plans for a sustainable landscaping course.

Mazin and Parmita’s success with Akshar has inspired them to create more schools that follow the same philosophy. They hope to implement the Akshar model in 5 government schools over the next year, and 100 government schools in the next 5 years.

Emma is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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