Walk into the Depok bus terminal, snake through the rowdy blue angkots and the maze of kiosks selling instant coffee and cigarettes and you’ll find a collection of small green buildings. Up and down the alleys run children of all ages, some wearing the national school uniform, but many just sporting tattered T-shirts and cut-off shorts, barefoot amid the honks of buses and vans. A few meters away, class is in session.
This is the Master School, held at the terminal’s mosque or in makeshift classrooms in the neighborhood.
It’s recess, and a group of second-graders are tossing an inflated plastic bag fastened with a rubber band, while in another corner third-graders trade sports cards.
Older boys play football in the small concrete quad. Mostly, though, the open classrooms are dominated by shouts of “You’re stupid,” “No, you’re stupid.”
At first glance, there is almost no way of knowing that these children had once made their way in the world by begging, busking, trash picking and selling newspapers by the roadside.
Street children continue to be a problem in Jakarta and other urban centers around the nation.
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, there are currently 12,000 street children in the capital, but this may be a gross underestimate because their numbers are difficult to track.
The number is expected to grow by up to 40 percent each year.
The Master School, founded by a group of young volunteers in 2002, provides free alternative education to Jakarta’s street kids from kindergarten to high school.
The students follow a government-approved curriculum for informal education. They attend one of three shifts, in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Classes were initially only held in the mosque. Since then, the volunteers, mainly university students and recent graduates from diverse fields of study, have slowly built additional classrooms with limited supplies, including a two-story building made of empty shipping containers. The result resembles a small village, inhabited by loud, animated children and their patient tutors.
The instructors and other staff volunteer their time but are reimbursed for their transportation expenses. “We don’t expect anything in return. Just teaching is very rewarding,” says Yuni, a teacher.
According to Nurohim, one of the founders, the school relies mostly on private funding. “We accept any donation, as long as it’s not binding,” he says. “We also work with students and graduates of the school. When they work, they give some of their money to the school.”
Nurohim, 38, says the school has come a long way since its humble beginnings, when he and his peers first saw the need to provide free education for street children.
“We started out of sympathy. In this terrible economy, a lot of people run to terminals and train stations to make a living. The real victims are the children, who aren’t getting even their most basic rights,” he says.
“People have criticized the situation for a long time, but we thought it was time for concrete action,” he adds. “So we just went out and asked the if they wanted to go to school and they said yes.”
Over 700 children turned up at the mosque on the first day. But due to limited space and manpower, the school could only take 300. Now, however, with more volunteers coming to teach and more classrooms built, the school caters to over 2,000 children.
“These are kids who aren’t used to having hopes or dreams,” Nurohim said. “They needed inspiration. That’s where we come in — as role models, the brother or father figure who they’re missing.”
Driven by a strong passion for learning, the children come to school from as far as Bogor and South Jakarta, often by jumping trains or hitching rides in pickup trucks.
Della, 9, a third-grader, comes to school by train from Bogor. Alan, 15, rides the train from Citayam, Depok. “I want to go by car, but there’s no money,” he says.
But distance or financial constraints are no barrier for the students, as evidenced by the school’s large attendance.
“These are great kids,” Yuni says. “They have a real passion, a real thirst for learning. We get our energy from them.”
“I really like it here,” says Alan, a middle-schooler. “You can lie down in the classroom while listening to the tutor.”
“There’s just a really strong bond here,” says Farida Soraya, a 22-year-old tutor. “We’re all like brothers and sisters.”
But of course, school can’t always be fun and games. “Sometimes, if the students can’t recite the multiplication table, we tell them to run around the field,” Farida says.
Another challenge is keeping the students in class. “It can be tough sometimes because a lot of the children don’t come to class regularly. We have kids that come, then stop for three or even six months,” Yuni says.
The students are often forced to go back to work in the streets, or do chores at home. “I stay home to mop the floors or clean. My parents both go to work, so I’ve got to do it,” 12-year-old Dini says.
But with a positive and engaging atmosphere, the school’s alternative education method works despite limited resources, the volunteers say.
The school has a modest computer lab, a printing shop and a painting studio. Books, stationery and clothing are provided free of charge to those in need.
The Master School’s students boast many achievements, including national awards for academic achievement and an award in the Jabodetabek Math Olympiad.
The school has also sent students on to leading colleges, including one who is matriculating at the University of Indonesia this coming year.
But the school’s goal is largely about teaching fundamentals that these street kids have never been taught.
“It’s about getting the children comfortable to even want to learn,” Nurohim says. Besides, he adds, the focus isn’t just in acquiring knowledge.
“We’re here as facilitators. We don’t want the children to rely on us, because otherwise, if we’re not there anymore, they can easily go back to busking or picking trash.
“Our methods are aimed at expanding their world view, stimulating their awareness and building character so that they can become independent, free thinkers.”