Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Singh: A principal with principle

Joyeeta Dutta Ray, Contributor, Jakarta

"The mind is a restless bird; the more it gets, the more it wants and still remains unsatisfied," so said Mahatma Gandhi.

The ideals of A.P. Singh, principal of Gandhi Memorial International School (GMIS), run in this vein. With each milestone he achieves, he sets another a notch more challenging, rather than opting to rest on his laurels.

Singh's interest in academics spawned a natural succession to a teaching career that took flight in the hills of Mussourie, India. In 1988, he spread his wings to Nigeria to hone the skills of students in a Women Teachers' College.

When economic crisis struck the African country, Singh returned to teaching in Mussourie, after which he accepted an offer to take over the reins of Gandhi Memorial International School, Jakarta, as principal. Singh came to Indonesia with his wife, three children, and new hopes and dreams.

"One of the oldest international schools in the city, Gandhi Memorial School was inaugurated in 1950 to cater to the needs of Indonesians of Indian descent, at that time primarily from the Sindhi community. In 1947, when the partition of India brought the state of Sindh into Pakistan, political upheaval in both countries compelled many Sindhis to seek shelter in Indonesia," says Singh, explaining how the school was established.

"Having merged into society as citizens of Indonesia, they were not eligible to attend international schools according to the law in effect then."

A sister institution -- Mahatma Gandhi School -- was set up to serve the needs of the Indonesian Sindhi community, while the GMIS embarked on its journey to function as an international school.

After relocating several times in the last half century, just six months ago the GMIS moved to its new campus in North Jakarta.

GMIS offers international-standard education at reasonable fees to expatriates from India and other Asian and African countries. However, the school was a far cry from its present status when Singh arrived.

"GMIS was in the academic doldrums when I stepped in 12 years ago," says Singh. "Teachers were underqualified and ill-trained due to lack of funds. School hours were insufficient to incorporate an intensive educational program. There was no importance attached to extracurricular activities. After 1 p.m., the premises looked dead."

Singh realized that the only way he could revamp the school's image was by rethinking its policies. He began the task of outlining new strategies, sanctioned by the chairman of the trust that runs the educational institution, Suresh Vaswani.

Under the new guidelines, salaries were revised to allow qualified personnel to fly in from abroad. Curriculum content was updated to meet new international standards. Extracurricular activities were introduced for more rounded growth and development.

In the true spirit of international multiculturalism and retaining one's identity, Singh emphasized the introduction of Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin, Hindi and French as second-language options, with English as the principal medium of instruction.

"The school provides an atmosphere where diversity is considered a strength and differences are seen as assets," he says.

Singh believes in promoting open-minded, research-based thinking that is synonymous with the international baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. "We have chosen to become an IB World School and have been fully authorized since 1996 to offer the IB Diploma Program."

That, he is convinced, will help alleviate the creative stagnation that stems from the rote learning system.

Cramming or rote-learning is a system still widely prevalent in Singh's home country, India. Considering GMIS follows the Indian CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education), which is based on understanding through given matter in texts rather than research, would the IB curriculum not go against the favored Indian norm?

Singh does not think so. "There is a shift in ideology in India as well. With more privatization of schools, several institutions have embraced the IB curriculum, understanding the value of inculcating free-thinking among children."

"So far, they are limited to big cities such as New Delhi as the program is expensive." Sensitive to that issue, GMIS offers the IB program as an option along with the compulsory CBSE system.

Although IB encourages investigation and research, several parents do not support its introduction. Many fear that intensive research-based education in the early years will only serve to pressure a child.

Singh says an enquiry-based education always lingers in the memory. "IB students are encouraged to become critical, compassionate thinkers and informed participants in local and world affairs, conscious of the shared humanity that binds all people together, while respecting the variety of cultures and attitudes that make up the richness of life."

Today, under Singh's leadership, GMIS figures among the top international schools in the country. However, Singh feels that this is not the be-all and end-all of his journey. His teachers are sent on regular training programs to keep abreast of emerging technology. Workshops are arranged to invite experienced professionals from abroad to update the teachers.

"Teachers are the pillars of any foundation of knowledge, thus ensuring their growth and ability is critical. The guidelines of the primary and middle year program and diploma program of the IB aim to achieve that objective," says Singh.

His efforts have been recognized by several quarters. Recently, the staff and students of GMIS were praised by George Walker, director general of IB, for their prompt action in rushing to the aid of tsunami victims.

"The school swung into action right away, collecting generous donations and delivering rice, oil, etc. by truck, the very night of the disaster," says Singh.

"Some of our teachers were selected for training by international committees to help heal children psychologically scarred by the disaster. In fact, GMIS has pledged to continue efforts in that direction for the rest of the year," he added.

In the academic field, students continue to compete meritoriously, securing admission to world-class universities.

GMIS' move to its new campus in Sunter six months ago marks a new era for the school, embracing modern amenities to facilitate a wholesome multimedia environment, designed by Bobby Prem Jethnani, an architectural engineering graduate from Australia.

A well-equipped gym, swimming pool and complete track and field facilities have been incorporated along the lines of leading IB international schools.

Stepping into the building on a Saturday, a school holiday, one sees a flurry of activity in the corridors. Children involved in after-school activities display genuine interest. The cafeteria holds students and teachers rapt in discussion. The principal has visitors lined up to meet him.

After 1 p.m. the premises are anything but dead.