The United States of America (USA) is considered the Mecca of capitalism. It was, therefore, a surprise for me that an overwhelming majority of the students in the US attend government schools. Since I hold managerial positions in two schools in Delhi and Haryana, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit an American school during my ongoing visit to the US.
As my niece Preethi got ready to leave for her school — Earl Warren High School — in the neighbourhood at Military Drive in San Antonio, an idea occurred to me. I wrote a letter to the principal expressing my desire to visit the school the next day.
Within an hour or so I got an email from the Principal’s office asking whether a two-hour visit was okay with me. And when we reached there the next day, Johnny Martinez, administrative assistant to Principal Valerie Sisk, was at the school foyer waiting for us. He was happy that I had chosen his school to visit.
Let me mention that I have visited some of the biggest and prestigious schools in India like the Doon School at Dehradun, the Woodstock at Mussoorie, the Modern School at New Delhi and the Dalhousie Public School at Dalhousie. None of them comes anywhere near Warren School in terms of infrastructure, strength of students and the variety of courses it offers.
The school has classes only from IX to XII but it has a strength of 3,000. There were 190 teachers and more than a dozen counsellors besides administrative and support staff. Martinez introduced me to Terry Zablocki, the Librarian, one of the oldest employees of the school, which was set up 17 years ago.
She took us around the sprawling library which has over 27,000 books and dozens of computer consoles where the students can access information about anything and everything from extraterrestrial beings to extraconstitutional authorities. She was very proud of a unique database, called TexQuest, which would provide knowledge at the click of a button.
To demonstrate the prowess of the database, she wrote “Education in India” in the search area and clicked on the mouse. In a few seconds, links to several scholarly articles appeared. My readers may have difficulty in believing that one of the articles thrown up was written by me in 2011. She was so thrilled to know that I was the author of the article that she took a printout of the article to be given to the principal.
Zablocki gave me a peep into the history of San Antonio. She grew up in a situation in which there was no intermingling between the blacks and the white. At that time, it was unthinkable for a black to study in a white school and vice versa. “Our principal is the first black to hold such a position in the area”. I was very happy to know that Warren School represented the best in American society, considered a salad bowl of cultures and colours.
The principal’s job is not easy as she has to take care of 3,000 students on a minute-by-minute basis. It is the job of Delisa Ramos, academic dean, to ensure that the teachers follow the regimen of teaching to a T.
She has to ensure that the syllabus is followed, the weak students are taken extra care of and the extracurricular activities are not at the cost of academic discipline. “I am not a very popular person on the campus as I have to enforce discipline”, she said.
Every teacher is expected to take extra care of his or her weak students. Martinez showed me the notice board where the students are notified about the availability of teachers. So if student X is weak in mathematics, he can meet teacher Y at such and such time on such and such day and get special coaching.
As Martinez led me down the corridor, he showed me rows of lockers where the students can keep their notebooks and other personal belongings. “Students can reach the school empty-handed”, he said as I remembered my grandson Yohaan, who has to carry a lot of textbooks, notebooks, lunch and water bottle, every day to the school and back.
At Warren, where the students are routinely referred to as Warren Warriors, those who cannot afford to pay for food are given the same free of cost. No, they do not have to carry any Aadhar card to avail of the mid-day meal as in India.
Although there were 3,000 students on the campus, there was pindrop silence everywhere. In most classrooms, the students were busy doing projects of various kinds under the supervision of the teachers. In the arts class I found the students drawing pictures of twisted Coca Cola cans kept on the table. The best among them was displayed in the classroom.
The teachers’ job appeared to be to guide, rather than teach. I did not find anyone giving a lecture as, in India. In the culinary class, I found the teacher busy making chocolates along with her students. She allowed us to taste the dish, which had a dash of chocolate and peanut paste. Don’t think that cooking is chosen by girls only. “Half the students who opt for culinary art are boys”.
It’s not textbook knowledge that is imparted in the school. There is a carpentry section where the students are given wooden blocks from which they have to make miniature boxes and furniture. I was more interested in seeing the journalism section for reasons my readers can imagine. Since I myself teach journalism in New Delhi, I was keen to meet the teacher and the students.
I was very happy to know that journalism, as an elective subject, was popular among the students. Martinez took me to the basketball court where senior students were busy netting the ball. It was an indoor court with floodlight facility. I was surprised to find the journalism students there.
