‘Meritorious schools’ is a project initiated by Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal on lines of ‘Super 30’, aimed at nurturing bright matriculates from government schools, preparing them for admission to top professional courses after Class 12, free of cost. Six special boarding schools were set up, one each in Amritsar, Jalandhar, Mohali, Ludhiana, Bathinda and Patiala. Around 2,400 students, of the 3,300 who secured above 80% marks in Class 10 in the state board exams last year, were admitted in Class 11. Since August 2014, more than 300 have left, rejecting the specialised environment created for them. HT puts the spotlight on these schools to find out why these students left and how these are different from regular govt schools.
The language barrier is turning out to be one of the main reasons for students leaving these special schools. The medium of instruction in these institutions is English as students have to be prepared for entrance tests. Teachers admit that students from a Punjabi-medium background find English tough for learning.
As many as 70 students have opted out of the school. Of the 468 students admitted at the start of the session; 398 are enrolled in medical, non-medical and commerce streams. Spread over 5.75 acres adjacent to Punjabi University, the school is equipped with 18 modern classrooms, besides residential accommodation for girls.
“It is very difficult for students from Punjabi-medium schools to immediately study complex subjects such as physics, mathematics and chemistry in English,” a teacher said.
However, school principal Rajnish Gupta said language was a barrier in the first few months, but now the students were able to manage with extra help from teachers.
Unlike many government schools, this school has no ‘smart classes’. Moreover, the boys’ hostel is yet to be constructed. Male students are at present accommodated in a block of the girls’ hostel. Gupta said the boys’ hostel would be ready before the current session ends. “We are going to start special coaching classes from March 2, for which the education department has already floated tenders to hire the best private coaching centre to prepare students for competitive exams,” he added.
“It is not a sports school,” is the reply of the district education officer (DEO) Amarjit Kaur Kotfatta, when asked why playgrounds were not ready before the start of the first session at the school last year. As many as 55 students out of 453 have left the school in the past five months, mostly girls.
Even on weekends, students are not allowed to step outside the school, which is situated about 5km from the city. Hostels of boys and girls have only one TV set each and the students are not allowed to use any electronic device. They are allowed only three-minute-long conversations with the family, that too on selected days in a week. Students of the school who largely come from lower-middle class families have their lives restricted to the boundary wall for a period of two years where they have little activities other than studies.
An official in the education department says the level of education in such schools is definitely higher than that of ordinary government schools. But he adds that the funds and planning are not enough to provide an atmosphere for the children in which they would not feel homesick.
The DEO contends that there is no dearth of funds to provide facilities to students other than studies. Despite adequate space on the campus, the construction of the playground has started only recently, more than a year after its foundation stone was laid.
Big attraction: Good meals
No more homesickness, no more dropping out. The seven-month-old residential school here for meritorious students is now “a happier place than home”. Thanks to good meals and a conducive academic environment, the students have adjusted well, and now there is no fear of English holding them back.
Government Senior Secondary School, Ajnala, principal Manmeet Kaur, who has additional charge of the meritorious school, agreed that there were dropout cases because of homesickness in the initial days. “That was natural, as they had just left their homes.
Boys dealt with homesickness better, but now even girls have adjusted well,” she said, adding: “We have provided them with counsellors for any help at any hour.”
Earlier, some students also had the problem of learning in English. “We worked on their communication and writing skills through after-school spoken English courses,” she said.
There is a boys’ hostel, while the one for girls is under construction. For the time being, girls are lodged in a partitioned portion of the boys’ hostel. Eight girls are put up in each room, with an individual study table. The rooms are spacious, with ample natural light. The bathrooms, too, are tidy.
The girls’ section of the hostel has two resident teachers and a couple of guards. The boys’ section has four resident teachers and two guards. “Security is adequate and we feel safe. Even during a medical emergency at night, we are taken care of,” a student said.
In the boxes placed at the hostel, students can drop in their messages for the helpdesk.
The absence of the arts stream is another major issue. “A majority of the students wanted to opt for arts. As this stream is not available, a few left in the initial days. The ‘smart classes’ project is also yet to be introduced,” a student said.
Principal’s post vacant
Around 45 students left the school at an early stage. As many as 342 students (245 girls and 97 boys) are getting education in their respective streams at the senior secondary residential school, Jalandhar.
