A private school for 10,000

Each day Shraddha Patil walks 20 minutes to Sridokhar School, a huge, five-story structure built in 1935 that architecturally appears to have been inspired by the factories in the neighborhood. A bronze mural at the school entrance shows Mr. Sridokhar, a Maharashtra educator, walking past a drunkard on the sidewalk toward a rising sun of enlightenment. In the background, mill smokestacks pump industriously.

Today the mills are mostly shut. But Sridokhar hums with activity. About 10,000 students, K-12, pass through here in three shifts, starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m.

Sridokhar is private. That means it exists on a trust, but is also heavily subsidized by the state. Still, the student teacher ratio is 90 to 1 in some classes. The major academic track is "commerce," a kind of business management course. School principal S.S. Pathak says he tries to talk most kids into vocational training. "Then they can at least get a real job," he says.

The esteem Sridokhar holds in Lal Bagh is measured by the number of students who try to transfer in at Grade 8, when serious study for the 10th-grade exam can no longer be shirked. More than 1,000 applications for an eight-grade seat arrive on Mr. Pathak's desk each year; 250 are selected. At Sridokhar, education is based on the main goal - 10th-grade exam preparation. The test hangs like the sword of Damocles over many students. The sheer volume of material to cover militates against much change in the colonial-era, British-style learning system, which was designed to pluck out a small cadre of the best and brightest students.

In all but a small elite of Indian schools, Western-style concepts - joyful learning, cooperative group learning, critical-thinking pedagogy, innovative architectural spaces, and so on - are seen as either flaky or impossible to introduce. Nor, say many Indian educators, are interdisciplinary and "holistic" ways of thinking introduced.

"I'm accountable to parents for getting these students prepared," says Pathak. "I can't do much experimenting." Of the 900 students who take the 10th-grade exam, about 550 will continue on - though at very different levels of study.

The high score at Sridokhar last year was 89 percent, which puts it far behind the top high schools in India. About a dozen Sridokhar kids are selected for a special after-school "engineering" course.

For almost a decade, the majority of the school's top 10 students have been female. At the same time, "most of the girls here are married a year or two after leaving," Pathak says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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