A Platform to Raise the Underprivileged

Alumnus Gurpreet Singh is on a mission to help some of the poorest children in India become indistinguishable from those already receiving the best education in the country.

by Terri Nappier

Answering his grandfather's enduring call to educate the people of India, alumnus Gurpreet "Pete" Singh has developed an amazing facility in Chandigarh, India, to educate hundreds of the area's poorest children.

Sikhya, meaning "the school of learning," is the culmination of Singh's intentions. Based on a holistic model of learning and a curriculum devised by principal Sonia Channi, the school provides for the mental, physical, and spiritual needs of its students.

"Education is valued very highly in India. Most parents believe that if they can provide their children with a good education, then that's all the wealth they need to leave them," says Singh, M.B.A. '54.

"The school's curriculum is needs-based, practical, and works toward empowering each student," says Gurpreet Singh, M.B.A. '54. "The focus is not solely on academics but on the needs of the students."

For the children at Sikhya, because of family circumstances, many had never attended school, and the likelihood of their receiving a formal education, even a government-sponsored education, was minimal. Troubled by this, Singh, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University in 1987, asked some tough questions about those being denied opportunity: "What happens to these poor children? Do they ever get an opportunity to have an intellectual discussion, or compete for entrance into Oxford or Cambridge, Washington University or Stanford? And through proper education can we raise them to a point where tomorrow they are indistinguishable in intellect, or in behavior, or good manners to the people who have had the best education?"

Singh, chairman, Continental Devices India Ltd., also pondered the possibilities that a good education would not only change these children's lives, but perhaps it would allow for them to raise up their entire family, and even some day possibly their whole village.

With these ambitious goals in mind, Sikhya was born. The school charges no fees. The only criteria are that the children be among the poorest in the community and that they and their parents be willing to dedicate themselves to a high-quality, values-based education.

To accommodate such eagerness and dedication, Singh—sponsored by his family's trust, the Guru Nanak Vidya Bhandar Trust, set up by his grandfather Sardar Dharam Singh in 1924, which already supports and educates some 3,000 other children—built a beautiful, 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on four acres in Chandigarh, which is known as the 'City Beautiful.' Sikhya's world-class offerings include multimedia teaching facilities with Wi-Fi connections in every classroom; an amphitheater; a swimming pool, and grass playing fields and courts for sports; modern toilet facilities, including 70 showers; and stone exterior, picture windows, and marble or granite floors throughout.

Opening in February 2006, Skhya welcomed its first class of 300 children, ages 5 to 14. In July the number rose to 500, and in October the number should be around 800. The school's capacity is 1,000, and when that number is reached, administrators will consider adding a second shift.

Students at Sikhya (exterior below) receive nutritionally balanced meals during the school day.

Every day, students have access to the best computer technology for learning, and to caring, nurturing professional teachers and staff, including a social worker and psychologist. They also are given the basics: food, clothing, and bathroom facilities. (Many of these students, previously to attending Sikhya, were lucky to get one meal a day; at Sikhya, they get breakfast, a morning snack, and lunch.)

After arriving at the school (some students walk, some get rides from NGOs, some come by bus) each morning, students shower and change into specially designed uniforms. Then they eat breakfast. Afterward, they attend an assembly, where they learn about historical figures who have led great lives of service, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. A spiritual meditation session comes next, followed by several hours of classes on various subjects. After a balanced lunch, the students participate in sports, instructional hobbies, and the arts (music, dance, theater).

"The school's curriculum is needs-based, practical, and works toward empowering each student," Singh says. "The focus is not solely on academics but on the needs of the students." He hopes that many students with the interest and aptitude will one day continue their studies at the university level, while others will be trained toward working in a trade, opening a business, or working from home.

Principal Sonia Channi, who holds graduate and postgraduate degrees in sociology, education, social work, and philosophy, and who previously had taught at a highly regarded private school in Chandigarh, was hired a year and a half prior to Sikhya's opening to design the needs-based curriculum; create the objectives of the various sessions (whether mental, physical, spiritual); and to create a database of possible students by getting to know the area's children, their families, and their neighborhoods—all in order to select the children best-suited for the first classes. The school's database of candidates is up to 3,000 children.

Every afternoon, students participate in athletics, instructional hobbies, and the arts.

Channi and the other administrators acknowledge that getting parents involved is an important element to helping these children succeed. One of the tenets for acceptance to the school is that the children's mothers agree to learn how to read on the weekends.

According to Channi, progress is encouraging. "All my parents are daily laborers, when they can find jobs. We often work Sundays and meet with the parents at the school or at their homes," she says. "Although it takes a lot of effort, it's paying off—subtle changes are beginning to show.

"We have devised a lot of activities where the parents, students, and school work in tandem. These activities go a long way toward establishing a good rapport with the parents and provide them with a sense of belonging and, therefore, pride in the school."

Another special offering of the school is a nursery, where female students—many of whom have responsibility for their younger brothers and sisters while their parents work—can leave their siblings, where they will be cared for, while they go to school.

Singh, former head of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the All-India Management Association, says this has been the greatest experience of his life.

"I am now in my 70s. Nothing has given me as much satisfaction as putting the school together," he says. "If I and the others at the school can touch the lives of even a few children, I'll feel my life has been well-lived."

Fulfilling his dream, however, presented many challenges. He and his advisers had to consider, among many other aspects, the following: a) If the criterion for admission is being the poorest of the poor, how does one select those who would be the best, those most likely to succeed; b) what happens when these kids come to a school and get the best yet then return to their homes, which are shanties; c) what happens if the school becomes well-known and other children want to join, but there is no room for them; and d) from an integrative perspective: how does one create social equality if the wealthy and the poor do not mix?

"We had hundreds of questions and problems," says Singh, a former board member of IIT Delhi and IIM Bangalore, and a member of Washington University's International Advisory Council for Asia. "We actually discussed many of them with psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers to try to determine if children would experience trauma coming to a school like this and then returning home, because I couldn't offer them residential accommodations."

But, ultimately, he decided the chance was worth taking: "Finally, we said, 'Let this be an experiment; let this be a challenge,'" Singh says. "And if it succeeds, wonderful. It might be a trendsetter for other industry and businesses to follow. And, if it doesn't, well, we would have made a good effort."

Terri Nappier is editor of the magazine.

Of special note: Alumnus Gurpreet Singh's vision for educating underprivileged students in India is growing beyond Sikhya. He now is working with two former employees on creating a small, fairly inexpensive laptop-style device that could be given to children in remote villages, those not able to attend Sikhya, so they could access the school's curriculum via satellite. From Sikhya's Media Lab, educational programs would be transmitted to nearby hubs, for free distribution. If this succeeds, Sikhya could impact another 50,000 to 500,000 children, giving them an education electronically.