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April 30, 2013

Makeshift Schools Help Mumbai Slum Children Beat the Odds

by Aru Pande

The Indian government in recent years has made free primary education a right for all children. But millions remain outside the educational system. To reach some of the neediest students, one group is now taking classrooms to the streets of Mumbai.

Behind the greenery at this Mumbai public park, a mother of two is spending her morning teaching the basics of English spelling. Aparna Kanda understands how crucial these few hours are for these young learners, many of whom often have to study by streetlamp.
 
“Here are a group of children who are on the verge of dropping out of school because they do not have that support at home, because both parents are working hard to meet ends [make ends meet]. And these guys just go home and feel very dejected usually because they are not doing too well in school,” said Kanda.

Foundation flourishes

In just one year, a group of 15 volunteers has transformed this public park in Mumbai into a makeshift school, where some 250 children from local neighborhoods and slums come to enhance their learning.
 
Two Mumbai residents started Angels Xpress Foundation in 2012 after finding that many of city’s more than 4 million school children still lack basic English and mathematics skills.
 
In fact, despite high enrollment levels of primary school children, a recent nationwide study found that only half of those enrolled in the fifth grade could solve simple subtraction problems. The report notes a decline in students’ reading and math levels, despite India’s 2010 Right to Education Act, which mandates free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six and 14.
 
With these statistics in mind, Angels Xpress Co-founder Beena Advani decided to concentrate on Mumbai’s slums, where she said many parents are unable to provide proper educational support to their children.
 
“I am sure they live in a very strenuous and stressful situation themselves, so they may not have the time or the knowledge to pass on the value that we are giving them, because they [the children], most of them are first-generation learners,” said Advani.
 
Thriving children

Recent high school graduate Sakshi Shivdasani, a volunteer on this particular morning, said working with these children has opened her eyes not only to their potential, but also to the struggle of the roughly 10 million who live in Mumbai’s slums.
 
“None of them actually get half the things we do, they get up early to bathe because they won’t get water supply later. It actually helps me understand what half of the people are going through,” said Shivdasani.
 
Children like 11-year old Sneha Yadav come to this park, one of two street schools, every morning at 7 a.m. for three hours of learning before heading to school. Volunteers also provide food, books and clothing.
 
“The school is so good that whoever comes will never want to leave,” said student Sneha Yadhav.
 
Angels Xpress hopes to increase the number of its schools in India’s financial hub in order to reach at least 1,000 slum children a year.