School cherishes diversity among students of varied nationalities
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
It's lunchtime at the Gandhi Memorial International School (GMIS) and students, who are generally able to converse in at least three languages, sometimes during a single exchange, are heading to the cafeteria.
Bonding and mixing together around circular tables are Koreans munching on samosas, Indians eating sushi, Africans chewing on hamburgers and Indonesians nibbling on crepes.
"We believe in multiculturalism," GMIS principal Ashok Pal Singh declared proudly in an interview recently. "We want our students to interact with and respect the different cultures of the world."
GMIS is one of four schools run by the Gandhi Seva Loka Foundation in Jakarta, a charitable foundation to promote and provide quality education. The other three are Mahatma Gandhi School in Kemayoran, Central Jakarta, Gandhi National School in Ancol, North Jakarta and the Gandhi Institute of Business and Technology in Pasar Baru, Central Jakarta.
Students pay up to US$500 per month, with 40 percent of students receiving some form of financial assistance through the foundation, which can range from a fee reduction to a full scholarship.
Singh, who has been at the helm of the non-denominational school for 12 years, said GMIS provided an atmosphere where differences are cherished and students are expected to be holistic citizens of the world.
"If you are armed with a good education, you should be able to get along with everyone in life," said Singh, who oversees about 1,750 students, ranging from preschool to grade 12. The students consist mainly of Indian expatriates (40 percent), students from China, Korea and Japan (a total of 35 percent), Indonesians (20 percent) and students from African countries (roughly 5 percent).
The school, which uses an internationally recognized curriculum and is in its first year of occupying its new ultrasleek state-of-the-art campus in Kemayoran, North Jakarta, had not always made diversity a point of high priority.
Singh acknowledged that because of this, GMIS, which has its roots in a school established in 1950 for the Indian community in Pasar Baru, Central Jakarta, suffered from the false perception that it was still predominantly catering to Indians.
He said the school had deliberately tried to change this perception over the years by removing even the slightest hint that it was promoting Indian culture.
Singh added that he could think of only one predominantly Indian themed celebration held during the school year; the celebration to mark the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the school's namesake, whose educational philosophy of "an all-around drawing out of the best in child and man ... mind, body and soul" inspires the school's 180 teachers, some of whom volunteer their time on Saturdays to help students.
He said if the school celebrated more than that, "we would lose our multiculturalism".
"We have broken those barriers down and are still making a conscious effort to keep it that way," said Singh. "We are different from other international schools, as we have a slight Asian accent, while at the same time are just as multicultural."
One way the school aims to foster camaraderie and diversity is by assigning students to one of four houses named for prominent world visionaries: Kartini, the Indonesian feminist and educator, Abraham Lincoln, the great American president who abolished slavery, Rabindranath Tagore, the celebrated Indian poet and Nobel Laureate, and Leo Tolstoy, the Russian literary giant.
The housemasters and housemistresses make sure each house has an equal number of girls and boys, and an acceptable balance of ethnic backgrounds.
According to Singh, the student body's diversity has "never become a problem" at the school due to "the beauty of the spirit of respect" that pervades GMIS.