Back to school NCLP school in hogenakkal helping children weave dreams

Dharmapuri : Little Madhubala had just learnt to toddle around when she found herself shepherding flocks of cattle for other people in the village, handling her younger siblings and doing household chores beyond the capacity of a four-year-old.

“My parents sent me to shepherd other people’s cattle. I also washed clothes and filled water for some houses,” said Madhubala, now a 12-year-old student of the National Child Labour Project School in Hogenakkal.

Madhubala was rescued by two women, now her teachers at the school, as a part of the National Child Labour Project initiative undertaken by UNICEF. Introduced in 1988, this initiative aimed primarily at rescuing children like Madhubala who have dropped out of school and bringing them back.

UNICEF Flow Chart on the wall of the NCLP school in Hogenakkal,demonstrating career options for children.

The NCLP school in Hoggenakkal stands inconspicuous in its appearance on the beautiful road that cuts between the mountains, leading to the Hoggenakkal falls. Sunlight streams into the two small rooms that the school consists of – one for academics and the other for craft work and eating.

The craftwork made by the children on display in one of the rooms.

One of the two classrooms at the NCLP school in Hogenakkal.

Of the 25 students enrolled in the current session, seven have turned up today, in their beige and maroon uniforms.

The children of NCLP school, Hogenakkal.

According to P.Ambika, a teacher of Tamil and social sciences in the school and someone who has been associated with the school since its inception, data on various things like tribes, villages and , children, etc of the block is consolidated by the Block Research Coordinator at Pennagaram every year. At the beginning of each new session, the teachers collect this data that gives them a list of the families in the nearby villages that do not send their children to school.

The teachers then reach out to and try to convince their parents into sending their children to the school. Apart from going door-to-door for convincing parents, the teachers also keep a lookout for children working near the school and reach out to nearby shops and houses to inform them about any working child in the vicinity.

(Left) P.Ambika, teacher of Tamil and social sciences. (Right) G.Revathy, teacher of English and mathematics.

“The real challenge is convincing the parents. Most of them belong to extremely poor household and sending their children to work means losing out on a source of income or source of help at home,”, said Ambika. Little hands thus take up fishing illegally at Hoggenakkal or learn to perform acrobatic jumps from atop the heights of Hogankkal falls at the cost of Rs 8-10. Some like Madhubala take up shepherding cattle or are sent to gather and sell forest produce.

To motivate parents into sending their children to school and ensure fewer lesser dropouts, UNICEF gives Rs 150 to every child per month for going to school which can be collected at the end of the session from the bank. Apart from providing the children with books and stationery for free, the government also gives every child Rs 500 per year. According to G.Revathi, a teacher of English and mathematics at the NCLP school in Hoggenakkal, the dropout rate in the area remains low, with a maximum of 1 or 2 out of 25 students dropping out, that too not in every batch.

A board showing the details of every child inducted into the current session including their daily allowance, background details,etc.

Ever since its inception in 1996, the school has had only 400 students. “We take only 25 students every two years. The idea is to take a small bunch of kids and give them concentrated attention to make them fit for higher education,”, said Revathi. The average age group of students enrolled is between 9-14 years. Most of them join the school without any basic education and therefore in the initial three months, everyone learns the basic. After that, the teachers assess each one’s capacity to grasp things and based on their age, they are attended to individually.

Despite the low dropout rate, concentration, attendance and an appropriate environment back at home remains a huge challenge, according to the teachers. For example , for the twinkle-eyed, 9-year-old Kavya, who wants to grow up and join the police force and “arrest the bad guys”, most evenings are spent shielding herself and her three little siblings from the wrath of her alcoholic father. She had to discontinue her education for six months because of regular fights between her parents.

Kavya with a paper fan she made by herself.
Midday meal at the school.

Although the school timing is from 9:30am to 4pm, Revathi and Ambika are seen sitting with some of the children post school hours. “We try to spend as much extra time with them as possible. Giving them homework is not an option always as they go back to an environment that is not suited to studying,”, said Revathi while helping out a 7-year-old Jeeva learn the 12-time table.

Children stay back after school hours to complete work, clear doubts and learn further.

After they finish school, they are enrolled into the nearest government schools for further education. “This is where the catch lies. We experience a number of dropouts when the students are sent to government schools as their parents become reluctant to send them too far or learn anymore,” ,rues Ambika.

Despite these challenges, the NCLP has taught many of these little ones, to dream and achieve bigger things. “One of our students got a gold medal in B.Com last year. Three of them have completed their medical and one of them joined the army,”, said Revathy with a bright smile on her usually stern face.

Children busy at making crafts.

When asked if she would like to get a better job elsewhere considering the fact that she has a B.Ed from Pondicherry University, Ambika smiles as shyly as the 8-year-old Kili who she’s helping out. Putting the final ice-cream stick on the stack of ice-cream sticks Kili is using to make her holding tray, she says, “It’s a real pleasure watching these kids grow up and head for a better life. It’s too much to give up”.

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