“Dad, why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?” Asks R Mahajan, my daughter, a fifth grader at the Chirag School.
“Where did you hear that, R Mahajan?”
“I read it in Calvin & Hobbes.”
“And I’ve heard it in Shin Chan and the other TV serials” chimes in A Mahajan, who also went to Chirag “Getting sent to the Principal’s office seems to be, like, the biggest punishment.”
“Well, there are certain schools where getting sent to the Principal’s office is a bad thing.” I answer.
“How can getting sent to the principals office be a bad thing? Sumit Da is so much fun. How is that punishment?”
“Well, the Principal may scold you.”
R thought for a while “But Principals don’t scold. Sunil Bhaiya or Rinku di never scolded us. And Sumit Da…” she smiled “…I don’t think he can scold. I would love to be sent to Sumit Da’s office. It would be so much fun! So why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?”
“If you did something really bad, the principal may ask for your parents to visit the school.”
“But why is parents visiting the school such a bad thing?”
(A few days earlier)
“Papa, Hema didi today said that if we are not good and don’t do our work then we will be made to repeat class five.” Says R Mahajan.
“Oh really?” I ask.
“Yes, since then Mansi and Aru and I – actually the whole class has been plotting how to not be good. That way we can all be in Chirag for one more year.”
“But that’s not fair.” wails A Mahajan, who left the school last year. The Chirag school is only till grade 5 after which the kids have to move to other schools. A Mahajan is now being homeschooled. “They never had that at our time. If they had that option when I was in grade 5, I would have repeated 5 and would not have left Chirag.”
The above are real conversations we have had with our kids. Their school, the rural, hindi-medium Chirag School, truly shows what a “fear free” school should be. And the school delivers fabulous learning, which I wrote about here. The school succeeds because there is no fear. Not despite it’s absence.
The village school is a stereotype. We expect people from lower income families to send their kids there. The average class size is 40 or 50 kids. The teaching methodology is traditional rote learning so the academic performance is expected to be average at best. A teacher slapping a student raises no eyebrows. We don’t expect any changemakers coming from these schools. We expect future leaders to come out of the big city schools where the rich kids go.
The trouble with stereotypes, of course, is that they are often true.
Here, in our neighbourhood, we have a Hindi-medium village school. The monthly fees of just Rs. 150. As expected, people from lower income strata send their kids there. That is where the stereotype ends. The class size of 18 is smaller than Pathways. The personal attention and involvement with each child is intense. The school follows a fear-free, experiential education methodology which many city schools tout but few deliver. The kids in this school are not scolded. They ask any question they want – their teachers patiently lead the child to the answer or encourage them to find it. Consequently, the kids are fearless and learn because they still feel a sense of wonder about the world. Their schooling hasn’t taken a toll on their curiosity.
This is the Chirag school – a great example of what schooling can and should be. Many highly-reputed schools in the city started off like this – as alternative schools with a beautiful vision. What kills them is growth – they scale at the expense of that vision. By the time they add that sixth section to grade 2, they have become one-size-fits-all factories.
But Chirag chooses to stay small, with only one section to each class. It is no surprise that the Chirag school has an academic record which stands the stereotype of the village school on its head. Measuring learning is controversial in the least, and a big exam is amongst the worst ways to do it. Unfortunately, it is the method the whole country follows. The kids from Chirag also have to adapt to the “outside world” after grade 5, so they take exams like the Navodaya exam.
While the privileged city kids have never heard of Navodaya, it is a big deal in the village. The Navodaya schools are government-run boarding schools from grades 6-12. They are completely free, including the tuition, boarding and lodging. Admission is based on an entrance test. Rural parents aspire to these schools, but since many kids are first generation learners the parents have no way to prepare the child for such an exam.
That is where the Chirag teachers come in. As I mentioned in my previous blog about the school, the true stars here are not the students, but the teachers. Molded in the Krishnamurti tradition over the past 10 years,
the teachers have commitment levels comparable to, say, a McKinsey consultant. They are as good at their work, but their motivators are different. These teachers are driven by their concern for their students. There is no personal glory or money or growth for doing extra work. But they take amazing pride in their students’ success. Two teachers volunteered to teach the grade 5 students through the one month winter break to ensure they do their best in the Navodaya entrance exam. Here at 6000 feet, winters are bone chilling. But the teachers and students turned up every day through the winter for the extra classes.
The Navodaya entrance exam is tough. For every 100 kids who take the exam, two kids are accepted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawahar_Navodaya_Vidyalaya#Admission). 4 of the 17 fifth-graders who appeared from Chirag were accepted. That is an acceptance rate of 24% against the national average of 2%. The Chirag kids are similar to other kids that take the exam. Only their education differs. Chirag school pulls this off with modest infrastructure but the right philosophy and approach. This result is testament to all that is right with this school.
Another great story is that of Jiya.
