Fourteen-year-old Nekaram’s parents, who migrated several years ago to Hyderabad from Rajasthan, have been making idols of Lord Ganesh and Goddess Durga using Plaster of Paris ahead of the festival season for a living. The teenager, however, wants to become a lawyer. His younger sister Nirmala (11) aspires to be a doctor. “I will become one and serve the poor,” she says. And Chandu, 17, whose parents are rag pickers, has already pinned his hopes on becoming a five-star chef. Yadagiri, also 14, wants to join the Indian Army and serve the country.

Nekaram, Yadagiri, Nirmala, and Chandu are among the 12 school dropouts who would soon be reintegrated into regular schools in the city. They are all children of daily wagers living in Omkar Nagar slums near Miyapur in Hyderabad. They have completed a bridge course at a school called ‘Chottu Ki Education’ (CKE) in the same locality and are admitted into nearby private budget schools with individual donors sponsoring their further education.

Omkar Nagar is a densely populated slum near Miyapur Metro Station. Residents here are mostly rag pickers and live a hand-to-mouth existence. Children are addicted to games and movies on mobile phones and their parents to alcohol, especially after a day’s toiling. They find it beneficial to send boys to work while the girls take care of the family. Marrying off girls at a young age is considered a matter of her safety more than anything else, says K Yuvaneshwari, a pharma professional, who has been running the CKE school in the slum for the last four years.

According to her, these 12 students who are joining mainstream schools are a result of how the NGO managed to continue informal education for the underprivileged children even during the last 18 months of the Covid pandemic. During the total lockdown last year, the classes continued uninterrupted through WhatsApp video calls, with the teacher at her home.

Nekaram had dropped out of the nearby government school four years ago. He is one of the brightest among the lot, according to Yuvaneshwari. When the private school he is admitted into reopens, he would be going to Class 6. Why did he drop out? “Everything was taught in Telugu. I found it very difficult. I could not understand anything. But now I am looking forward to going to the new school. There is English and Hindi. Those are my favourite. And they teach other subjects too,” says Nekaram with a studious smile on his face.

After the Telangana government’s decision to reopen all educational institutions for offline classes from September 1 was challenged in the Telangana High Court, the court allowed reopening of schools but made it clear that the schools were free to function via online or offline modes of teaching but cannot force parents to send their wards to school. The government was directed by the court that no penal action shall be taken against any school if they are holding online classes. The two private budget schools where these 12 children are admitted into have not reopened on September 1. Yuvaneshwari and the students are eagerly waiting for positive communication from the school.

Nirmala, Nekaram’s sister, is joining Class 3 though she should be in Class 6 as per her age. “Many children here do not have any documentation or even a TC from their previous school which makes it difficult to admit them into mainstream schools. Though we have 25 students in our bridge course, these 12 are the ones who are keen to go to school,” says Naga Prafulla, a teacher at the CKE school.

Lack of interest in schooling, absenteeism, negative influence of parents and the neighborhood are some of the challenges. “There is no doubt that government schools are good. But these children have dropped out because of individual issues. That is what we are trying to address through special attention and care,” says Yuvaneshwari.

At the CKE school, students are provided breakfast and lunch, apart from engaging them in science projects, arts and crafts, sports, gardening, etc. With two teachers and a cook, the school is functional between 9 am and 3 pm from Monday to Saturday.

Yuvaneshwari recalls how Yadagiri, Venkatesh, another boy named Yadagiri, and Narasimha had walked into the CKE School out of curiosity two years ago. All three except Narasimha are admitted into a nearby private budget school, whereas Narasimha will attempt for Class 10 examination in the open category next year. Yadagiri is joining in Class 6 though he should be in Class 8 as per his age. Though he was irregular to the government school from where he dropped out after Class 1, his name continued to be on the rolls till Class 5 enabling him now to join class 6 after completing the bridge course.

Similar is Chandu’s case. He had stopped schooling after Class 3 but is one of the most inquisitive in the CKE school. Now 17, he will be joining Class 6 and Yuvaneshwari has plans for him to attempt the Class 10 examination next year in the open category.

“Like others, earlier I wanted to join the Army. But now I have found my interest in cooking. I cook at home. Chicken dishes are my favourite,” says Chandu, who had dropped out of a private school first due to his parent’s inability to pay fees, and then dropped out of a government school due to losing interest. His younger sister Venkatamma is now undergoing a bridge course to join Class 6 next year while his older brother Dasarath has completed Class 10 in the open category last year.

But how are students of different age groups and learning challenges taught under one roof? When a student is admitted into this school, a child is made to take a baseline assessment test in English, Telugu and Math. “It is just to know where they stand. With the outcome of this analysis, we compare the result with what they ought to know according to the state government’s textbooks for his/her age. For the next year, we will work to fill this gap. We work on phonetics and pronunciations which play a very important role. Making the students talk and read more helps in building confidence in them,” explains Shravanthi, another teacher.

Then there are others like Devi and her younger sister Sirisha who have been enrolled in CKE school for two years but have started attending classes regularly only in the last three months. “During the pandemic months, a few students returned to child labour activities. We have managed to bring them back. They have forgotten whatever we taught them in the past. So we have to begin from scratch and strengthen the basics like identification of the alphabet, the sounds, words, and pronunciation for a few months,” says Yuvaneshwari, adding the aim is to make them feel confident to lead an independent life.

But completing the bridge course is not all. According to her, mainstream schools are at times reluctant to admit dropouts from underprivileged backgrounds. The process of assimilating the children with mainstream education involves pulling a few strings with individual sponsors. “In the case of Leading Strings School where 10 of our students are admitted into, the principal was very forthcoming. The local police also help counsel the parents on the importance of continuing schooling. We will keep following up with the students from our end. Parents here were not bothered about the education of their children but now there is a feeling of responsibility and accountability in them,” she says.

B Sujeevan Babu, the principal of Leading Strings, maintains the management has not decided when to commence offline classes. “Due to the pandemic, many parents have lost their livelihoods and returned to their villages. I have talked to several of them and told them they should not bother about money but send children to study. But parents are not yet ready,” he says.

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