A few months ago, Anirudh Krishnaa, a class XI student at a CBSE school in the city knew little about the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.
After six workshops, and a field visit, he and his schoolmates have now chalked out an extensive plan to sensitise students about sharing a classroom with children from economically weaker sections as mandated by the Act.
Anirudh was among 42 students who were part of ‘Project Enable’, a youth-led initiative organised by the Chennai chapter of Becoming I Foundation that takes provisions of the Act to school students, and sensitises them about the need for inclusive classrooms.
The Act, among other things, mandates that private, unaided non-minority schools reserve 25 per cent seats at the entry-level for children from disadvantaged groups and economically weaker sections of society. "Children in class I just want to make friends. They are not at all judgemental," Anirudh said.
Swetha Viswanathan, one of the mentors from the Foundation who worked with the students said the workshops, which were conducted in the second half of 2013, focussed on creating awareness, sensitisation, understanding bias and privilege and enabling students to identify challenges and find solutions.
"Other than the workshops, students were taken to a school run by the Corporation where Teach for India has a presence. This was to understand the challenging backgrounds these children come from," she said.
"A group of students either from class IX or XI participated from each school. They then act as ambassadors in their respective schools," she said.
On Sunday, students from Bala Vidya Mandir, Sishya, Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Taylors Road, St. Michael’s Academy, PSBB Nungambakkam, Good Shepherd Convent and Sri Sankara Senior Secondary School presented the outcome of the workshops — a long-term plan to make their school more inclusive and spread awareness about the Act to their peers.
Their plans included awareness sessions for parents and teachers and raising funds for the Act’s implementation.
Some students even conducted a small survey. Satvika Rajeev, a class XI student from Sishya School said they conducted a survey covering 40 parents from economically weak backgrounds. They found that of the 25 children of school-going age, only 16 were enrolled in a school. "But all the parents said they would love to put their child in a private school," she said.
Kavya Sreekumar, a student of Bala Vidya Mandir called the workshops an "eye-opener". "We were also overwhelmed with the response we got from students of our school," she said.
Students of Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Taylors Road visited a stretch in Vepery where families from economically-weaker sections lived, and asked parents which schools their children went to, informed them about RTE’s provisions and spoke to students from classes VIII to IX of their school about the Act.
The students’ presentations were judged by a diverse panel. Vasanthi Devi, educationist and former vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University who was one of the judges said that it was important to take the concept of inclusion to students. She said students must not look at it as an act of charity but as a process of learning.
Tarun Varma, member of the Board, Become I Foundation and K.K. Prahalathan, co-founder, Bhumi, an NGO were the other two judges.
Supraja Narayanaswamy, one of the project heads, said in the next phase, they were planning to take the initiative to more schools and also help students of the seven schools with the implementation of their plan. "Each school was assigned a mentor, and all of them did it on a voluntary basis. The mentors are either studying in college or are working," she said.