Every Independence Day the kids at Chirag put up a play for the community. This year was special because of Jiya (name changed). Jiya is a child who has different needs. She
enrolled in school at age six and hadn’t spoken a word until then. Chirag happily accepted her – “inclusive” is a philosophy here. With persistent support from her teachers and a lot of love and care from her classmates, Jiya slowly started adjusting to school. She spoke her first words after a couple of years of joining school. So imagine the joy Jiya brought when she performed on stage for the first time despite her social anxiety. She nailed all her lines. Most heartwarming was the applause she received backstage from her teachers and friends.
But the Chirag school needs support to survive and grow. If the above stories inspire you, please help. There are two ways in which you can.
The school is partly funded by the Chirag NGO, but depends in large part on the support of well-wishers like you. If you could like to make a contribution to the school, please donate at www.chiragschool.org .
The Principal of the school – Sumit Arora – will be leaving in March of 2019. He is brilliant, down-to-earth, methodical and a leader. He has transformed many aspects of the school. He has brought the morale of his team to a new high. To fill in his shoes, we are looking for candidates who might be interested in leading this outstanding primary school in the beautiful Kumaon Himalayas. This school requires intense work and this should not be seen as a retirement posting. If you know someone who you think may fit the bill, please connect with me at email@example.com.
(The author, Chetan Mahajan, is the parent of two Chirag students. He was the former chairman of the School Management Committee of Chirag, and continues to be deeply involved with the school. Before moving to the village, he was in leadership roles in various education companies including a Gems group subsidiary. He last role was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has visited some 1000 schools over the last decade.
One reason he left the city was his disillusionment with corporate India, which includes the business of education. He touched upon this in his recent TEDx talk ).
“Our 2nd graders reading is seven times better than the national average.” Said the principal.
“Seven percent, you mean?” I corrected gently.
“No seven times.” He said, reeling out some data*.
But how can a Hindi medium village school where the teachers don’t even raise their voice pull this off?
The Chirag school started as a unique experiment. Could kids from a village learn in a fear-free environment? If rote learning was replaced by experiential learning, wouldn’t the villagers resist it? Could the principles of J Krishnamurti – which work so well in schools like Rishi Valley – also work in a no-frills rural school?
Today, ten years on, the experiment has been an unbelievable success. Chirag’s kids are an incurably curious and fearless lot. Their parents love the school and it’s method of instruction. The school outdoes state and national measures on all academic metrics (*see data points below).
I was at a parents meeting at the school last month, and there was some mention of the school going beyond grade 5. A parent whose kids had moved out of Chirag to another school (after grade 5) said she would pull the kids out of the current school and put them back in a heartbeat. After the meeting, another parent confided in me about how that lady in the early days was the one who always pushed for more homework from the school. But after her kids blossomed at Chirag, she clearly values it’s non-rote teaching methods now.
Chinmaya Vempati is a 16 year old intern from Bangalore who helped set-up an offline version of Khan Academy, KA Lite, at the Chirag School. He shared his experience here.
Chirag’s ability to attract and retain great teaching talent has made it a fabulous place to learn. Sumit Arora, 30, is a great example. An SRCC graduate with a Masters from Azim Premji University, he could be anywhere.
But he chooses to lead this amazing little school. And inspires everyone around him. Beth, the former assistant principal at the American Embassy School, volunteers full-time at Chirag.
The teachers at Chirag are driven. We saw a great example this month. Since the Chirag School is only till grade 5, kids have to switch to other schools in grade 6. The most coveted is the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya – a government run chain of residential schools which are almost free. The Navodaya entrance exam – with a pass rate of 2% (Link here) – is on Feb 4, 2018. Chirag has its annual vacation through January. Two Chirag teachers volunteered to help the kids prepare for the Navodaya entrance through the vacation. Both of them came to school everyday of January – including Saturdays. They did this free – for their students and their beliefs, not for money. Since Chirag kids are not used to exams, the teacher’s support was critical. Almost the whole of grade 5 turned up on most days through the semi-polar January. No wonder Chirag kids do exceptionally well in this exam.
For a school which is able to deliver all this, the Chirag School runs on a tiny budget. The holistic, progressive education of a child in the Chirag School costs Rs. 24,000 per year. With 122 kids, that is an annual budget of 30 lakhs. Most parents can pay precious little. The Chirag organization has been supporting the school 100%. But that support is now diminishing because of internal priorities at the NGO. The school needs money. It is raising funds for the next two years, and has also set-up an endowment fund.
My kids go to Chirag. I was heading the School Management Committee (SMC) for two years. I can vouch for the school and everything is delivers. In fact, Chirag is the reason we chose to live in these parts when we decided to leave Gurgaon for the mountains.
Please support this amazing school. You can learn more about the school and find payment links at www.chiragschool.org.
* Data points : 94.1% of Chirag’s class 2 students can read at grade level as compared to the national average of 13.4%. Over 94% of children in class 5 can do simple division as compared to the national average of 25.9%. (National data from ASER 2016)