How a Kerala district is helping stem school dropout rate among migrant children

DATE: 28-Oct-2018 Reported By: Vishnu Varma

The district administration of Ernakulam has launched a programme titled ‘Roshni’ through which kids of migrant workers are given language proficiency skills, especially in Malayalam,so that they can follow what’s being taught in regular classes.
A few minutes past eight on a recent morning, Sakeela Begum was preoccupied in a corner of a school classroom, turned into a makeshift kitchen, making hot chapatis on a stove. Her elder daughter, Khushi, who studies in Class I in the same school, milled around with two of her classmates. The rest of the school have not arrived yet, but they would shortly.

Over the last three months, Sakeela has stuck to a tight morning routine. She would wake up early, prepare breakfast for her husband, dress up Khushi for school and then leave for the same school where she would spend the next hour or two making breakfast for the 40-odd schoolchildren. She gets paid a measly Rs 150 a day for her work, but doesn’t mind it as long as her daughter gets through school and doesn’t go hungry.

Sakeela is part of the strong and steadily growing migrant worker community in Ernakulam district of Kerala whose children are finding it increasingly difficult to compete academically with Malayali kids in schools due to a range of reasons, chiefly among them the barrier of language. To address this problem, the district administration of Ernakulam has launched a programme titled ‘Roshni’ through which kids of migrant workers are given language proficiency skills, especially in Malayalam, so that they can follow what’s being taught in regular classes. The pilot project was kickstarted last year in four schools. Now, its success has compelled the district administration to expand it to 14 more government/government-aided schools in the district covering nearly 750 students.
The ‘Roshni’ programme involves 90 minutes of classes, beginning at 8:30 am, at these schools led by a qualified volunteers equipped with special course modules. The project, which also includes a round of nutritious breakfast for the kids, is currently supported by the CSR initiatives of the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) Refinery in Kochi.

“It’s being appreciated a lot at the state-level. At the 18 schools, where the programme is underway, we have not reported any dropout of students. In fact, some of the students who are part of Roshni have even topped in examinations,” said Romy Felix, an official at the district collectorate closely associated with the programme.

For years, government officials in Kerala have been racking their brains to craft new policies and welfare programmes aimed at empowering guest workers and their families. An estimate in 2013 had put the migrant worker population in Kerala at a staggering 25 lakh, a significant percent of which is considered to be floating. There’s no denying however the tremendous role they play in the state’s labour market and how their participation especially in construction and other blue-collar industries is key to Kerala’s GDP. While successive governments have set aside funds in the state budget to build houses for them or envisage pension schemes, almost nothing has been done to boost the educational potential of the children of these workers. That’s where, ‘Roshni’ comes in.
At the Union LP school in the heart of Kochi city, where Sakeela works, 40 of the total 44 students from Classes I to IV are those from the migrant community. Mostly Muslims, these kids are from financially-backward families who have settled in the state after migrating from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Sakeela, who came to Kerala a year-and-half ago from Kolkata in West Bengal, admits she doesn’t understand Malayalam. “But my daughter Khushi can speak and understand. Actually, she’s the one teaching us. She learnt it from her teachers and by interacting closely with her classmates,” she says.

In fact, interaction with peers is one aspect that teachers and volunteers emphasise in schools like these. They argue that no matter how many language proficiency classes are held for migrant children, unless they converse with the local children in Malayalam, they would not be able to improve their skills in the local language.

“Padhai accha hai. I told the teachers that if you give her (Khushi) attention, she will do very well),” said Sakeela.

Roopa John, 36, the volunteer in-charge of the ‘Roshni’ programme at the school, explains the methods adopted to teach the migrant kids. “We use a combination of code-switching and graphic imagery. For example, to explain rain, we play the sound of rain. They recognise immediately what rain sounds like. We then use the Hindi word for rain – ‘baarish’ and then translate it into Malayalam – ‘mazha’. We repeat the word again and again so that they remember it,” she describes one of the modules.

“There’s a lot of improvement in many of these kids. Some are slow to pick up words, others are fast. Unlike other students, we have to look closely at their family backgrounds. They are all extremely poor and come from families where education is not seen as a priority,” she adds.

The ‘breakfast’ component has been added to the programme, say teachers, especially to attract them to school and keep them focused on studies. “In the beginning, when I used to take classes, I would often see kids falling unconscious because they haven’t eaten anything. Their parents would often be in a rush to go to work and have hardly any time to feed the kids. But once the Roshni programme began, I could observe that children are much more active and attentive in class,” says Roopa.

“They are even helping their parents in interacting with local officials to get Aadhaar cards or ration cards,” she adds.

Later this month, the ‘Roshni’ programme will undergo a social audit with professionals from outside visiting schools and interacting with students to gauge the effectiveness of the modules. The students will be given a number of tasks to showcase their language proficiency, especially in Malayalam. Apart from the audit, there are monthly review meetings and booster training sessions to maintain the standard of the programme.

An official said that the campaign’s success has been noted at the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) level and could eventually pave the way for its replication across the state.