All the eyes of the eager children are on the classroom monitor with the teacher from Dhaka, a city 130 km away, describing plant cells. Virtually connected, seventh graders fire questions whenever they fail to grasp the lesson.
“Rain Rain Go Away, Come Again Another Day,” the pupils are shouting in chorus after their teacher.
Deep into the Surma Tea Estate at Madhabhpur in Habiganj, tourists are surprised by the rare sight -- a digital school run by Jaago Foundation for the children of underprivileged tea estate workers. The institution follows the English version of the national curriculum.
In the cycle of poverty, the children of tea estate workers usually grow up and follow in their parents’ footsteps and choose tea plucking as a profession. Students drop out of school at an early age to help their parents.
The dropout rate is almost zero at the Jaago school, which was established seven years ago. Children study here for free and get free lunch, books, notebooks and pens.
“The children of tea workers in Habiganj have very few opportunities to go to school. That's why we chose them. We chose the English version of the government curriculum because we want to give priority to future-focused and work-oriented education over traditional education, so that they do not struggle to land a job after getting two degrees,” said Korvi Rakshand, founder chairman of Jaago Foundation.
“We thought that it is easier to get a job if you study in the English version than the Bangla version. Even if there is a shortage of jobs at present, we believe that a person who knows English will not remain unemployed in the longer term. Besides these, if they ever want to study and go out of Bangladesh, the English language skill will help them there too.”
About 4,000 students are studying in 11 digital schools of their kind in 10 districts.
HOW IT STARTED
Korvi said their goal was to bring quality education to underprivileged children in remote areas by connecting them digitally with teachers in urban areas.
“Jaago Foundation has been working for underprivileged children for the past 15 years. Our journey began in a slum area of Dhaka. Then we saw that there are many opportunities to work for the underprivileged outside of Dhaka.”
"And when we came to work outside Dhaka, we found that quality education could not be provided due to a lack of qualified teachers. From there we implemented the online school concept.”
In these schools, the skilled teachers of Dhaka are connected online to classroom monitors. They give the lessons directly from Dhaka just like in-person schooling. A teacher is also present in the classroom to assist the teacher online.
Korvi felt that if the class videos were recorded and shown to the students, it would not be satisfactory as the students would not be able to ask questions, an opportunity available in online classes.
"In this process, we want to do these things not only in tea plantations but also in as many remote areas as possible.”
The foundation also bears the cost of the students’ higher education after they leave the school, but it does not follow conventional ways of fund-raising.
“We find donors for each student's annual expenses. There are cases where one donor bears the cost of 10-15 students,” Korvi said.
He said private companies also bear the cost of the construction of school infrastructure and modern facilities from their social responsibility funds.
The digital class project, as seen today, is funded by Standard Chartered Bangladesh.
“By creating projects without taking donations in bulk, we are taking funds according to the budget, which is making our task easier,” Korvi said.
Some of the fifth graders at the school in Surma Tea Estate said they want to be engineers, some doctors, some police officers and some pilots, while some others said they want to pursue higher education abroad.
“Higher education abroad is no longer a dream. Already, one of our students has got an opportunity to study at a university in the United States after completing high school. He is now staying in the United States,” Korvi said
“When I asked some of our students on the first day, 'What do you want to be in the future?' some of them said 'I want to be a rickshaw-puller'. Now one of them is studying to become a pilot in America. This is an example of how much education can change a person's mindset.”
Bitopi Das Chowdhury, head of corporate affairs at Standard Chartered Bangladesh, said: “Communication skills are very necessary for a career. Today, if you want to communicate with the world, you need to know not only Bangla, but also English.”
"Our underprivileged children are being taught English version books so that they are not left behind in acquiring English skills due to a lack of money."
"Standard Chartered Bank is one of those, with whom we’ve been working for the last 12 years. Standard Chartered has provided all kinds of infrastructure from monitors to internet connection in 11 online schools. Standard Chartered Bank is also providing necessary notebooks for the students,” said Korvi.
Parents in remote areas are very excited to have their children study in such a school. One of them, Pradeep Kairi, said his son Praveen Kairi is now a fifth-grade student.
“My son has studied here for five years. We’re indeed lucky. We are gifted with such a school. There is no such school in any tea garden in Habiganj. My son is doing very well. In the past, we couldn’t even speak Bangla well, let alone English. As he learned English himself, he also taught me.”
“‘How are you?’, ‘I’m fine’, and ‘Good morning’ – I’ve learnt these words from my son. We are very happy.”
Another parent said, “I have a daughter studying in class nine in the science stream. The boy studies here in class seven. This school is very different from other schools. English perfect, time perfect, madam perfect.”
“Everything here is perfect. Everything is done beautifully here, from the recitation of the Quran to the reading of Gita in the morning.”
Swapna Begum, the mother of Sabreen Sameer, a class six student, said: “Schools were closed for two years during the pandemic, but there was no disruption in education here. My daughter joined online classes.”
[Writing in English by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]