The concept of continuous assessment was practised in the schools she founded much before the CBSE implemented it recently. Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy, better known as Mrs. YGP, began her career 50 years ago and is still going strong.

You can be forgiven for being acutely embarrassed when a well-dressed young man falls at your feet with the greeting “Sri Gurubyo Namah” on a sidewalk in New York. But for Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy — Mrs. YGP as she is known — it was a moment of joy. She saw in that spontaneous gesture, the success of what she had set out to do 50 years ago, under the temporary roof of her terrace. Here was her student, western in dress and location, but Indian in speech and manner.

The school she organised with friends from her Ladies Club as teachers and her own kid and his friends as students has dropped roots in different parts of Chennai. It would be a break-away school, her answer to the irony of Indians abandoning their pre-independence nationalism for unrestrained westernisation. She would retain English as the medium but the message would strongly reflect Indian mythology, Vedic scriptures, traditions and values. She would rewrite the purpose of education.

The suspension her son suffered for carrying an idol to his school only firmed up her resolve. Our lack of pride in our rich heritage, she surmised, was born out of our lack of knowledge about it. Her school curriculum would fill the gap. The school walls would echo with the Bhakti of classical music, dance and drama along with Baa, Baa, Black Sheep. It was her crusade for the “Indianisation of our children.”

Brick by brick

“People ridiculed this would be a cultural centre, not a school,” she says calmly. She went ahead and leased a plot of land, knocked at doors for donations — cash or kind. When she found actor S.S. Rajendran constructing a house, she asked him to donate bricks. Her Bala Bhavan came up, with honey-combed walls and thatched roof. “Brick-by-brick,” she laughs.

“School education in Chennai can be split into ‘before Mrs. YGP's entry and after',” says Dr. Mohan Rajan, ex-student, PTA member and a trustee. “She moved it to one framed by Hindu thought, proved co-curricular learning is as important as classroom academics. The culturally diverse atmosphere she created allowed children to excel in various fields.”

She would be the agent of change, with her school as the model — the PSBB (Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan) model. Step-by-step she upgraded the system, incorporating the best practices from schools she visited abroad. Primary classes would henceforth have picture-based quizzes; question papers would be fun to solve. Story-telling became a class feature along with “author's chair” hours and thematic concerts. Math and Language labs were opened, exceptional students attended enrichment classes. Educational technology entered the curriculum. “I taught Shakespeare,” she says, “to expose them to the best in world literature.”

Learning happened through engagement with the world outside. When kids noticed a bullock being beaten, she made kindness to animals the theme of an annual project. Brighter students did remedial teaching after school hours, adopted children in a corporation school nearby. When they discovered a kid couldn't see well, collected money for glasses. Healthcare and hygiene became part of social sciences, field trips to public utilities subjects for essay writing.

“I particularly liked the idea of continuous assessment,” she says, “and announced weekly cycle tests, with marks aggregated end of term.” Eventually, grades replaced numbers in report cards. “We were already practising the CCE now adopted by the CBSE.”

There was furore. This is how it will be done, she said. With no pressure of ranks, kids blossomed, gained confidence, became the best all-rounders. What about discipline, they asked. It will be assertive, she said. Punishment would be spending time in the library, forgoing favourite classes — a blueprint to abolish corporal punishment. The results — PSBB students went abroad, “became ambassadors of our cultural traditions. Now they want to put their kids here.”

To consolidate cultural activities, she started Bharat Kalachar, an in-house centre that offers scholarships to kids brilliant in the arts, gives young artists a break, invites senior artists to perform.

“The Kala Bharathi awards we give to promising as well as established artists have had a ripple effect, with artists like Harini and Vijay Siva being recognised,” she says.

“Forever she pursued knowledge (took a PhD at 75, learned konnokol later),” said Sundari, former CEO/PRO of PSBB. “And encouraged everyone to aim for leadership.”

“Stand up for your rights,” she tells students. She did. When rules didn't allow her to be Principal of her boys' school, she took it up with Indira Gandhi, spoke to the All India Women's Conference.

“Men are principals of women's colleges,” she argued. “We are identified as mothers; boys won't hurt us.” The rule changed. “Persistence wins,” she smiles.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012