All of them had cameras dangling from their necks. Their task was to take good action pictures. The students were first told to change the camera settings so that they could capture the action in floodlight conditions. Taking pictures using the Automatic mode was not allowed. The students themselves had to set the camera according to the light conditions.
Soon the basketball match was over. The students were asked to go out. “What is the light condition now?”, asked the teacher. “It’s cloudy”, said a student. “Ok, set the camera to shoot in cloudy condition”, commanded the teacher. He also helped those who had difficulty to set their cameras.
A girl would hold a rotating object and the students had to shoot the object just when the rotation ended. As they were practising, the sun came out of the clouds spreading light everywhere. “Now set the camera to shoot in a sunny condition”. Thus went the camera lessons.
Every student has to choose a foreign language like French, Spanish and German. The language classrooms are equipped with audio and video facilities which make learning a language easier. If the students do well in their studies, they can obtain scholarship worth thousands of dollars.
I was told about a Warren Warrior who got scholarship worth more than half a million dollars, i.e., about Rs 3.5 crore. Altogether the Warren Warriors earned scholarships worth $12 million last year, against $10 million the previous year. In short, sky is the limit for the good and meritorious students.
The school has the equivalent of India’s National Cadet Corps. There are 200 students enrolled in this programme. Retired officers from the American Air Force like Douglas Anglim train them to join the Air Force. They may not eventually become Air Force personnel but the training would stand them in good stead in their life. The certificate will help them get admission to college and other higher educational institutions. Anglim did not have an answer as to why the enrolment fell from 300 last year.
The school has a big band of which my niece is a member. We visited the class for instrumental music where the teacher was playing violin. No, he is not a great violinist like Bala Bhaskar as his forte is different. But he knew enough violin to give the students a rooting in violin recitals. You name any instrument and there are teachers to give them the necessary training.
As mentioned, Preethi is a drummer. She loves playing the drum so much so that she has strong shoulder muscles, developed, because of carrying the heavy instrument. She wants to become a percussionist and she is already on the way to become one, as I saw a video of one of her recent performances.
Martinez took us to the football ground where I was surprised to find all the players wearing helmets. “No player is allowed to play football without wearing a helmet”. The students were practising for an inter-school football tournament, scheduled to be held in the weekend. The school, located on a 50-acre compound, has all the facilities required for sports. For once, I realised why America is number one in sports and games also.
The day happened to be the food festival day. Such festivals are held once in two months. The money raised is used for charity purposes. The food was not expensive. A large slice of Italian pissa was available for as little as a dollar.
The school has an excellent cafeteria where the students can buy food at nominal prices. Hundreds of them can sit together and eat. Since the number of total students is very high, access to the cafeteria is provided group-wise.
As we were going to the science section, I noticed a visually challenged person walking with the aid of walking stick. He was followed by an “assistant” who carried all his books and special implements in an electrically-operated trolley. The assistant stays with him throughout to ensure that the disabled student enjoys a level-playing field. The state pays for the assistant.
Martinez knew the student. “He is very popular in the school as he has a great sense of humour”. Who does not like a person who makes others laugh?
Adjacent to Warren School is a special school where students are taught subjects like plumbing, wiring, carpentry, house building and house designing. The principal was one Mr Phillip, who told me that the courses the school offered were popular as the students did not have to wait to earn. They can start working as a house builder or plumber or electrician, the moment they complete their studies.
We visited two mobile houses in various stages of construction. These houses have wheels and they can be attached to a truck and moved to any destination. The houses have everything from bunkers to kitchen to toilet to bedrooms. “Once a year, the houses built by the students are auctioned and each of them fetches anything between $50,000 and $80,000”.
The school has a full-time staff to guide the students on various career options they have. The person concerned keeps herself up to date about career opportunities so that she can guide the students on what to do after they complete their school education. The American school system seems to believe in “catching them young”!
Unlike in India, such courses are not looked down upon in the US. There is realisation that all cannot excel in academics but that does not mean that they cannot excel in some other field like sports, games, carpentry and painting. The school’s objective is to develop the hidden talents of its students and make them good citizens of the country.
How are the Government schools funded? My host CG Daniel has the answer. “The state spends 50 per cent of its tax revenue on education.” How I wish Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Warren School, made a vow to step up allocation for education and converted every Indian government school into centres of excellence! Such a decision would transform India like no other decision would ever have!(Published on 15th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 42)