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Private school with a public cause

Jaswant Modern School in Dehra Dun provides scholarships to poorer children, offering them the opportunity to finish their school education. The school offers a model of inclusive education for other private schools

When schools re-open after the summer break, Jaswant Modern Senior Secondary School, the oldest CBSE school in Dehra Dun, dating back to 1949, will welcome 72 children from disadvantaged rural families in and around a village called Purkal, 23 km outside Dehra Dun, to attend classes from Standard 6-12.

In a unique experiment with the NGO Purkal Youth Development Society (PYDS), Jaswant Modern School will provide partial or full scholarships to the children, offering them the opportunity to complete their school education.

Principal Meenakshi Gandotra says her mission is to provide the best inclusive education that does not exclude children on the basis of caste, creed, financial status, academic performance, or physical disability. She argues that while most schools filter out students with poor financial and academic records, in order to show the best results, she is not afraid of accepting challenges in her admissions policy.

In responding to the PYDS initiative, Jaswant Modern School acts as a role model for quality education, by reaching out to children who might otherwise have been victims of an indifferent attitude towards education and an ineffective government system that does not motivate children to dream big.

Dehra Dun, which is often referred to as the 'school capital', boasts around 1,000 private schools including some of the country's most elite and exclusive schools like Doon School.

But just a few kilometres outside Dehra Dun, it's a different story altogether. Indeed, it's hard to reconcile the stark contrast of the village children here with the children in Dehra Dun. Despite the presence of over 1,200 government primary and upper primary schools in the district, these pockets of villages in the hills surrounding Dehra Dun seem to be caught in a time warp. The people here are poor and deprived, far removed from the bustling economic and real estate activity in the city.

PYDS has been engaging with rural communities in and around Purkal village for the past six years. Starting as a small experiment with just three children, the organisation is now educating and empowering 95 children by effectively taking them out of the confines of their socio-economic background.

What drives PYDS's work is the belief that, with equal access to quality education, poorer children can be every bit as successful as children from better-off families. G K Swamy, the 69-year-old secretary of PYDS, and his wife Chinni firmly believe that these children too deserve a good education, not just 'some education' for 'these poor' children.

After retiring from a successful career as a management consultant in Mumbai, Swamy and his wife moved to Dehra Dun where they devoted their time, finances and creative energies in PYDS. They were supported in their efforts by a group of individuals, currently numbering around 120.

The children who form part of the experiment at Jaswant Modern School are indistinguishable from their more privileged peers in their attire, behaviour and scholastic abilities. Principal Gandotra says the role played by PYDS in motivating the children to study has been extremely valuable in helping them perform well at school. PYDS has an intensive model of one-on-one support for each of the children, and active tutoring, mentoring and personality development interventions have allowed them to integrate seamlessly in school.

The transformation in the lives of these children is evident in the recent Class X and XII board examination results. All the students managed a first division, many scoring extremely high marks. All five students completing Class XII are being encouraged to join higher education streams of their choice. One has already signed up at a well-known chartered accountancy firm.

Jaswant Modern School could become an inspiration for some private schools in Delhi that are up in arms over a Supreme Court ruling asking private schools that receive land allocations at concessional rates to reserve 25% of their seats for children from economically and socially deprived sections of society. A group of private schools has, in fact, formed an association to fight the directive. While Gandotra concedes that opening the doors to the PYDS children did put pressure on the school's finances, she's confident that there is merit in this type of inclusive education that also benefits children from better-off families. She calls on all schools to look for innovative, creative ways to finance such schemes through the creation of a corpus fund, establishment of scholarships, partnerships with other organisations, optimising school facilities and resources in new ways, etc.

-- Shanti Jagannathan
(Shanti Jagannathan is a development economist and adviser with the European Commission in New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007