I visited an alternative school north of Bangalore called the Creative School. I fell in love with this school–so much so that I wish I could have sent the kids here during their time in Bangalore. But it for sure would have been a totally different experience. Unlike most of the other schools that I have visited, this is a school that caters to wealthier Indian families with global interests. (Tuition is 55000 or 75000 ($1500 USD) a year.)
The focus is on the child’s emotional and spiritual well-being as much as academics. The school is in a residential/suburban setting of a house/garden. Only 30 students attend. They will meet capacity at 45 next year and are looking for a new location to meet the expanding demand.
In a class of five 9 year olds working on math problems in notebooks as they sprawled about the furniture, I heard this conversation:
Teacher: “Shankar, that answer is still not correct. I want you to go down stairs get a drink of water and take a walk in the garden. Then come back and see if you can focus on the work. Because I know that you know this problem but you cannot concentrate right now.”
When the child returned and immediately wrote the correct answer, the teacher said to him and to a girl, “Both of you came today and your bodies we feeling very cranky. We need to notice when our bodies are feeling that way and take care of it so that we can work properly. That is why we journal every morning. To get those feelings out and so that you are ready to learn. We need to work on you noticing these feelings and finding the best way to get them out of your body without me having to remind you to do so. That way you will be ready to learn.”
If only my children’s teachers here in Indiawould say and believe similar things instead of focusing on writing is a straight line and sitting up straight. No matter what!
The school does not follow a particular philosophy but takes concepts from Montessori, Steiner, Waldorf, and other traditions to design a focus that is child centered and loving and yet meets the academic demands of the ICSI the Cambridge curriculum.
I spoke with the founder for a long time. She was an executive in the IT word back in Seattle before stepping away to find her true calling. She funded an NGO to build schools in rural India called the Asha Foundation and finally moved back to India to build this school. She has currently designed it to break even. She is taking no salary and many other teachers are not either as they find their way. She is following her life’s dream of designing a school that she sees as an ideal space for learning. She is also running workshops and consulting with NGOS on how to impart life skills emotional learning and spiritual teachings (across all religions) that focus on the needs of the whole child.
I asked the founder how the Right to Education act affects her alternative school. First, she had to be certified as a Kannada medium school. She had to open up her school for inspecting and show how instruction was occurring. Most instruction occurs in English. The school is certified through grade 5 based on the Cambridge curriculum (ICSI). The school finds the Cambridge curriculum helpful in terms of a set of standards of what the children should know but they have their own ways to getting the children to those standards. Each child is known intimately.
With the RTE Act, schools must also have a certain number of “highly qualified teachers” which re defined as having education degrees. But much like Shashi Rao and Ananya, the heads of this school do not value the forms of pedagogy and beliefs that are required by the Indian Government. Thus they do not want their teachers to be working out of a traditional schooling background. This school has other individuals serve as the head teachers and the traditionally trained teachers work only as apprentices under these teachers unless/until they can unlearn much of what they learned in their training.
The third issue with RTE is the requirement of 25% of slots being filled by poor children. The founder is very interested in meeting this goal but sensitive of how to do so. She asked, “How do you have a child who lives in hut learning next to a child whose dad drives an Audi?” What supports must be given to the poor child to ensure that the child can thrive and maintain her self-esteem despite their differences? If we are going to do this it must be done thoughtfully to ensure we are helping these children and not making situation worse for them. ”
The children in the school older than standard 5 are considered to be in a coop/home schooled system. The children sit for exams as private students rather than as a school. I observed a confrontation/discussion between three of these older students, a teacher, and the cofounder of the school at the entrance of the facility. The teacher was telling the founder that these girls were not listening, coming late and otherwise being disrespectful of the class. The co-founder told the girls, “You get to choice your coursework. If this course was not a good fit for you, you need to come and talk to us and make wise choices about your learning But if you do choose to stick with a class, then you need to do so with respect and integrity of the class itself. With just two weeks left in the term, it is much too late to be having this conversation. You need to make wise choices and commit to the choices that you have made.”
The girls protested that they weren’t always talking or coming late although they admitted that they were late and talking today.
I was very impressed by the level of respect between the adults and youth in this school. The opinions of the students about their own learning were valued while standards of how to treat others were equally valued.
I talked with the founder about this tension faced in alternative schools. It as a tension that I see very visibly in Quaker schools and Quaker camps. Often the celebration of the voice of a child does not come along with norms of discourse and expectations for how to treat one another as loving and caring individuals. Individual needs trump communal caring and the place becomes a “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere. A balance is needed between community needs and respect for others with meeting individual needs. I think traditional schools often do poorly with both or tip too far in one direction or the other.
As should be when visiting a special school, I left wondering how I should be parenting differently and thinking about what I wish for my own children’s education.