Where school is free

Arun Elassery

When I met Indira Jayasimha for a long leisurely chat on a Sunday evening some years ago, I wondered whether her interesting life journey had somehow prepared her to start an experimental, inclusive school like Poorna Learning Centre. Consider:

  • Of Tamilian ancestry and fluent in six languages, Indira grew up in the midst of nature in semi-urban Gomia on the Bihar-Bengal border.
  • She worked two years towards a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the prestigious Bose Institute in Kolkata before dropping out because of the cognitive dissonance she felt between her overly intellectual work and its irrelevance to the inequality and poverty she saw just outside the institute. (She did get her Ph.D. later from the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bangalore but this was after Poorna was up and running and this time she chose ‘Role of equity in science teaching’ as her research topic.)
  • She taught for three years in a mainstream school when her children were very young where she found the competition-based teaching and learning method pointless.

So, in 1993 when her elder daughter was questioning why she had to go to school and her six-year-old son Karthik was being made to memorize useless things, Indira found that it made perfect sense to pull her three children out of school and teach them at home. Over time, others stuck in a similar predicament joined, and for many years Poorna thrived as a small, ten-children school operating first from Indira’s home and then later from a part-rented small field with some buildings on it.

Karthik, who is now a confident young man on his first job, remembers being butted by sheep that used to graze in this field. He also remembers classes held under trees and sometimes, he told me smilingly, ON the trees. The passionate discussions and debates where anybody could bring up a topic and all voices were honoured is the other thing that has stayed with him from the time he spent at an evolving Poorna.

When I walked into the beautiful five-year-old red brick building that houses Poorna’s 90 children and 10 teachers today, the first thing I noticed was the feeling of openness, of freedom, that the architecture seemed to embody. The freedom was also apparent in the open classrooms and the happy looking children wandering around. What was NOT apparent was that a full 50 per cent of Poorna’s children come from underprivileged backgrounds and study for free. This and their welcoming special needs children from day one is what makes Poorna proudly ‘inclusive’. I spoke to Jayanthi, the principal and Saira, a teacher of many years and came away moved by their enthusiasm. They invited me to stay for lunch, which on the day of my visit, was to be prepared by volunteer parents, but I had some previous engagement and couldn’t stay.

Here’s hoping that the Poorna story inspires you with its simplicity and magic to start your own ten-children Poorna 2.0.

Quick facts

Name of school: Poorna Learning Centre
Been around for: 20 years
Number of teachers/staff: 10
Number of children: 90
Classes handled: 1 to 10
USP: Inclusive (includes special needs children) school with half the children studying for free
Location: Sathnur village in north Bangalore
Website: http://poorna.in

The author got his degree from IIT Kharagpur in 1988. This article has been written under a Wipro education fellowship. He can be reached at arunelassery@hotmail.com.