A private school in Guwahati, a city in the North of India, is finding its own path forward to teach poor children, and to combat exploitative child labor. They are combining “alternative tuition” and environmental awareness by allowing students to pay their tuition with garbage.

Each week, students have to bring 25 plastic bags to school, and any other scrap they may find. Their parents are also invited to sign a pledge to make conscientious choices about discarding waste. The school does much of its own recycling in-house, turning plastic waste into ‘eco-bricks’ which they use in on-campus construction.

While the trash is what makes an attractive headline, the real focus ought to be on the purpose of the school itself. Akshar Forum School, founded by Professor Alaka Sarma, Parmita Sarma, and Mazin Mukhtar, is set in a community where many of the children never get to attend school, instead going to work quite young in local quarries.

Since having them go to school would have cost their families needed income, the founders needed an incentive. So Akshar Forum School employs its students, which allows them the money to pay their tuition. Teenagers manage an animal shelter and do the lion’s share of the work in the recycling center, where they are paid piecework by the school itself, and they are taught to teach. They’re also provided with clean clothing, a daily meal, and transportation, which were large obstacles to attending the government schools for many.

“The real priority is how can we have these teens earn enough money while developing the community, [and] enough money to stay at school and finish their education,” Mukhtar said.

Akshar Forum School, which currently has 110 students from ages 4-15, is part of Akshar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building schools like this, and is currently funded by international donors. They hope to make the recycling services grow to support the rest, but that is in the future.

Keeping students in school to get a complete education is the ultimate goal. An educated workforce is one that can advocate for itself, and being able to do so is the way forward for any at-risk community.

Photo: Students in a classroom in India. Credit: CRS PHOTO / Shutterstock.com