Street-Smart Schooling

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photo by Brent Lewin

At 7 a.m. in Mumbai, 11-year-old Rangita awakes to a cacophony of morning traffic, just meters from where she lies behind a plastic tarp. Unlike most Indian street children her age, Rangita rises not to work the streets or beg, but to don a school uniform and work toward her goal of one day becoming a doctor. She is one of the fortunate few to have attended the School on Wheels program and to have made the transition to the regular school system.

India’s largest city has a booming economy–and some of the highest rent prices in the world. The city is also home to Asia’s largest slum, though, and it’s estimated that half of the city’s residents call one of many shantytowns home. Struggling to survive, the children of Mumbai’s streets often end up forfeiting an education in order to contribute desperately needed rupees to their families’ incomes.

Social worker Bina Lashkari has long believed that education is the only way to give these children hope for a better future. Instead of trying to convince families to send their kids to school, Lashkari and her colleague Rajani Paranjpe came up with the idea of bringing the school to them–a “school on wheels.” By converting a school bus into a classroom, they created a stable and consistent learning environment that could be taken right to the “doorsteps” of working children.

“People thought we were crazy,” Lashkari says. ” ‘Why do you want to waste money on a bus?’ they asked. Finally, in 1998, the Japanese consulate donated the funds for a bus and we haven’t looked back since.” School on Wheels has now been educating street kids in Mumbai for nine years and in nearby Pune for seven.

A typical day in Mumbai sees the School on Wheels making four stops in areas where the concentration of street kids is high. Each class draws between 20 and 25 students and lasts two hours. The bus parks, some kids come to meet the bus, and the teacher collects the others from their homes–usually nothing more than tents pitched on the sidewalk. Children are taught a curriculum of Hindi, math, science, music, and art.

The goal is to get the children up to a level at which they can be mainstreamed into government schools, which is no small task. “We need to start from scratch,” Lashkari says. “These kids have short attention spans because they’ve never been to school. Each group of students initially learns discipline, health issues, and cleanliness. We teach them not to beg, steal, or cheat. We teach them not to swear, not to hit one another, and how to sit in one place for a period of time.”

Brent Lewin is a photographer and writer; Reprinted from Verge (Fall 2007), an independent publication about travel with a purpose. Subscriptions: outside Canada $25/yr. Canadian, in Canada $14/yr. Canadian (4 issues) from 1517B Schutt Rd., Palmer Rapids, ON K0J 2E0, Canada;

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