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Opinion14th August 2015

From a building site to building futures: Ark India

Ark recently opened its first school in India. Located in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood, the school is offering a high quality education to local primary age children, most of whom are from nearby underprivileged communities. Non-selective and entirely free of charge to parents, the school was developed in partnership with the local government, and has already enrolled 108 students.

In this blog post, Headteacher Urmila Chowdhury reflects on the challenges and triumphs from the school’s opening month:

Opening a new school is never easy.

There are so many logistics to consider – everything from building works to class schedules to school uniforms has to be considered. In South Delhi, where our new Ark school has just opened, we faced additional difficulties that one wouldn’t encounter in the UK. From identifying children suffering from malnourishment (all too common in parts of Delhi) to worrying about local wild monkeys, we had many obstacles. But of course the biggest challenge we faced was creating a school that could make a real difference in the lives of young people in our community.

For me this challenge was personal. My mother ran a school and I myself spent many years as a teacher and a school leader in India. I’ve seen schools here that haven’t taught their students to read by the time they reach the age of eight. I’ve seen pupils writing in exam books who can’t even properly spell their own name. They go through the motions, but they can’t actually form proper words – instead, they write a string of letters that don’t mean anything. I was determined that things would be different at our school.

In this, I had the support of Ark, and the benefit of their experience running schools in the UK.

We wanted to ensure that no child is neglected, that every child receives the very best support and education, that this school represents something new, something different. That’s why we chose as the motto for Ark Delhi: ‘Be the change.’ It comes from the Gandhi quote: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

In the months leading up to our opening day, we created our own curriculum. We considered it vital to find dedicated, motivated teachers, so we had a rigorous screening process. We hired just eight talented and motivated educators out of 400 applicants, and then we put them through an additional five-week training course supported by Ark Teacher Training. It was a long journey and a lot of work before our school opened its doors – but it was a journey we had to take to realise our vision of an excellent school from day one.

Getting to that day wouldn’t be easy. Building works lasted until virtually the last moment, and we were scrambling to set up classrooms with furniture and teaching resources, all the while sweeping away the dust. We also had to do some extra work to monkey-proof the school. Right before opening we were made aware that local monkeys were known to wreak havoc on unsecured classrooms, apparently sneaking in at night to rip up or steal the colourful children’s work that adorns the walls. I’m glad to say that after a bit of extra work, our school is now fully monkey-proof and, to date, no child’s schoolwork has been harmed.

On our opening day, it was clear that our hard work was going to pay off and the children were going to really enjoy school. They were totally engaged in everything that was happening and they were smiling, happy and excited. When you asked them how much they were enjoying school, they opened their arms very wide and said ‘This much!’

The parents have been hugely supportive from the start. They bring the students in on time, and we’ve had very few absences. They ask me pertinent questions and they are fully engaged in their children’s education.

There’s a common idea here in India that uneducated parents, especially if they are illiterate, don’t understand the value of education.

But it’s just not true. Every family, no matter where they come from, wants the best education possible for their children. The grandfather of one of our students, for example, went through the fine detail of the Ark website and came to our community meeting armed with questions about the way or schools work before he enrolled his granddaughter. That level of engagement works both ways, though; parents have been our best advocates, spreading the word about the school within their communities. The fact that we had hit our enrolment target by the time we opened was in no small part due to them.

Another day to day challenge is language. Our classes are being taught in both Hindi and English because we think English is the language of opportunity and will help our children find better jobs for themselves in the future. Some of our kids are the children of immigrant labourers from Tamil Nadu, meaning that they currently only speak Tamil. We are seeing the language barrier as an educational opportunity. We’re all learning. I now know that ‘veet’ is Tamil for ‘home’, and ‘tannee’ means ‘water’.

As we go on, we have seen more profound issues first-hand.

Some of our children come from extremely deprived backgrounds, but they deserve a quality education, and we want to show that they can do as well as any child, if given the right opportunities and support. But there are challenges. For example, we have a few severely malnourished pupils which makes learning much more difficult for them.

That first week, I saw a child run out in the middle of class- she was used to being served food at a certain time in her last school, and if she didn’t get there in time, the food would run out and she would go hungry. I caught up to her and told her: “In this school, the food won’t run out. It will be served to you right in the classroom and you will eat there, and if you want a second or even a third helping, we’ll give it to you.” She trusted me, and looked very relieved, and went back to class. This is one school where no child will ever have to worry about this.

It’s been so rewarding during the first few weeks to watch the children walk into the school in the morning.

The first couple of days some of the children found themselves confused about which classroom they were meant to be in, a few looked a bit lost. But only a few days later I would see them march in smiling, and go straight into their own classroom. It’s clear that they are finding their place at the school and now feel comfortable here, just a few weeks after we opened.

That’s the best part of each day. At Ark’s first school in India our children are already smiling, and at the end of each afternoon, they throw kisses at you when they go home- saying: “I’ll see you back at school tomorrow!”