When asked why some of their classmates left, the students mainly cited homesickness. A student said, “One of my classmates left as her mother was ill, while another girl dropped out as her father was facing problems in handling household chores.” The HT team paid a surprise visit during lunch time to the mess, where the students were served quality food as per the menu, including two vegetables, salad and a fruit. The mess kitchen was clean and the eatables were duly covered.
The post of principal and warden is lying vacant. Massa Singh is handling the charge of officiating principal and all teachers in the school are deputed as warden on rotation basis. Major KAS Bhullar (retd), project director, said the department would again advertise for the post, even as the officiating principal was handling the work properly. The students said, “Our teachers take care of us in the hostel. They stay in our hostel as we don’t have a warden yet. They keep a check on our activities.” Another student said it was an advantage to have teachers on duty in the hostel as the latter had more time to remove their (students’) classroom doubts. Meanwhile, despite the fact that many schools in the area do not have computer facility, the district education officer has arranged 10 computers from Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds for this school.
Since the state government failed to provide computers to the senior secondary residential school for the meritorious, 307 students of Class 11 will use computers of other government schools for practicals, scheduled to be held on February 10. In October last year, the students used teachers’ laptops for computer practicals. Also, the posts of principal, warden and data entry operators, and six posts of lecturers have been lying vacant in the school for the past six months. Classes commenced on August 4 last year, with the existing teaching faculty at the school bearing the burden.
During a visit to the school, HT talked to some students to find out how much they could converse in English. It was observed that a few students still found it tough to interact in English. A student, who wished not to be named, said, “I am trying to interact with my classmates in English but I still don’t understand a few words as I studied in Punjabi medium since Class 1. My teachers cooperate in the class and that’s why I have gained confidence and am trying to improve my vocabulary and pronunciation.”
Talking to Hindustan Times, district education officer, secondary, Ludhiana, Paramjit Kaur Chahal, said, “We will arrange computers from other government schools for the students and the practicals will be conducted as per schedule. Further, to encourage the students to speak in English with more fluency and understand the language, we will conduct special English classes for the students for the next two months March and April.”
When asked that posts of principal, warden and teaching faculty were lying vacant in the meritorious school for the past six months, she said “hiring is done by the authorities and we have no update in this regard.”
Coaching classes awaited
“I want to undergo commercial pilot training on completing Class 12. My English, which seems to me the only hindrance in realising my dream, has improved,” says Veer Pal, a Class-11 student from Barnala who, along with about 300 students, is aiming to achieve something big, while studying at the meritorious school in Sector 70.
Though most of the facilities seem to be in place, what is missing is coaching for students to prepare for competitive exams. In contrast, their peers in private schools are already into about six months of coaching for competitive exams. Having got 81% marks in Class 10, Veer Pal is being taught free of cost at the school, besides hostel, food and other facilities. The school has about 330 students, of whom about 30 have dropped out. The authorities claim that they dropped out at the beginning of the session as they couldn’t cope with the changed environment. The school has students in three streams, namely non-medical, medical and commerce.
The school has students from various villages across the state. Coming from a humble background, they share that they have limited resources back home and this opportunity of being part of a meritorious school has come as a blessing for them. All students in the school have had to make the tough transition from the Punjabi to English medium. Students say that it is not only about studies; their personality has undergone a sea change, and had they lived on in their villages, such growth wouldn’t have been possible.
“This is the first year and we are still coping with a lot many things. Language was a barrier, but there is a remarkable transformation in the students,” said school vice-principal Amrit Pal Kaur. The school also has hostel facility for teachers.
Things looking up: Cheema
Education minister Dr Daljit Singh Cheema said the meritorious schools faced some teething troubles initially. “Like any other new project, we faced some challenges. The students who left were only in the initial months. Most of them left due to home sickness. The language problem has almost been sorted with special English classes after school hours. The under-construction hostels are near completion. There is a shortage of teachers for which have again advertised. We are starting specialised coaching classes to prepare the students for entrance tests,” he said.
By Navrajdeep Singh, Kamaldeep Singh Brar, Usmeet Kaur, Neha Arora, Deepa Sharma Sood and Jyotsna Jalali.