School Stars

The Zilla Parishad School in Kenjal in Pune, Maharashtra, has a renovated building complete with an open-air theatre, spacious cultural hall and bright noisy classrooms. Photo: Prashant Nakwe  

Sixty-nine years after Independence, 282.6 million people aged seven and above are non-literate in India, making it the largest such segment in the world. The recent report from the Human Resource Development Ministry, which lays down inputs for the Draft National Education Policy 2016, reveals a high gender gap in youth literacy and low retention rates, with four in every 10 children leaving school before Class VIII. Certain children continue to have poor access to education: children with disabilities, children in remote locations, migrant children and poor children.

It is no secret that India’s government schools are up against enormous odds. By the government’s own admission, schools grapple with teacher absenteeism, high dropout rates, especially among girls, and poor teacher training. The yardstick for learning, meanwhile, continues to focus on rote. But this need not be the norm.

The bleak picture is lit up by a handful of government schools across the country that have consistently raised the bar, nurturing talent through innovative teaching, and setting students on course for higher education in reputed institutes. The faculty and management of these exceptional schools have, sometimes with the help of philanthropists and other institutes, redefined education and set a blueprint for others to follow.

In Kozhikode, Kerala, a school for girls has science labs installed by the Indian Space Research Organisation. A higher secondary school in Kohima, Nagaland, has produced two chief ministers. At the Zilla Parishad school in Kenjal village outside Pune, students learn Hindustani music once a week. Our reporters visit six such schools to find out just what they are doing right.

Music to the ears

Zilla Parishad School, Kenjal, Maharashtra

In 2013, when Govardhan Jaysingh Bathe was enrolled in the Zilla Parishad School in Kenjal, Pune, his family did not expect much. Their son had a mental disability and weak eyesight and wasn’t expected to last long in a mainstream school.

Three years later, Bathe, in Class IV, recites English poems and is running about happily on the slushy playground with his classmates.

“He was taken to school on his father’s shoulder the first day. Now, he gets ready by himself and walks to school alone,” says his proud grandmother Bhimabai.

The tiny village of Kenjal is roughly 35 km from Pune on NH 4. It has some 2,000 inhabitants, but its Zilla Parishad School has been in the limelight, possibly among of the first schools in Maharashtra to successfully implement Activity-Based Learning (ABL) for Classes I to IV. With its renovated building, open-air theatre, spacious cultural hall and bright classrooms, it has drawn the attention of the State’s Education Department. .

The school’s weekly Hindustani music class in progress. Photo: Prashant Nakwe
Says headmaster Jaygonda Patil, “It started in 2010 when some teachers were taken to Chennai for an introduction to ABL. Later, Pune Zilla Parishad ran a pilot project and our school was part of it.” Special workshops were organised for 20 teachers with an aptitude for ABL in Mumbai’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Students are split into as many groups as available teachers, and not necessarily by age. They do the exercises prescribed on flashcards. Teachers observe progress and if found satisfactory, the student is promoted to the next level. There is no fear of missing a lesson if a student is absent for a day, as she can resume from where she left off,” says Ratnamala Nigde, the Marathi teacher.

According to Patil, ABL has not only resulted in exciting changes in the students but has also brought them closer as a group. “They discuss, question, shake hands. Govardhan’s acceptance among students is a result of that.”

The villagers are delighted. They recently collected Rs. 2 crore to pay for the renovation of the school building. “We can sense the improved confidence in our children. Students from surrounding villages are joining our school, some have even left private schools,” says Ganesh Bhalgare, a gram panchayat member.

The government claims that Kenjal is one of 11,000-odd schools in Maharashtra to use ABL, but teachers differ. “The government is not too keen on ABL because it needs some investment from the government’s side,” says Kishore Darak, Pune-based independent researcher. This could be roughly Rs. 100 per student per year. Darak points out that constructing a school building with people’s money should not become the norm. “It sounds good but also points to the government’s failure.”

Over 15,000 people from across the country, mostly government officers, teachers and enthusiasts, have visited the school since 2011. “We may not produce IIT toppers but that will happen eventually. At first, we want to bring students out of the age-old rote process of learning. We want to ensure students learn by themselves,” says Patil.

Alok Deshpande

On the merit list

Bankura Zilla School, Bankura, West Bengal

Every weekday, hundreds of students in blue-and-white uniforms traverse the dusty roads of arid Bankura on foot or on bicycle to assemble at Bankura Zilla School. There’s nothing particularly unique about the double-storied building except that it is painted in the colours of the school uniform and is set inside a 10-acre campus.

It is unlikely that many people would have heard of the 176-year-old school that’s about 270 km outside Kolkata, but its students have never been out of the merit list of the State’s Class X Madhyamik exam. This year, two students made it to the list, last year there were 10.

The 176-year-old Bankura Zilla School in West Bengal stresses on discipline.
This year, 48 of 105 students scored over 90 per cent and 22 scored between 80 and 89 per cent. The students are also often among the toppers in the admission exams to engineering and medical colleges, and to the IITs.

