How the Indian capital is repairing its schools

NEW DELHI – Pradeep Paswan used to skip school for weeks, sometimes months. Its tin-ceilinged classrooms burned in the summer. The bat...


NEW DELHI – Pradeep Paswan used to skip school for weeks, sometimes months. Its tin-ceilinged classrooms burned in the summer. The bathrooms were dirty.

Now he gets dressed at 7 a.m., in a blue shirt and pants, eager to go to school, in a new building with clean toilets. “I come to school because I know I can be someone,” said Mr. Paswan, 20, who is a senior and dreams of becoming a top official in India’s elite bureaucracy.

In India, where millions of families look to education to break the cycle of poverty, public schools have long had a reputation for dilapidated buildings, poor management, poor teaching, and even contaminated lunches. Mr Paswan’s school, located in a working-class district of Delhi, was nicknamed “the red school”, because of the regular fights on campus and the color of its uniforms.

Today it is a highly sought after school, a beneficiary of the wider transformation of Delhi’s education system. Last year, 100% of the school’s students who took standardized exams in grades 10 and 12 passed, up from 89% and 82% in 2014. Red uniforms were replaced with navy blue and lavender.

The Aam Admi Party came to power in Delhi on the promise of improving basic services: health, electricity, water and education. Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, who became Delhi’s chief minister in 2015, said he wanted to ‘overhaul’ the system to a point where government ministers would feel comfortable sending their children to public schools.

Mr Kejriwal has committed billions more to renovate schools, some of which until recently had no clean water or had been overrun by snakes. The school system has partnered with top experts and universities to design new programs, while working with parents, students and teachers to improve day-to-day operations.

“The first strong thing that Delhi has signaled is that our children are worth it, our schools are worth it and our teachers are worth it,” said Padma Sarangapani, professor of education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. from Mumbai.

The school system is still ongoing, with high student-teacher ratios in some schools and many buildings still in need of basic renovations. But Mr Kejriwal is enjoying success, announcing in December that 250,000 students had left private schools in the past five years to attend public schools. (Some of them transferred to public schools due to pandemic-related family income losses.)

According to Delhi government data, almost 100% of students who sat their secondary school leaving exams last year passed, up from 87% in 2012. And other state governments including Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are now pushing to adopt”the Delhi model.”

Work on education helped generate strong political victories for the party, which in March took control of a second state in India, Punjab. The party is taking its approach across the country, campaigning on a platform of education and basic services in this year’s state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.

The transformation of Delhi’s schools began in 2015 with surprise visits from Manish Sisodia, Mr Kejriwal’s education minister, and his then chief education adviser, Atishi. The two questioned school officials, pointing to dilapidated classrooms, misleading records and leaky faucets.

“You would walk into a school and you could smell the toilet 50 yards away,” said Ms Atishi, who has a name. “The message was that if the government can’t even clean up the schools, how serious is the government about education?”

The government has contracted private companies to clean hundreds of schools. He hired retired defense personnel as “property managers” who oversaw repairs. Estate managers freed up principals to focus on schoolwork.

Between 2015 and 2021, the Delhi government spent about $10 billion (769 billion rupees) on the 1,037 schools it runs, which serve about 1.8 million students. This is more than double what previous governments, who did not see education as an election issue, spent in the previous seven years, according to Delhi government data.

The new money was used to build new classrooms, labs and running tracks, as well as to develop programs and create a new school board.

Officials also tried to address a fundamental problem: a lack of trust between students, teachers and parents.

In 2016, the Delhi government set up school management committees, groups of parents, teachers and local leaders who provided a platform to voice concerns and hold the government accountable.

At monthly meetings, headteachers and teachers discussed achievements and problems, and sought consent for new purchases or repairs. The government allowed the committees to hire interim teachers during the long process of to fill positions permanently.

It has also invested in teaching staff. Some had been absent or had left school in the middle of the day, or had even been found knitting sweaters during classes, according to government officials.

Changing mindsets in a long stagnant system required a different approach, said Education Minister Sisodia.

In the summer of 2016, the government organized training sessions with over 25,000 teachers. In addition to the usual disciplinary training, he selected teachers from the public school system to provide training in the basics of teaching.

These sessions focused on establishing a personal connection with the students. For example, teachers were encouraged to talk to students about their family background to understand if it was preventing them from concentrating on class work.

“I felt empowered,” said Anita Singh, a teacher who took the course and went to a public school herself. “There was a realization that as a teacher, if I think about it carefully and make it part of everyday learning, students will get the real learning.”

A year later, the government sent a teacher from almost every school in the city for further training at world-class institutions including the University of Cambridge and the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

“We were exposed and I gained confidence,” said Atul Kumar, who attended a week-long training session in London.

Until six months ago, Dr Kumar was the head of Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, the public school where Mr Paswan studies. Dr Kumar said the school is now rejecting applications. The applicants far exceed the school’s capacity of 3,500 students, said Zennet Lakra, the vice principal.

On a recent afternoon, Indu Devi, a parent, stopped by Ms Lakra’s office to get her 17-year-old son, Sanjay Kumar, readmitted after nearly two years away from school. Ms Devi, who works as a cleaner, said the family needed her to work during the pandemic.

“I want him to study at this school because it has a name,” she said. “I want him to do better than me”

In addition to regular subjects, students learn about gardening and how to be happy and mindful, as part of an effort to promote “human values” and minimize rote learning.

Delhi’s education system appears to be working, experts say. Students in the city performed significantly better than their peers across the country in English, science, math and social studies in 2017 and 2021according to surveys by the Ministry of Education.

Yet challenges remain. Teachers and staff are complaining about salaries and benefits that haven’t increased in years. It has also been difficult to get children back to school after two years of the pandemic.

At Mr. Paswan’s school, about 150 students dropped out. Many of those who returned “forgot how to write their name”, Ms Lakra said.

At around 1 a.m. on a school night, Mr. Paswan, who works part-time as a garbage collector to earn money for his family, carried his bicycle cart filled with cardboard and plastic to the small hut where his family lives. He had been picking up and sifting through trash cans in subway stations, lounges and gymnasiums for about six hours.

His body was tired and his eyes bloodshot, but instead of crawling into his hard bed, he opened his Sanskrit notebook to start reading.

“My school helps me,” said Mr Paswan, who at 20 is older than most of his classmates because he started school late and repeated a grade. “I can dream of doing something big, a work of respect.”

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