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The Best and the Brightest

An amazing opportunity is afforded to a bright young man living in the small coastal village of Andhra, India. Although his father is a traditional healer and he is expected to follow in the family footsteps the local school administration, recognizing his academic talents, have the boy fill out some forms. Soon he was sitting through his grade examinations and, after having passed, was granted admission to the Navodaya Vidyalaya, a national network of schools set aside for talented youth who would otherwise be stuck in underfunded and underachieving institutions.

A Navodaya Vidyalaya is a school which is staffed by carefully screened instructors and populated by high scoring and intelligent students. It is a free service which provides room and board, supplies and stipends for travel by bus and rail. There’s just over 550 such academies spread throughout almost every state of India and have been operating since the mid-80’s; three-quarters of all admissions are reserved for children being brought in from rural conditions to afford them the opportunities they could never find back home.

Presumably this system of advanced education is funded by the government, which is probably why Shantanu Dutta of Around and About finds reason to praise India for this achievement. For such a troubled country with massive poverty, racial strife, an incredible economic gap, wide-spread corruption and temperamental utilities he wonders why anyone would bother paying taxes and finds some solace in this unique branch of the national education system. A part of me shares his enthusiasm– of course it’s great that some kid from the sticks who shows promise can be catch a lucky break and land placement in a good school. However, another part of me wonders what happens to a school when you strip the best students to be raised in isolation, and save the best teachers for these high-performing institutions.

One of the mission statements of the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti is to prepare and then encourage their rural students to return to their homelands and make what improvements they can with the benefit of their superior education. I wonder how the kids left behind, growing up under hardship with little of the amenities granted their more learned peers, feel when the prodigal sons and daughters return to try and revolutionize the home village. Is it at all fair to abandon the hopeless slow-learners to their fate and rescue the bright bulbs, teaching them privately how to shine for the future good? Obviously with the investment in these specialty schools there resources not going to the standard regional schools and those making the sacrifice, the students left behind, suffer the most for their former classmates success.

A functioning educational system is a difficult thing to create and implement and perhaps it’s only my fortunate status as a member of the first world that makes me even question this. It brings to mind the various voucher programs that have been attempted where families could apply to have their children sent to private schools on the public’s dime, to give their kids a leg up over the kids who weren’t so lucky. The whole building’s going up in flames so save the best and let the rest burn? When I was growing up, spending time both in public and Catholic school, I was yanked from various classes to spend time with other bespectacled and unpopular kids who could read better than others and we would sit in the library going over essays and short stories, discussing them like adults. I took advanced placement History and English in highschool, although the situation was dire enough that it meant sitting through the regular class and then being expected to stay after school with a teacher in the library to do extra work. Obviously I failed to show up and my AP scores were poor– think I even forgot to take the English one. My point is, being pulled out of class and sent to the library while the other kids struggle with reading comprehension instills a sense of otherness for the people being disappeared, and perhaps a sense of resentment for those left behind.

Not that I advocate children who are too advanced for their class to suffer unnecessarily, nor do I think it’s possible to keep everyone’s feelings from being hurt. It just seems like a shame when the best way to educate kids is to segregate them, show the talented ones special attention and leave the rest to bang their heads onto the desk out of frustration. And maybe I’m just being cynical– perhaps the graduates of the Navodaya Vidyalaya schools will become educated and return to help their hometowns grow and prosper. Maybe a lesson can be learned here in the states from the educational reforms of India.

Top two photos were swiped from the Navodaya Vidyalaya English site; the bottom picture was stolen from the website of an organization called REAL, operating out of Portland and run by “youth”, which supports literacy in India by collecting grant money and sending school supplies.

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