Headmaster Barid Baran Misra says it has taken years of hard work by teachers, students and parents to achieve this level of excellence.

“Being a State-run institution, the school does not screen students during admission but admits them on the basis of a lottery,” says Misra. The challenge is to bring students to school, but in an age when private tutorials have become the order of the day, more than 95 per cent of the students attend classes regularly. “I tell guardians that I am providing your children fans and light, the best teachers and a hygienic environment. They should not prevent their children from benefiting from classroom teaching,” says Misra.

Discipline and continuity help the school maintain high standards, says Amal Acharya, the Bengali teacher. “What is most significant is that students from families with very limited means come out with flying colours. There come from remote corners of the district or even from other districts; their parents rent rooms so that their children can study here,” says Acharya. Teachers, appointed through the State Public Service Commission, maintain high standards. Bankura Zilla School is one of 42 schools run directly by the West Bengal government.

Shiv Sahay Singh

Now, the Five Es

Government High School, Thyamagondlu, Karnataka

A group of Class X students tracks circles and tangents on their computer screens, their fingertips scrolling the mouse furiously. As an LCD projector hums to life, a teacher explains how the lengths of tangents drawn from an external point to a circle are equal. She asks her students to test the theorem on their computers.

This is not a tony private school in Bengaluru but Government High School, Thyamagondlu, a village in Nelamangala taluk, 48 km outsideBengaluru. Established in 1943, it today has 645 students and Kannada and English medium sections. Four years ago, the school introduced technology teaching aids, and 30 computers were sponsored by Cognizant Foundation, with the teachers trained by an NGO called IT for Change.

Thyamagondlu Government High School in Nelamangala, Karnataka, is spread over five acres and has a kitchen garden that is maintained by the students. Photo: Sudhakara Jain
In the computer lab, Prashanth T.N. changes the length of the radius and and draws multiple tangents. Visibly pleased with his ‘experiments’, he goes a step further and connects the tangent to the radius, demonstrating another similar theorem he has learnt recently. The teacher, Suchetha S.S., pats his back.

The school’s pass percentage is 98.5 per cent. Teachers say it’s because of the integration of computers in learning. For instance, English poems are made appealing with photographs, or the science teacher records lessons on her smart phone and uploads them on the school’s computers for students to access. the school prided itself on imparting excellent education. The students come from 37 villages, some travelling nearly 25 km. A majority of the parents are agricultural labourers, garment and beedi workers. More than half belong to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minority communities. Over the years, the school has produced doctors, engineers and government officers, who often return to their alma mater to conduct medical camps or donate notebooks.

The 20 teachers and the vice-principal, N. Thammaiah, are highly motivated. “Our lesson plans follow a five-step system: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate,” says science teacher Gulzar I. Dambal. Students are encouraged to experiment and help each other. It’s not surprising that children from nearby private schools queue up for seats.

At the entrance is a hoarding with photographs of toppers in the April SSLC examination. The campus, which also houses a junior college, sprawls across five acres and has its own kitchen garden nurtured by students. Thammaiah talks of a unique feature: a school cabinet with 23 student members who are allocated portfolios.

Sriram Mishra studies in Class X and was recently appointed Chief Minister. He shares the tasks he has to complete. “The grass needs to be trimmed; damaged benches need to be replaced… Some students are also asking me to find a way to stop the constant chatter during assembly. That is going to be the toughest task,” he laughs. But Sandhya J., a Class IX student appointed as opposition leader, says she will ensure he does his job.

Tanu Kulkarni

Trained to excel

Government Boys Higher Secondary School, Kothamangalam, Tamil Nadu

A building with a partly shorn-off ceiling serves as classroom. A laboratory is so dilapidated, it has been locked up for a couple of years now. The borewell has run dry and students grapple with acute water shortage. This is its physical condition. And yet, the Government Boys Higher Secondary School in Kothamangalam in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu has been seen as a model institution that consistently produces doctors, veterinarians, engineers and marine technocrats.

Education was revolutionised in the school when a former headmaster, N. Jayachandran, introduced special coaching for academically weak students in 2005-06, to help them prep for the public exam. The move immediately helped improve the pass percentage. Soon, parents were so enthused they started to supply snacks like sundal and payasam to students during class. “The special coaching lasts for about three hours everyday, over two sessions in the morning and evening. A daily test is held,” say school teachers.

The Government Boys Higher Secondary School in Kothamangalam in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu produces doctors, engineers and marine technocrats. Photo: A. Muralitharan
There has been no looking back. In fact, an enthusiastic Parent Teacher Association does not even depend upon the Education Department for any immediate infrastructure that is within its means to provide.

It has even appointed teachers and has been paying them attractive wages. The first student to enrol for medicine from this school was M. Sivabharathi in 2009. who joined the Medical College in Perundurai. “This set a target for other students too,” say teachers.

