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The hall in Dadhre village where the informal school holds classes

The morning is hazy and cool, accompanied by a light drizzle. The shadow of a few trees falls across a classroom where students are in the midst of learning about electricity – the practical way.

Four 15-year-old Adivasi girls are fidgeting with black and red wires in front of about 35 other students. One girl cuts the covering of the wire, another inserts the exposed part through a plug-in. A third is in charge of installing bulb holders, and the fourth makes sure the negative-positive signs are in place. Soon, the group puts together a neatly constructed electric wire.

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Adivasi students demonstrate how an electric wire is made

This “informal” higher secondary school in Dadhre village of Wada taluka in Maharashtra is only two years old, but it is already an important local source of education. It was started in 2013 by a 37-year-old teacher, Pralhad Kathole, and four others, to enable students to continue studying.

After Class 7 at the only Zilla Parishad school in Dadhre (where Kathole works), students had to travel 15 kilometres to reach the nearest high school (though recently the Zilla Parishad school has started a Class 8). Poor transportation and bumpy roads ensured that many students, especially girls, dropped out.

Now, they have another option: the informal school, to which they don’t have to wear a uniform, and where the government-approved curriculum is taught in a uniquely practical manner.

In this remote village, 90 kilometres from Mumbai, students have studied the Pythagoras theorem in an agricultural field by marking out a right angled triangle; they have explored congruent angles and geometric proportions through welding exercises. The formula for volume was explained to them on farmland through an assignment: calculate the length, breadth and depth of a pit required to accumulate 1,000 litres of water. “In summers, we sit under a tree and study,” Kathole says.

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Teacher Pralhad Kathole (right) with a guest

Agriculture is the predominant source of income in Dadhre. “Those who continue their studies neglect farm work, and those who choose to work on the farms drop out of school,” Kathole says. “Our aim is to amalgamate the two.” He emphasises how important it is for the students to remain in touch with farming: “Many cannot make it to the city. If they do not have agriculture to fall back on, they end up doing small jobs.”

After the students graduate from the Zilla Parishad school, Kathole and his four colleagues work with them. The classes are held in a village hall. The aim is to prepare the students for the Class 10 board examinations, which they take privately.

Two years after it was started, 92 students – 48 girls and 44 boys – all of them from tribal communities, are studying at this informal institution. It costs Rs. 3 lakhs a year to run the school – most of which comes from donations from friends and acquaintances. The five teachers cover other overheads such as the cost of field visits, and earn a living by teaching in other schools in the district.

Preparing the students for the board exams is not a smooth process. Though the students are supposed to be ready for the Class 8 syllabus, many initially find it hard to even construct a coherent sentence. “The work we do with some of the 13-year-olds should be done when they are seven or eight,” says Kathole. “Many struggle with basic counting. Almost all need personal attention.”

The Zilla Parishad school in the village lacks facilities such as a library, and an adequate number of trained teachers. The students pay the cost: a poor education. “The emphasis is on remembering things by rote instead of understanding them,” says Kathole. As a result, everyone’s essays read the same; “everyone’s mother invariably wore a blue saree,” says Roshna Kathole, another teacher at Dadhre, and Pralhad’s sister-in-law.

One of Kathole’s first steps was to build a library. A corner of the informal classroom now has various books in Marathi, Hindi and English: from Hana’s Suitcase to the tales of Byomkesh Bakshi. Reading helps the students to start thinking independently. “Reading outside the curriculum is the only way one can teach students to express themselves freely,” says Kathole.

The results are evident: some of the essays by students who could barely write are now profoundly visceral and reflect their complex realities. For instance, when asked to describe their village, 14-year-old Vaishali Kavte wrote about the dowry system and questioned expensive weddings. “How are parents with moderate income supposed to get their daughters married off?” she wrote. “The norm of spending above one’s capacity must end.”

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An essay in Marathi on the summer vacation, by Class 9 student Rohini Wangal

Another student, Sagar Davle, expressed his astonishment at the amount of money a temple possessed. A few students divided their essays into parts: the first half presented facts and observations, the second was opinion. Others, like Rupesh Ravte, 15, say in the past they shuddered at the thought of an essay but now enjoy writing.

The school has ensured that many students easily pass their exams – 14 appeared for the Class 10 exams last year, 12 passed, and some of them have gone on to do diploma courses.

The school has also changed their parents’ attitude to child marriage, which was justified by citing the lack of a higher secondary school. While early marriages still take place in this village, a precedent has been set: Rupali Baraf, 14, almost got married last year before Kathole intervened. “The groom’s parents offered us a saree but I told them to take it back,” she says with a smile.

But many in Dadhre have still not accepted the unconventional school. The Kunbi community heads the village hierarchy, where the other predominant tribes are Katkari and Warli. The Kunbi avoid sending their children to the informal school. But Kathole is confident they will eventually agree and the number of students will increase, as will the impact of this informal school.

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in mass communication and journalism from Journalism Mentor, Mumbai, and was a professional cricketer in Mumbai for 10 years.

Parth M.N.

Parth M.N. is a 2017 PARI Fellow. He is a special correspondent for India with the 'Los Angeles Times' and freelances at various online portals. He loves cricket and travelling.

Other stories by Parth M.N.