Math, Reading, and Riding an Escalator: This School in India Is Training Kids to Go Big
“Knowledge overcomes ignorance in the way that sunlight defeats darkness,” goes an old Indian proverb. It’s a cultural philosophy reflected in the fact that India’s higher-education system is the third-largest in the world. Yet, if you looked around the country’s villages, you might not realize this was one of the subcontinent’s core cultural beliefs. While the streets of such cities as Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata teem with uniform-clad children bustling off to school, in rural areas you’d be hard-pressed to find any students at all.
Some 68 percent of Indians reside in villages, but few of these mostly lower-caste people receive a formal education. Schooling, if it is even available, is often treated as an afterthought. Young villagers, for example, have no set hours for school and simply walk in and out of the classroom at any time of day. Most of them do not regularly attend classes because they have to help their parents with farming, household chores, or taking care of siblings. To compound matters, village schools generally have no student monitoring policy, nor do they offer activities such as computer science, sports, creative writing, or theater arts.
This lackadaisical approach to education has taken its toll on these children. India’s Annual Status of Education Report recently determined that of all rural children enrolled in standard five (the equivalent of fifth grade), only half can fluently read from a standard two textbook or do a basic two-digit math problem.
Adding to this poor standard of education is the fact that few rural children have any experience living or working in India’s burgeoning cities; the majority have never ridden an escalator or used a Western toilet. Their educational deficit and lack of exposure to situations beyond their farming towns leaves them unable to compete with their urban counterparts. Most rural children cannot even contemplate leaving their small enclaves, many of which are deteriorating from lack of development and economic opportunity.
It’s a grave dynamic that the Shiv Nadar Foundation studied for years. To support village children, the organization, named for the Indian industrialist and philanthropist (Nadar is also India’s ninth-richest person), decided to establish VidyaGyan Leadership Academy in 2009. A world-class boarding school free of cost to its chosen students, VidyaGyan draws impoverished and marginalized children from the country’s undeveloped villages and provides them with room and board, along with their education, from sixth to 12th grade.
“We identify and nurture rural meritorious children and give them world-class exposure with the vision to bring them up to par with urban students,” says Bishwajit Banerjee, the principal of VidyaGyan. “Our hope is to create tomorrow’s leaders from rural India.”
Set on 30 acres in Bulandshahr, near the capital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, VidyaGyan, which in Hindi means “wisdom through knowledge,” was designed by the noted architect C.R. Narayan Rao. The school includes 45 classrooms, housing for 1,400 students, and special labs for languages, computer science, math, and art, as well as a well-curated library, a 1,000-seat amphitheater, athletic tracks and courts, and a skating rink. The foundation also established a second campus, this one with a seven-acre mango orchard, to accommodate another 900 students in Sitapur, 250 miles away.
Beyond the excellent academic program, VidyaGyan focuses on developing the students in ways that other schools would not. Some of these hand-selected children come from the “most economically and socially deprived sections of society,” says Banerjee. “They are undernourished, chronically hungry, and suffering from various diseases due to unhygienic living conditions. Some students are considered outcasts in their villages, or are from extremely traditional families where studying outside the home is considered a sin.”
As a result, many have little self-confidence when they first arrive on campus. For this reason, the teachers are trained in personality development. “We work on their conversation skills, public speaking, dressing and greeting style, and the etiquette of formal and informal meetings,” says the principal. To that end, when visitors come to the school, the students are sent out to interact with and welcome them. What’s more, school field trips mean heading to big cities such as Delhi, Agra, and Lucknow and taking the metro, ordering a fast-food meal, and even hopping on a few escalators.
Yet, while students are groomed to take their place in a larger world, VidyaGyan also encourages them to not only maintain their ties to their home villages but to strengthen those relationships and bring their skills home. During their vacations, students commit to teaching adults in their local communities how to read as part of the school’s adult literacy program. “As an outcome, parents are now signing their names as opposed to using their thumb impressions,” says Banerjee.
Perhaps even more important, the students return to their villages as “ambassadors” for education, inspiring their friends and peers to try harder to achieve their dreams. In response, many village-school dropouts, now realizing that education is a route to achieving their dreams, have returned to the classroom. “Our students become spirals of inspiration,” says the principal. “The biggest achievement of the VidyaGyan model has been its ability to combat the apathy for education in these areas. Teachers of rural primary schools are now taking a lot more interest in teaching because they hope that at least a few of their students will make it to VidyaGyan.”
And VidyaGyan students have their sights set on moving on to some of the best higher-learning institutions in the world. The first group of VidyaGyan students took central board examinations this year, with 25 percent of them achieving a perfect cumulative grade point average. In addition, several students were accepted into top-notch international education programs, including the Duke Talent Identification Program and an academic exchange with Brown University. Interns from institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, Dartmouth, and the London School of Economics have been invited to spend several months at VidyaGyan, working with the children and exposing them to ideas and opportunities far beyond their home state. Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, a philosophy major at Harvard and the daughter of Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was recently in residence. In a VidyaGyan report, she wrote of being deeply moved by her interactions with the students: “Delivered into a utopia of plentiful food, healthcare and stellar education, the students are obviously happy and thankful. But more importantly, they feel a sense of restlessness and responsibility.... They are determined to become worthy of the opportunity they have been given.... Many aspire to be Harvard students, army generals, or even prime minister.”
Chua-Rubenfeld’s observations are echoed by VidyaGyan students themselves. “It’s completely different at VidyaGyan than at my village school,” says 12th grader Vaishali Dhariwal. “Apart from having wonderful teachers, we have all the resources, opportunities, and chances to learn. We’ve gotten an opportunity to see the real world, meet people from all over the globe, and widen our horizons. Most importantly, we developed the conviction that we can achieve our dreams.”
And just like the students it has worked so hard to nurture, the staff at VidyaGyan has big dreams for its graduates as well. “Maybe one day in the future,” says Banerjee, “VidyaGyan will produce a prime minister, president, or Nobel Laureate for India.”