Many children on the street in the six-to-fourteen age-group never get to go to school because they are left fending for themselves for various reasons, including urban deprivation, HIV-infected parents, and migration. Now, a special training centre seeks to fix this issue.
Fathima, a social mobiliser with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, has been frequently visiting 12-year-old G. Maria’s house in Triplicane to get her to come and stay at the first ever Residential Special Training Centre in the city started as part of SSA this year. Maria has only been to school for three days. Ms. Fathima says that Maria’s mother Roja promised to send her daughter to the centre at the nearby Chennai Middle School in Bells Road. On Wednesday, as children obligingly pinned flags on their uniforms, stood in attention and saluted the flag, there was disappointment in store as Maria was nowhere to be seen.
“Since this is the first time, parents are a bit wary,” observed Amul Rani, project director, RSTC. RSTCs, part of the Rainbow Homes network, are where SSA, in collaboration with NGOs, identifies and gives shelter to drop-outs, never-enrolled students, migrant children, children of parents affected by HIV, urban deprived, and children on the street in the six-to-fourteen age group.
6-year old Parameshwari, however, celebrated Independence Day for the first time on Wednesday.
Ms. Amul says if not for the intervention, the sprightly young girl might have never gone to school. “Her parents separated and left her on the street. When she came to us, she had fever, and pinch marks on her legs,” she said. Of 22 students, 18 are regulars, while four are still in the testing period.
At the centre, the age-appropriate class for each student is identified and they go through a bridge course that lasts between three months and two years before being ‘mainstreamed.’ This the first time such centres are being started in Chennai though such residential homes have been functioning in other districts of Tamil Nadu and the country.
“In addition to RSTCs at Bells Road and Jagannathapuram in Chetpet, we have sought approval for one at Kosapet. The third centre was earlier supposed to function from Gangapuram, but due to lack of infrastructure, we had sought another location. Thus, the delay,” said V. Sasikumar, District Co-ordinator, Out-of-School Children, SSA, adding that Chennai was the only place where the residences are attached to corporation-run schools. “In most other places, the NGOs running the centres either use their own buildings or pay rent in a private building,” he said. While the allotted strength for the centres is 100, the actual number oscillates between 66 and 75. “We conducted a survey in February and identified 317 children. But by the time the approval came, it was June and we lost track of many children,” says Ms. Amul.
A. Kiruthika, Project co-ordinator, Chennai Middle School, Jagannathapuram, said that identifying children and mobilising them was a continuous process. “Most of the girls are below 10 years of age and are children of rag-pickers or alcoholics,” she said. So far, only girls have been enrolled because they rank higher on the vulnerability scale, say authorities.
The Rainbow Home in Triplicane has two full-time house mothers who stay with the children, a house manager, a home co-ordinator, an accountant-cum-teacher, and a counsellor. “We have chosen schools with low strength, so that the school is able to use its infrastructure and human resource and students also get the required attention,” said Ms. Amul. When students are Maria, are enrolled, she noted that it would be a challenge to coach them, considering that they had to start from the basics.
“Almost all of them are drop-outs, there are two children with HIV positive parents, and another child was thrown in a garbage bin, and was rescued and brought up by a couple. When the child goes to the family and does not return, we still keep track,” said Ms. Amul.
Utmost care is taken to ensure the children are able to mingle with regular school children and are not branded as ‘SSA children’. Considering how new the concept is, both for the children and the school, it is likely to take a while, authorities observed.
Despite such efforts, like these by the Government, there are still children like Surya, who had come to watch the Independence Day celebration in his sister Pavithra’s new home cum school. He hasn’t gone to school in over a month. Surya says that he has found a job at a press where he is paid Rs. 1,500 per month. While his father says that all of them have been coaxing him to leave the job and go back to school, Surya says that he would go back, if he had a choice.