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Shanti Bhavan Makes Academic History in India

May 20, 2009

Shanti Bhavan Makes Academic History in India

May 20, 2009

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) released their results on Wednesday, and for the second year in a row the entire 10th grade class of Shanti Bhavan, a tuition-free home and school dedicated to Dalit (formerly known as “Untouchables” –  approximately 25% of India’s population of 1.1 billion) children, secured First Division in the nationally accredited ICSE examination. Shanti Bhavan is the first school for Dalits to achieve First Division in the ICSE exams in India’s academic history and have replicated that success again this year.

Over 1,500 schools in India and abroad take the ICSE annually, and the tests cover a wide range of subjects, from Physics and Chemistry to English Literature and Computer Applications. First Division on the ICSE is equivalent to a 3.5 GPA and higher by U.S. standards. The ICSE exams are administered over a three-week period and high scores can pave the way to entry into India’s elite universities like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM).

Shanti Bhavan’s student body comes from families facing extreme poverty. Their parents are employed as sewer cleaners, quarry laborers, and in other low-paying jobs. Many are, or have been bonded-laborers, trapped in debt to landowners and money-lenders. Due to poverty and social injustice, graduating from high school has been difficult for Dalit children, and less than 5% of those who take the ICSE are from the “lowest castes.”

Dr. Dagmar Etkin, a former Harvard instructor and an environmental scientist, taught Chemistry and Environmental Studies to the 10th grade. “The children of Shanti Bhavan are as intelligent and educated as any of their peers. They would fit in perfectly in a class of freshmen at Harvard.” She added, “I cried when I saw their huts and the overwhelming poverty. It was difficult to believe this is where my students had come from. The ICSE results prove that Shanti Bhavan’s model is working.”

Located in Tamil Nadu, India, Shanti Bhavan is also a safe and caring home for the children, offering food, clothing, medical care, and all their necessities, free of charge, though it costs the school a little over $4 a day per child to do so. The institution’s stated goal is to alleviate poverty through high quality education, opening up professional career paths that would normally be denied to this segment of the population. “The World Bank’s broader definition of poverty is $2 a day. With just double that, we’re able to meet all the needs of the children,” explains Abraham George, the founder of the school. “Basic primary education isn’t enough these days; after going through such programs, the poor aren’t able to achieve better opportunities for themselves. There should be no glass ceiling in education for the economically deprived.”

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