It’s 9:30 on a hot and sticky night, and I’m sweating because I just finished ironing three crisp white shirts, two pairs of khaki trousers and a Scotch plaid skort. This means tomorrow is Friday—full dress uniform day at Symbiosis International School.
The mandatory attire is one of many differences between private school in Pune, India, and public school in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Several friends have asked me to write about what school is like for 16-year-old Rory (11th grade, or DP1 here), 14-year-old Robin (9th grade, or IG2 here) and 8-year-old Rachel (3rd grade, or PYP3 here). Better yet, they said, have the kids put it in their own words. Only Rachel took me up on the extra writing assignment. Here’s her summary:
“There are a lot of differences in my school here & at home, and here are some of them.
1. There is a uniform. For girls this is a kilt skirt, a tie, shirt and blazer;
2. The lunch is bad;
3. We have I.D. cards;
4. They serve you breakfast, lunch, & J.B. (juice and biscuits—another word for cookie);
5. The breakfast is bad;
6. You have to call your teacher “mam” or “sir”;
7. You have to go to assembly every day & sing the school song;
8. There are a lot of holidays (32);
That’s all I can think of right now. By Rachel.”
Here’s my own more verbose version.
- The school is far away from our house, or vice versa. On a flat map, we live approximately halfway in between professor-hubby Brian’s campus and the kids’ school. But in reality, the most densely populated area of Pune city is toward the kids’ school, while city outskirts are the other direction, between our home and Brian’s campus. As a Fulbright-Nehru professor, Brian only has to go to the Symbiosis’ Lavale campus three days a week. He works from home or is out in the field during other times. The O’Donoghue children, meanwhile, must take a hot crowded bus to and from the Symbiosis International School in Vimanagar five days a week–a two-hour total commute each day. This also means many of their friends live on the opposite side of the city, complicating matters. I was warned and in the long run, don’t regret the choices we’ve made, as I love where we live. But the distance between home and school has definitely made city life in India harder.
- Hierarchical systems flourish in India, and schools are no exception. As a down-to-earth Alaskan, this has been hard to get used to. Back home, parents are valued as part of their child’s education, and are welcomed into the school to volunteer or chaperone a field trip. It’s different here. While I like certain formalities (as Rachel noted, the kids are required to call their teachers “ma’am or “sir” for example), I’ve picked up on an autocratic vibe from some teachers and administrators, even toward parents.
- For high-school level classes, the daily schedules are not efficient. This observation comes directly from my children. Some examples: If it’s time for physics class and the student doesn’t have physics but instead biology for the year, there is simply no class for the biology student that period, which has now become a “free” period. Not surprisingly, several weeks into the school year officials realized this meant some kids with extra time on their hands wasn’t a good thing. The solution? Students with free periods must now audit other classes. The library is an option, if it’s open (it often isn’t.) If a student wanted or needed to take a certain class, he or she would have taken it in the first place. Also, there are no substitute teachers so classes sometimes get cancelled without warning. In some cases, there are back-to-back classes in math or foreign language. When I raised my questions and concerns with the proper official, I was told everything makes perfect sense and that I must adjust.
- The school is big on singing. This includes the nearly eight-minute long school song (“Oh come, let’s sing of Symbiosis! Sing ‘til the rafters ring…”) that reminds me of Muzak; but also the Indian National Anthem, which I love. Here’s a link to a beautiful version of it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAE3lW1oi6g
- The uniform vendor was slow and indifferent. It took more than two months to receive the main pieces, with the sweatshirt hoodies arriving just a week ago. The vendor’s inability to deliver the goods did not lead to greater tolerance for uniform law-breakers. Teacher: “Why aren’t you wearing your jacket? Where’s your tie?” Student: “Ma’am, my uniform hasn’t come in yet.” Teacher: “Well, that’s not my problem—tell your mother to take it up with the vendor!”
- The equivalent of the Parent Teacher Association, ironically called “Friends on Campus,” does not allow actual run-of-the-mill parents at meetings. Only officially appointed and/or elected representatives can attend these super-secret gatherings. Concerns must be relayed through appropriate channels, or the representatives.
- The school is accredited through the International Baccalaureate Organization of Geneva, Switzerland to offer the IB Diploma Programme for grades 11 and 12. For students in grades 9 and 10, the school is a recognized center by the University of Cambridge for International Examinations. These accreditations are points of pride and prestige, and single out this school above others that slap a shingle with the word “international” on it. The textbooks are of high quality, also.
- Tuition for all three kids was $21,000 US for the year, plus the cost of the uniforms (actually not bad, at $328 US), plus the bus transportation fee of $2,200. Brian’s Fulbright grant provided a $10,000 stipend for educational expenses. SIS is not the most expensive international school in the city.
- The quality of instruction and learning that occurs inside the classroom is on par, for the most part, with the solid quality we’re accustomed to at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. Like everywhere, some teachers are better than others (standouts are Rachel’s third-grade teacher, Robin’s drama and economics teachers, and Rory’s psychology teacher).
- The grading system is different (it goes from the best, an A-star, to the poorest mark, a G). Teachers do not give out A’s generously. Work must truly stand out to earn good marks. Unlike many other public and private schools in India, the emphasis is not on rote memorization and repetition, but on thinking and learning. I think these are all good things.
- Cultural differences layer on top of all this. One is that teachers are very blunt. One of our kids witnessed an exchange in which a teacher loudly berated a child in front of the entire class, saying, “Why did you think you were smart enough to be in Higher Level English? You should be in Standard Level!” Ouch.
The real value in our children’s educational experience here in India is, naturally, social and cultural. They’ve made good friends with many of the students at school, mostly Indian but also some Korean, Jamaican, German and Dutch. Most of the students speak a minimum of three languages—their “mother tongue” from wherever they hail in India (India has an incredibly diverse mix of languages); Hindi, the national language; and English. This has impressed each one of our children immensely.
Rachel takes yoga, Hindi and Bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance) in school. Robin enjoys soccer (“football” here) both informally and on the school team, as well as business studies and economics courses—classes he may not have taken had we been at home this year. Rory has attended four different college fairs, held right at the school, which featured many good institutions from the United States and other countries. The exposure has been awesome.
The small size of the student body means the kids are fairly close-knit. For the most part, the kids include ours, the “new kids,” for birthday parties, get-togethers and social functions.
My petty gripes about secret PTA meetings and confusing schedules will fade with time. Mother India provides an education for our children that reaches far beyond the concrete walls of Symbiosis International School.