A guiding light at night

Going to school after sunset is not a new concept. The first night school in Maharashtra was opened by social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule in 1885, and today, Mumbai alone has around 150 night schools, according to Masoom, a Mumbai-based NGO that works towards educating underprivileged children and facilitating night schools in the city.

Paying attention: Out of 150 night schools in Mumbai, MKGS is the only night school requiring a school uniform. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Masoom was founded in 2008 by Nikita Ketkar after she quit her government service job. “The concept of night schools in Mumbai is over 150 years old and even today, the problems most of these school students face are as old as the concept,” she says. “The students who attend night schools are mainly adolescents and adults; they work during the day and attend school at night. They are people who have dropped out of school at some point in their life, but they want to complete their formal education. And night schools provide a perfect platform for them.”

Looking ahead: Masoom’s founder Nikita Ketkar wants better awareness for night schools

With the importance of education gaining prominence in the public eye, night schools are naturally part of the focus. On Teacher’s Day this year, a city taxi company launched a ‘Padhao Mumbai’ campaign across its 2,800 taxis in the city. The company’s spokesperson says, “We are launching this campaign as a part of our CSR initiative. We hope that people help Masoom by volunteering and teaching in night schools. We will display this campaign on our cabs for one month and we hope it will generate the buzz we want.” To which Ketkar adds, “Night schools are ignored in our city and I don’t think just a month of campaigning is enough. We need regular support and exposure.”

Sister act: Sisters Zakiya and Danisha Kalu attend night school

Ketkar says, “Masoom works solely for night schools. We provide them with missing resources like a mobile science lab, books, evening meals, teacher trainings and so on. In order to get more applications, we arrange street plays and workshops in the slums, because we feel that is where our target audience is. I believe that formal education is necessary for human development. Also if we encourage underprivileged students to attend night schools, the chances of them getting involved in anti-activities are lower. I feel night schools help the youth to focus their energies on productive activities.”

Encouraging students: Retired headmaster Ankush Jagdale

Sisters Zakiya (15) and Danisha (13) Kalu are both students of night schools. They say that they preferred going to a night school rather than a day school, as their nearest day school was not close to their home. Zakiya, who scored 67 per cent in her tenth and is currently studying commerce says, “In my college, SNDT, none of my classmates are aware of the concept of night schools. They find it very new. I know many of them are inquisitive, but they are afraid to ask.” Her sister Danisha, who aspires to be an engineer, says, “With night schools we don’t miss out on our education and simultaneously we are able to earn a living during the day. In a way we can do a lot more than what day schools would allow you to do.”

Changing society: ex-student Rashmi Kadam

Saifuddin Shaikh (21) an ex-night school student and now a teacher for the blind, says, “I started attending Maratha Mandir Worli Night High School when I was 15. Initially I was told that night school is all about having fun. That’s why I joined it. But I soon realized that night schools are very intense. In a day school we study six subjects in six hours. But in night schools we study six subjects in just three hours! Teachers always encouraged and respected us. Now I teach Braille to blind students and it is very rewarding. Night schools are for those who really want to learn. We work all day and study in the night. My aim was to get educated and I have a decent job. Now I provide for my family.”

Inspiring: Saifuddin Shaikh, an ex-student of a night school, teaches Braille to blind students

Headmaster of Meenatai Kurude Girls High School (Wadala), Sangeeta Kadam says, “My night school is the only school in Mumbai to have a uniform, and I am so proud of it. Students who come to a night school are mostly from the slums. They are not respected at home, as it not a part of their culture. Sometimes students only come to night schools as they are respected here by the teachers and peons. Some of my ex-students are now teachers. All they want is a little encouragement. Though the night schools are government-aided, they have been neglected. We rent classrooms from BMC schools. But we are not allowed to use any other facilities of the school; not the science lab or the playground. We conduct our assembly in the corridor of this building. We are not allowed to move or change anything in the classrooms. Our schools lack basic infrastructure and I am amazed that despite poor infrastructure, teachers and students regularly attend school.”

Another concern Kadam points out is that of acceptance. She says, “Once these students pass out, they are not easily adopted by the society or colleges. Everyone looks at them with suspicion. They should be encouraged to study further and should be provided scholarships and funds. These students really deserve the best and they need all the help they can get.”

A student of Masoom’s pilot school, Milind Night School, Rashmi Kadam (24) attempted the tenth board exams for the second time. She says, “My father had fallen sick. I am the oldest of my siblings, so I was responsible for my family’s well-being. After I failed in my first attempt, I was not interested in studying further. My aim in life was to feed my family and that’s all I did. But with an incomplete educational qualification, I never got a decent a job. My younger sister suggested I attend a night school. The concept of night schools in my area was not new, but it was also nothing to look up to.”

