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Untouchable to unstoppable: Model for SUCCESS against odds

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On May 5, 2014 in Toronto, at an internationally renowned conference and market for documentary professionals, a film entitled Backward Class won the Audience Award. The documentary, chosen from a total of 2,435 films submitted to the festival, was the product of Vancouver based director Madeline Grant, one of 176 filmmakers from across Canada and around the world who competed at the 11-day festival to a record breaking audience of 192,000.

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In Grant's compelling documentary, she takes us to a rural part of South India, near Bangalore, where she came across a small but unique boarding school invested in bringing opportunity to backward caste students, most of whom are "Dalits" or "untouchables." The documentary follows the first graduating class (2010) as they prepare for the Indian School Certificate 12th Grade exams and apply to colleges.

Why has this school and its students sparked great interest globally? As a background to this question, note that the school was featured on BBC television, German, French, and Italian press, the U.S. television, print, and social media including ABC, Ted Talk, Public Television [Charlie Rose, The News Hour], New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. It has attracted volunteers from across the world to help the school achieve its ambitious vision: educators, performing and fine artists, scientists, doctors, engineers, computer scientists, and student teachers. And now there is an internationally acclaimed award winning documentary to add to its credits!

For answer, let's turn to what NY Times Journalist and author Thomas Friedman who visited the school had to say: "The Shanti Bhavan School sits on a once-scorpion-infested bluff about an hour's drive - and ten centuries - from Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. The students are mostly "untouchables" who are not supposed to even get near Indians of a higher caste. The school was started [in 1997] by Abraham George who came back to India with a single mission: to start a privately financed boarding school that would take India's most deprived children and prove that if you gave them access to the same technology and education that have enabled other Indians to thrive in globalization, they could too."

Indeed the ambitious vision is being realized! In 2010, the school celebrated its first graduation of its 14-member high school class. All 14 were accepted into top colleges in Bangalore, also ranked among the top undergraduate colleges in India. Going beyond the time span of the documentary, all 14 of the class of 2010 currently hold professional positions in major institutions: Goldman Sachs, Mercedes Benz, IGate, Ernst and Young, Hewlett Packard, and BioCon, and one will be teaching at a school in Hosur.

The school follows the rigorous ICSE/ISC curriculum accredited by the prestigious national agency, the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE). CISCE testing standards are considered among the most advanced in India, with less than 5% of the Indian student population following this curriculum nationwide. A liberal arts approach until Grade 10 encourages the all-round personal development of children. Grades 11 and 12 focus on subjects in preparation for their career path. The ICSE exam at Grade 10 and the ISC exam at Grade 12 are deemed highly difficult and competitive.

Around fifteen 12th Grade students of Shanti Bhavan graduate each year, all in the top first division, and more than half get distinctions. 100% are now attending college, many in prestigious colleges of law, journalism, engineering, liberal arts, business, and the sciences. One of them has also written a book for publication.

The 10th graders are also performing exceptionally well in the rigorous ICSE exams, with 100% passing with the top "First Division" scores, and 50% scoring even higher "Distinctions." One of the 11th graders won in 2013 the national poetry award in competition with students of not just schools but also colleges.

These are unprecedented achievements for children coming from the most impoverished, socially castigated, and forgotten communities. It is also a testimony to their strong educational background (including person-to-person exposure to volunteer subject specialists from around the world and to international standards), self-confidence, and tenacious spirit. Highly trained and qualified faculty provides support and individualized attention to children in small class sizes.

As illustrated in the documentary, stakes are high for the students. As one of them said, "This is our last chance to prove to the world what we are capable of." They must either excel in this exam and thereby secure admission to the best colleges or go back to the slums they came from. And if they end-up having to go back, wouldn't they be worse-off than they would have been, had they never seen the promise of a better life?

The documentary chose to narrow down the focus to five students and introduces us to their families also. The challenges that these families endure, in order to barely meet their basic needs, contextualize the "backward class" of India. We see single mothers, abandoned by their husbands, working as a daily-wager to support their children; and we meet a much younger sibling of a Shanti- Bhavan student who, not being as fortunate as his brother, works long hours in a garage.

Shanti Bhavan being a small school with limited means, has chosen to target a select group of children who are believed to have the highest chance of success. Students are screened for admission. Only one child per family is admitted in order to reach as many families as possible. The focused approach also allows the school to maintain high educational standards.

Children are enrolled at age 4 into preschool and they graduate after the 12th grade. Since they come from a background of chaos, unpredictability, and despair, the early years focus on overcoming their emotional and psychological barriers. Clinical psychologists, pediatricians, social workers, staff "house mothers," and older students are all involved in a program to offer constant care and nurturing.

Through consistent routines, order and predictability enter their life and so also health and hygiene, emotional development, and overall learning. What follows has been a pattern of growth in self-esteem and confidence that continues through subsequent years all the way to their graduation after the 12th grade ISC examination. The school remains their guardian beyond that stage as well ensuring that the youth are coping well and motivating them to excel.

The school's pastoral setting and its "green" infrastructure model that emphasizes living in a sustainable, environmentally responsible manner has also been a source of education. Designed as a self-sufficient facility, the school grounds include several ground wells, water storage tanks, and solar panels for solar energy. The 30+ acre grounds+ are lush with vegetation. Fruit trees and vegetable plantations are yielding all the natural organic perishables for the students and staff.

Shanti Bhavan students who have gone on to college or who are employed still return to the school during vacations to be with their school brothers and sisters. While they often visit with their families in the village, they consider Shanti Bhavan their home. They tutor the younger students and tell them about their experiences outside the safe haven of the school.

As the documentary illustrates, the students are imbued with a deep sense of commitment to their family and communities from which they came. They are driven to make the most of the opportunity they are given -- not only for themselves but to also to pave the way for success of their less fortunate siblings, family members, and their larger community.

Yes, we have seen the poverty of India's under-class umpteen times before, and we know that many of India's children still go to work instead of school. What sets the school and its students apart is that they impart a message of hope.

The documentary Backward Class captures this message of hope and inspires us. It goes beyond the vague pan-shots across the slums and streets of India and brings us the success stories of its participants. By showing us an initiative that works so well, it informs us on how schools modeled after Shanti Bhavan can make all the difference not only in India but all across the globe.

Schools modeled after Shanti Bhavan would seek a quantum change in the trajectory of each child it serves. Put succinctly, the model is providing world-class education within an environment of mutual love and respect to otherwise forgotten children of poverty so that they can grow up to be highly productive members of society with strong educational backgrounds, leadership skills, and the confidence to act on their ambition. Additionally, the goal is to break the cycle of poverty permanently and empower children with tools to carry others forward.

As the founder of Shanti Bhavan Abraham George has said, "If one child is successful, he or she will carry a thousand more forward."

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