I write this from Ahmedabad where I am visiting my family.
Today, I had the good fortune of acquainting myself with Virat Shah, the founder of Sarvodaya Footpath School.
Virat Shah claims to operate eight schools on the footpaths of Ahmedabad, which provide basic education to over 250 kids, aged 5-14 years. His schools are no bigger than a store room and comprise a maximum of 25 children each. His campus – the humble footpath.
As my eyes were treated to the sight of neatly arranged black school shoes outside the classroom, and linearly laid down water bottles in one corner of the classroom, I knew that discipline was an essential cornerstone of Shah’s education policy.
Shah’s journey started in 2010, when he left his lavish job in Dubai and returned to India with an intent to look for opportunities to provide education to underprivileged children.
On one such occasion in 2012, he spoke to children from the local municipality school and realised that those studying in primary school were unable to read and write. Considering the quality of education in our government schools and an undying resolve to provide a more useful education to these children, he opened his first ‘footpath school’ in Isanpur in September 2012.
The idea for the set up of his school stemmed from the reluctance of parents to send their children to a far off place to study. His first school was set up on a footpath with a strength of 10 children and this laid the foundation of greater things to come.
An instrumentation and control engineer by profession, and currently pursuing a degree in law, Shah has been an inspiration to me ever since I happened to read about him in a magazine article a few months ago. I had immediately bookmarked it on my phone and made a mental note to meet him and see his magnificent work one day.
Once in Ahmedabad, I contacted Shah and requested him for a chance to see his unconventional schools. He gaily agreed and invited me to Vatva, Ahmedabad, the next day. For so long, I had been yearning to interact with him, but now that I had a chance to do so, I was absolutely perplexed, wondering what I would actually ask him.
And hence, the following morning, after travelling a distance of 12 km in the sweltering summer heat of Ahmedabad, I finally found myself in one of his schools located near Sadbhavnagar police chowki in Vatva, and was greeted by the man himself.
He diligently showed me around his 15 by 10 single classroom school which had no boundaries. He explained to me in great detail about the overall functioning and daily schedule of his schools.
He also enumerated the several difficulties he has to deal with on a day to day basis in pursuit of his passion which ranged from convincing parents to enrol their children in school, attendance problems, hygiene issues, as well as maintaining a pluralistic class where every student is welcome irrespective of caste, creed or gender.
One of the most striking features of his schools was the proportion of female students to male students. Shah was smiling ear to ear as he proudly stated that 60% of his students are girls. A very commendable achievement, indeed.
Shah requested another teacher to take the 11 am class on his behalf so that he could give me some more time and take me to his schools. I was humbled and grateful.
He then accompanied me to other schools, and at each of them, we were greeted with cheerful kids enthusiastically blaring out, “Good morning, sir,” in coherent unison, bringing back sweet memories from my school days.
Each classroom was filled with chattering kids, with slates in the hands for the freshers (children who can’t write alphabets or basic numerical), and small notebooks for those equipped with basic skills. A few were learning words in English as well and it was truly a heartening sight. Shah also proudly showed me the makeshift shades which he had recently got constructed.
I was also given a tour of another school in a business complex, which held specialised classes for kids in Maths, Gujarati and English, for those who had learned reading and writing in Gujarati, Hindi, basic English as well as numbers, at the various footpath school centres. The one room school consisted of tables and benches along with a white board and a drinking water tank, bringing it at par with some private school classrooms. Shah and the Footpath School plan to provide such facilities to more and more students in the future.
As mentioned before, Shah lays a lot of emphasis on discipline and attendance in his schools. The education methodology and curriculum are carefully curated by him and are based on the same ideology of ensuring regular attendance.
Shah went on to explain that he organises debate, storytelling, dance and yoga classes, as well as competitions for the kids to ensure that they receive a well-rounded education. Computers and projector were also available at the disposal of the school to aid conventional teaching methods in their pursuit to impart quality education to students.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Shah’s daughters – Aparna and Partitha – assisting the teachers at the school in the teaching process.
Shah adds that his schools are unconventional but a viable model to provide basic education to kids at a place which is transparent, inexpensive and convenient. I personally found his schools beautiful with a flavour unmatched to any international school.
Starting with a humble strength of 10 kids in one school to over 250 kids at eight schools, coupled with three volunteers and several paid teachers in a span of three years, Shah has surely come a long way.
However, this great man is not satisfied. His vision is to open a school dedicated solely to imparting free of cost education to children from economically backwards sections of society.
As he shared his vision with me, my beautiful time at the chain of ‘footpath schools’ came to an end. It was a pleasure meeting Shah and it is my personal recommendation to every person who visits Ahmedabad to visit one of his schools. They can have a glimpse into the amount of dedicated and selfless effort Shah and his teachers put in to equip our future generations with the power of knowledge. It was undeniably the most enriching experience I’ve had in my life.