Rashmi adds “The perception amongst people is that night school is for fun, and it is attended by people who are bored and have nothing to do. But that is not true. I don’t think there is much difference between a day school and a night school. In fact, if a person is working all day and attending school at night, it shows that the person is passionate and wants to do something with his life. But the sad thing is that even today, people say, ‘ladki ko raat ko bahar jaane ki kya zarurat hai? padhai karke kya hasil kar lengi, waise bhi uska kaam sirf bachche paalna hai.’ (What is the need for a girl to go out in the night? What will she achieve after getting herself educated; anyway all she has to worry about is taking care of children.) I don’t think our society values women and the fact that they want to be educated and progress in life. Whenever I would tell people I am from a night school, they would have questions. They wonder what went wrong with me or they judge my character. After a while I just stopped caring about what people had to say, and I am grateful I attended a night school; it changed my life. Today night schools need proper infrastructures and facilities, but the mindset of people towards night schools should change. Only then will they improve and only then the students of night schools will be accepted.”

Ex-headmaster of Utkarsh Night High School in Worli, Ankush Jagdale (61) says, “I retired in 2011 and since then I have been working with Masoom. Right now, Masoom has adopted 30 schools and 3,197 students have enrolled with us. Next year we hope to have 50 schools under us. In night schools there are no barriers in terms of the age. We have students aged 13 to 32 years. We had conducted an attendance survey on July 31 and we found that 26 per cent of the students don’t attend regularly. That is not because they don’t want to study, but because of work and family problems. Right now we are trying to improve the attendance. I think this campaign will empower the students and many more would want to attend night schools. Most of the night schools are in the slums of Mumbai, where most of our students reside.

“According to a BMC survey, around 58,000 youth from the slums don’t attend schools. So we are hoping that this campaign will create awareness and attract people to attend night school, and also help change the attitude of the teachers. They think that teaching at night school is their supplementary job. Hence they don’t pay enough attention to the students. As the students who attend the night schools are more mature, they need to be encouraged and they are always eager to work hard.”

After Dark
The night is a space that is associated with darkness and danger. In our society it is not a space that women are normally allowed to occupy or venture into. When my editor suggested I attend a class in a night school, I was very apprehensive.

I wasn’t sure about what kind of a crowd would welcome me. Whenever I would think of night schools and its students, I would think of them as people who are not serious enough to attend regular school. But after attending Meenatai Kurude Girls Night School (MKGS) in Wadala, my opinion changed forever. Instead of girls dressed as fashionistas, I was greeted by students impeccably dressed in their three-piece salwar suit uniforms. Right on time, the assembly began at 6.30 pm in the corridor of an under-construction BMC school building, which they had rented.

Reciting verses from songs emphasizing on community unity, the girls seemed eager to attend their classes. All of these students are aged between 13 and 18 years. Each one of them resides in the slums nearby and by the end of the day; there is no other place in the world they would rather be. Physically they are exhausted but mentally they are alert and eager to learn.

Eight teachers teaching 140 students of 8, 9 and 10 Std from four classrooms, for three hours at a stretch, seems daunting. But the teachers don’t seem to be bothered by the flickering tubelights, the out-of-function fans or the stuffy atmosphere due to the locked windows. They have conducted classes in worse conditions. My night school experience was both intense and exciting.

After a long day at work, attending three hours of math, science, history and all the other subjects seemed like a task. Thirteen-year-old Yasmin Shaikh in Std 8, sitting next to me, was far more cheerful and excited than I ever was in school. For me school was boring and painful. But students of MKGS were genuinely happy to be here. Most of them work during the day or look after their younger siblings. With only 10 minutes break in between, the classes were powerful and intense. The teachers made sure student participation was 100 per cent and the students made sure, they had fun.

Night school facts
>> Maharashtra has around 200 night schools
>> The concept of night schools originated in Maharashtra. The first night school was established by Jyotiba Phule in 1885
>> Mumbai has 150 night schools; 30 are adopted by Masoom
>> All night schools are privately owned and government aided. They function out of BMC schools
>> Night schools usually teach secondary school and junior college classes
>> Out of 30 Masoom schools, 26 are Marathi medium, 3 are Hindi medium and only one English medium school
>> More than 10,000 students attend night schools in Maharashtra
>> Masoom has 3,197 students enrolled and 2,500 students attending
>> The age group of students attending night schools varies from 13 to 32 years 

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