In Sanskrit, “akshar” is the word for a “letter, symbol” and “vani” means “voice.” So Aksharavani is representative of both the objective and identity of the school – a space for studying and learning, with the parents’ input as a guiding factor. In fact, the name of the school came through a robust vote by the mothers of the migrant children who attend it. Approximately 40 children come to school fairly consistently and the school is staffed by two teachers and a babysitter. Meals are cooked on site and the children fed daily. Soon the children will be progressing through a “mobile curriculum” that we have developed, mobile because it aims to address the challenge of continuity in education for a community that moves frequently.
The population-language ratio is split almost evenly, between Telugu-speakers (from coastal Andhra) and Hindi-speakers (from Chattisgarh), with some children of Tribal origins (Andhra and Orissa) as well. The school has faced its share of challenges: infrastructure is lacking–classroom was missing a door and there are no bathrooms, for instance, supplies get stolen from the school, and volunteer help is unpredictable. But through the hard work of many individuals, it has slowly progressed to a place of effective learning, where the children are now beginning to develop a voice of their own and to imagine the school as theirs.
We are a group of six Duke students in Hyderabad, India, as a part of an immersive-learning and civic engagement program that is directed by Professor Leela Prasad (Department of Religion & Faculty Director, Duke Center for Civic Engagement). Throughout our time here, we hope to establish a greater understanding of the school and the people, to develop a sustainable model for its continuation after we leave, and provide access to a curriculum that we have developed for such a school as this. It is our hope that through this website, you also will be able to gain glimpses and insight into the lives of the people of this community, and to find useful resources for beginning and maintaining a migrant school of your own. Thank you for your interest. Enjoy–and we hope you will be inspired as we have been!
A LETTER FROM THE FOUNDER, ETHAN GERINGER-SAMETH:
On the University of Hyderabad campus there are multiple communities of migrant workers and their families who work on the construction sites of new school buildings. Their settlements – temporary dwellings made of sheet metal, tarps, and wooden branches – abut the main road through campus. In 2011 it was not uncommon during any daylight hour to step outside a student hostel and see the young children of these workers playing near their homes. They did not attend school. I was there as a student studying for a semester at the University and between February and May of 2011 began Aksharavani, an elementary school for the children of these communities.
I did not do it alone. With the support of the migrant families themselves, teachers, student advocates, and local non-governmental organizations, the school was developed. To achieve this, it was necessary to understand the conditions of the region – its various populations, socio-cultural history, infrastructure, and the role of government. A considerable portion of the Constitution of India is dedicated to the fundamental rights of people. Article 21 of the Constitution, under the Rights of Life, guarantees the right to be educated, the right of non-exploitation, and the right to be dignified. Among these stipulations lay the crux of India’s educational philosophy and my own advocacy.
I had come to India with the perspective that what is new will challenge, that diversity creates innovation, and that positive change requires the guidance and involvement of the people impacted. Here in India, there is both hardship and opportunity. Here are the migrant laborers, within their nation but excluded from its services and the collective protection that is its strength; here are their children without the promise of future opportunities; here are the battered facades of temporary homes. Yet within this landscape lay the strength of community and the seeds for equality through education. It needs only to be cultivated.