THE STORY OF SAV SCHOOL
(cross-posted from http://bit.ly/14JB4Mw)
“When I was in class 7, I went to take my exams, and had to leave because my father did not pay the fee. He didn’t know. I was very sad, because I was always the top student, and this hurt very much…”, began Govinda, founder and principal of SAV school, Nepal. Thankfully, his uncle, who worked at the same school, was late that day, and saw Govinda standing outside, head down in understandable despair. He spoke to the powers that be and Govinda was permitted to take the exam, although that painful feeling never did go away.
That situation led to what is now the SAV School in Bageshwori, Nepal—a rural K-5 school, operated by Govinda and his wife, Sudha. Now in its 14th year, the school has been in 3 different locations within the village, with fluctuating numbers of students from 13-137. Currently, it has around 80.
In the beginning, he met up with some steely resistance and “you can’t do that, you’ll never make it” attitudes, but his personal experiences emboldened him to try anyway. He sought out space, a willing renter to let him a single room with no amenities, not even a window. He made it work. After a couple of years, he expanded into a larger school/ area, and then finally created the school you see here in Bageshwori. (insert pic)
There are 6 teachers working here, each fun-loving, but savvy and strict, too. They are curious, much like the kids, and dedicated. Three of them leave the village around 4:45am to go to teacher college in Bhaktapur, the nearest city, then take the 10 o’clock bus to get them back to the school by 11. After that, their teaching day begins.
Their earnings do not reflect their dedication, however, and are typically half of that paid to government-run schools. A mere fraction of what would be considered acceptable in many places in the world–$40-50/ month. There is a tremendous divide between private and public schools, each with the belief that the other provides inadequate instruction.
The kids at SAV School typically attend school for nearly 300 days of the year, from around 10 am—4pm. Ask any Nepali, though, and he will tell you that there are 365 days in the year, and 366 festivals, many coinciding with days off of school, but there is no such thing as a summer break. Their Dasain celebration (in the fall), and the New Year (in April) are the longest stretches of time off, each about 2 weeks long. Neither lunch nor breakfast is served at the school, as students eat their morning meal of rice, curried veg and lentils (daal bhaat) at home, and a dinner of nearly the same later in the evening before bedtime. Students may bring a small snack to eat mid-day, and share water out of a communal pitcher, Nepali style—pouring water into their mouths and simultaneously swallowing, careful not to touch their lips to it. Lest you wonder, this is harder than you’d think—I epitomized incompetence!
The kids were self-assured, some more outgoing than others, as you might see in any other school, but they all quickly warmed up to me, a complete stranger, in multiple senses of the word. Uniforms are the norm, from shoes to shirts and ties, and they begin each morning with a formation with exercises, laughter, and a song or recitation. Lined up by age group, any observer can see the universal increases in wiggling in the lower ranks!
The kids were preparing to take exams during my stay, and I was able to work with the teachers to show them abbreviated strategies/ best practices of American schools. For instruction and formative assessment, that is—not standardized testing! What struck me most was their incredibly devoted attention to detail, making sure that posters and signs were made with absolute precision—and although part of me wanted to say “It looks great! Enough already! On to the next one!”, I sat back and observed with a growing sense of admiration. This attention to detail was reflected in the students’ recitations of information, too—they knew certain things in depth because they were accustomed to spending time on strengthening the basics. A refreshing change of pace for me, an American teacher accustomed to feeling like I’m skimming across the surface of our curriculum in the name of “content exposure”.
Their exams were all written out in long hand, on notebook paper, in English. They took exams in Math, Social Studies, English, Nepali, Computers (even though there is only one computer and logistics associated with load-shedding—a couple hours of electricity each day, these kids knew far more about the history of computers than I do!), Art, and Health/ Science. Each exam lasted for 2 hours. The exams are quarterly, they are written by the teachers collaboratively, and don’t need to be sent anywhere. Results of the exam rank students by averages—from who is first to who is dead last. They are then posted for all to see. If a student does not do well, primary blame lands on the students themselves, for not having prepared sufficiently. In the event of a student not passing on to the next grade, it is a financial hardship for the family to have to pay an extra year of fees (about $12-15/ student)—for uniforms, teacher salaries, school upkeep, supplies and exam fees, hence a shame on the student.
Beset by infrastructural issues that would cause most principals to throw up their hands in hopelessness, Govinda has been proactive in seeking better ways to educate the children in his charge. Most notably, he has utilized the power of social media—blogging, email, skype, facebook—to connect with educators worldwide. He exchanges ideas with other educators virtually and face to face, and has been eager to skype with my students several times. Imagine the world he has opened for his students with globally interconnected projects, exchanges, and visitors!z
There is an underlying thread of what some would call risk-taking and others would call passionate perseverance, with Govinda. From the start, when he believed so strongly in the need for a local school, up to now (and continuing), with his self-taught computer connections to break the world down into more digestible pieces. He and his wife split a salary to save on costs, and he has worked diligently to procure funding for his position, as well as some other smaller school fees. He has received hard-won donations from all corners of the world for salaries, and many are keen to his dreams. Ultimately, yes, he would love to build a brand new school, but his voice and understanding of reality and practicality dominate. He knows that transforming the physical aspects of a school do not equate to transforming learning, hence his staff’s current focus on learning how to address the whole child, another break from Nepali school norms.
“300.00”, he replied when I asked him what the cost of a “needs list” would be…(for basic school supplies)
“And a dream list?”, I asked, just trying to get a handle on comparison, costs, etc.
$500.00”, he said, “to transform the school. Plus, maybe an iPad.” Thanks to donations from home, much of that money was provided, plus an iPad, but what I saw begged further attention, such as the need for sturdy walls that won’t crumble or floors that won’t flood when it rains. An overhang to prevent rain from blowing in through the windows during rainy season… Things that desperately impact learning, as well as decisions by parents as to whether or not to keep their students at the school.
Govinda is a resourceful man, optimistic, and relentlessly pursuing a better world for his students. Where others would be quick to give up or give in, he has dug in for measured resistance. He has experienced enough success through his many efforts to know that life is accessible in very different ways for his kids. And his successes are all the more savory given the challenges he has faced, and still does face. SAV School may not be in the big city, but it is a school worth learning with, learning from, and watching.
Thank you to Govinda and his wife Sudha, Didi, and SAV School teachers, for providing me with a generous window into their world, including the road and paths that have led to where they are now, and their dreams for the future. I have tried to capture the essence of it all to inspire and educate others, because I feel deeply that they are trying to bring immeasurable value and experiences to their students.
For those of you interested in donating to SAV School, please check out Open World Cause for information and ways to help.