Wednesday, December 16, 2015

52,000 students and 1,050 classrooms: inside the world's largest school

Welcome to City Montessori school in Lucknow, India. Despite its vast size, no child is left behind, with nearly half of pupils scoring 90% or more in national tests
By Jason Overdorf
The Guardian (December 2015)

LUCKNOW, India --- At 7:15am in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, a stream of children flows through the gates of the Kanpur Road campus of City Montessori school. A dozen helpers pull school bags off roof racks and direct traffic to keep things moving. Every so often a chowkidar (gatekeeper) urges a laggard along: “Chalo, Beta, chalo.” Nearly an hour later, they’re still arriving.

It’s not easy to get more than 7,500 five- to 17-year-old students into a single school building, but that’s only a small piece of the puzzle for City Montessori (or CMS) – recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest school. The institution caters to some 52,000 pre-primary, primary and secondary students distributed across 20 campuses in the city.

“I wanted to come here for a better education,” says 11-year-old Mahsum Singh, who started at the Kanpur Road campus this year. “It helps us that many students are here. We can take help from anyone.”

Almost all of the school’s 1,050 classrooms are full to bursting, with more than 45 students to a class. But parents won’t take no for an answer. They pull in connections from business and politics to get another chair crammed in, says school president Geeta Kingdon. “Sometimes I invite them to come to the school, take them to the classroom and ask them, ‘Do you see any place for your child?’” says Kingdon, who is also the daughter of the school’s co-founders.

CMS, founded in 1959 by Jagdish Gandhi and his wife, Bharti, who has a doctorate in child psychology, is so popular because of its track record. In India’s equivalent of A-levels, a whopping 40% of the school score 90% or higher, making it one of the top colleges. The class average is above 80%.teacher network

With a new wave of “titan” schools in the UK, including Exmouth community college in Devon – which is set to grow from 2,500 to 2,860 students by 2018 – CMS has demonstrated that large campuses and crowded classrooms aren’t a bar to academic excellence. But the differences between CMS’s monster campuses and the UK’s “megaschools” are probably more instructive than their superficial similarities.What started as small school of originally five students, all from a single household has grown far beyond its humble beginnings.

Despite its huge size, CMS is not a school for the masses. Though it’s as much as 25% cheaper than some other elite schools in Lucknow, fees are between £300 and £700 a year, compared with an average per capita income of £1,080. (That’s comparable to a UK school charging £7,000-£16,000.)

This gives CMS all the classic advantages of an elite private school. There aren’t double-shifts or staggered classes (except at the pre-primary level) – just a lot of resources.

Ajay Madan, who teaches chemistry and conducts a remedial session after school, finds it inspiring that CMS challenges him to be innovative with the curriculum, presenting the lesson using multimedia, for example.

It helps that his salary stub matches his commitment. Teachers are paid a touch higher than the sum mandated for government school teachers, and earn a bonus of about 1% of their monthly salary for each student after the class size tops 45, as compensation for increased workload.

Principals earn double the salary of their government counterparts. To cope with the larger administrative burden, a large campus like Kanpur Road has sub-principals for the pre-primary, primary, junior and senior sections. To further aid administrators there are also two supervising teachers called class coordinators for every 35 regular faculty staff. Manjit Batra, senior principal of the Gomti Nagar II campus, says: “They teach and also evaluate teachers, making sure no child is lagging behind.”

To deal with larger class sizes, teachers have assistants or “notebook checkers”, who have bachelor of education degrees but lack higher qualifications. They help with grading, but also assist in monitoring students and answering questions during class time.

While systems like accounting, transportation and curriculum creation are centralised for efficiency, campus principals and teachers find their freedom to innovate motivational. The school doles out 10m rupees (£100,000) in cash rewards for teachers whose students perform well in nationwide exams. And apart from the usual conferences, every teacher visits the homes of five students every month in the role of “teacher guardian”. These visits allow teachers to make simple observations, suggesting that a child’s study table should not be in the same room as the television, for instance. Above all, it shows that they care.

“There’s a danger that any one child can get lost in this huge mass,” said Kingdon.

Such programmes might prove difficult to implement at the UK’s government-run megaschools. CMS’s relatively high fees mean that students tend to be the children of very involved parents. All its programmes are funded from revenue or, in the case of foreign trips and the like, from parents’ pockets. And unlike at government-run schools, its teachers and administrators aren’t asked to do more with less.

The intangibles behind CMS’s culture of success may be even harder to duplicate.

There is a festival atmosphere at school functions, which open with a song-and-dance performance called “the unity prayer” where students dressed as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists etc extol the virtues of tolerance. Three times a year the mother of a student who has come first in class is called on stage and to sit on a giant balance beam to be “weighed in fruits” that then become her grand prize.

“There’s a whole department for writing congratulatory letters,” beams the school’s 79-year-old guru-like founder-manager, Gandhi.

Indeed, it’s Gandhi’s zeal, and his grandfatherly personal charisma, that ensures students feel allegiance to their school, despite its size – something that some UK educators fear might be lost at megaschools. His antidote includes a healthy dose of religion, albeit of the kind that acknowledges the equality of all the great prophets, regardless of denomination.

A slim, energetic man with an engaging smile, Gandhi wears a western-style suit that appears to be a half-size too large. Originally called Jagdish Agrawal, he changed his surname following the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi (or Mahatma Gandhi) in 1948, and he remains a fan of such leaders – as well as their slogans and quotations.

At the Kanpur Road campus, seemingly every flat surface features a handpainted exhortation of one kind or another – “Strong reasons make strong actions”, “Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the change”, “Children reinvent your world for you” and so on – and it is not easy to stop Gandhi from reading them aloud. “You find everywhere good quotations,” he says, without irony.

Along with the school’s constant attention to moral education, about a quarter of its students receive a 40% reduction in fees because their parents are poor. But that’s a far cry from UK government schools like Ashfield comprehensive, which must take all comers.

This year, Gandhi’s reputation took a hit when CMS went to court to avoid having to admit 31 children from the “economically weaker sections” free of charge (which is expected in law). Kingdon says the school resisted the move because the government violated its own regulations and came to them after the term had started, when all its classes were full. Eventually, the court compelled it to accept 13 out of 31 students who lived within the legally defined 1km radius of its Indira Nagar campus. CMS shoehorned them in.

“We are a law abiding school,” said Kingdon. “But the law must be applied properly. Should all private schools in the land really have to keep 25% of their seats vacant for six months?”

Despite these challenges, Gandhi remains steadfast in his ambition to “change the world” through his school. He insists his mission goes beyond academic success.

“Teaching of the three R’s is important. But at the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that man is also a human being, and that there is also a soul within him.”