Prakashraj is the son of agricultural labourers from Sembattuviduthi village, about 25 km from Kothamangalam, who earn barely Rs. 5,000 a month. He wants to become a doctor, and joined the school despite the distance. “Neither of my parents is educated but they have great faith in me,” he says. For them, he is their way out of poverty. They have now enrolled their younger son Pradeep as well.

Today, students from schools in a 10 to 60 km radius have queued up to enrol here. Students come from Sembattividuthi, Kodivayal, Pallaththuviduthi and Kallankadu are making a beeline.

The school strength has increased from 685 three years ago to 870 this year, says the headmaster. Some 55 students from outside the village are accommodated in hostels. The dedicated school administration, influenced by neither parents nor political leaders, is largely responsible for the success.

M. Balaganessin

Astro turf to science labs

Government Vocational Higher Secondary School, Nadakkavu, Kerala

A government school for girls in Kozhikode, Kerala, is creating history by acquiring world-class facilities and dramatically improving the standard of teaching.

National surveys have identified it as one of the 10 best schools in the country. With girls drawn mostly from lower income families of the coastal belt of Kozhikode, the Government Vocational Higher Secondary school at Nadakkavu is the envy of most private schools.

Government Vocational Higher Secondary School at Nadakkavu in Kozhikode provides dormitory facilities during exams, for girls whose homes lack furniture and lighting. Photo: T. Asok Kumar
A decade ago, local CPI(M) leader and MLA A. Pradeep Kumar started a project called PRISM to promote regional schools.

The project brought together diverse benefactors such as a Dubai-based businessman, the Indian Institute of Management at Kozhikode, the Indian Space Research Organisation, and software company Infosys. Pradeep Kumar also set aside Rs 5.5 crore from his local area development fund for improving facilities at the school.

The Dubai-based businessman donated Rs. 15 crore. Soon, the school had state-of-the-art buildings, with one block built under the guidance of Scottish architect William Cooper; an indoor stadium with three basketball courts; a hockey ground with astro turf; football field; badminton courts; dining hall seating 2,000; atrium; gymnasium; heritage zone; and a library with 25,000 books. ISRO constructed four science labs; Infosys pitched in with 150 computers, while IIM-Kozhikode coordinated the implementation.

The school has increased students to 2,450 this academic year, most of them from backward families. It provides dormitory facilities during exams to help girls whose homes lack furniture and lighting.

Today, the Kerala education department has adopted PRISM as a model for developing government schools across the State.

K.A. Shaji

Nagaland’s best

Rüzhükhrie Government Higher Secondary School, Kohima, Nagaland

Named after Rüzhükhrie Sekhose, one of the first local teachers in Kohima, the Rüzhükhrie Government Higher Secondary School was established in 1941, which also makes it the first school in Kohima, Nagaland. The school has consistently produced some of the best results in High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) and Higher Secondary School Leaving Certificate (HSSLC) examinations.

The school was proposed by the first Christians of the Angami Naga community. Rev. Geo W. Supplee, an American missionary, was sent to Kohima to start a school. With some money received from the U.S., land was purchased. However, unable to gather more funds in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Supplee sought the help of the British government and approached Charles Pawsey, the then Deputy Commissioner of Kohima. Together, Pawsey and Supplee mobilised funds and established the school, with Supplee as headmaster.

The school produced its first topper in 1981. This was the first time a government school produced a topper in India. The next topper was in 2014, when Metsivilie Seyie secured the ninth rank in HSLC.

Rüzhükhrie Government Higher Secondary School in Kohima, Nagaland, has an inclusive policy of granting admission to dropouts, especially in Class 10. Photo: Vibi Yhokha
The school’s alumni includes luminaries and pioneers in the field of academics, social work and politics. Former Chief Ministers Vamuzo Phesao and J.B. Jasokie, the late Baptist Preacher Neilezhü Usou, and the present Commissioner and Secretary of School Education, F.P. Solo, are among them. “The school has its own libraries, laboratories, and playground. And a good teaching staff,” says headmaster Kepelhoutuo Chüsi. With 1,228 students, 87 teachers, and 18 non-teaching staff, the school is one of the most sought-after government schools in Nagaland today.

Commerce teacher Visezu Thakrosays the administration is different from other government schools. “The teachers constantly upgrade their knowledge,” he says.

In class, Thakro recommends preparatory reading at home before introducing a new chapter. Students are encouraged to work on independent assignments. The school insists on old-world traditions of sincerity, discipline and punctuality among both teachers and students.

With the motto ‘To Educate One and All’, the school has an inclusive policy of granting admission to dropouts, especially in Class 10. “We accept the dropouts because these are helpless students. If they are not included in our system, where will they go? They will probably get involved in anti-social activities,” says Chüsi.

Although Nagaland has a literacy rate of 79.55 per cent, the quality of education in its schools is not particularly high, as in the rest of India. Given this, the Rüzhükhrie Government School is doing a job the rest of thecountry can take note of.

Vibi Yhokha

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 1:18:42 PM |

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