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   A school for the poor that the rich may envy
     For over a 100 years Olcott Memorial High School in Chennai has been giving free education to the poor.

Though it sits on several hundred acres of woodland within Chennai, the Theosophical Society [TS] maintains a low profile. Few people know what theosophy is or what goes on in the vast campus. To its north is the Adyar Creek and on the eastern side, the Bay of Bengal. Towards the south sprawl the vast acres left to nature. Old classical buildings dot the grounds, and silence reigns. Environmentalists are delighted that there is this corner of Chennai that is beyond the pale of development vandals.

For that reason alone it is best not to draw attention to the TS. But its leadership by a quiet and gracious old lady, Radha Burnier, is difficult to ignore. She lives and works almost alone in the century old bungalow that Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky lived in. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott founded the TS in 1875. But of direct interest to us here, is the unique free school started by Olcott in 1894, for which Burnier still finds the money and time.

For the forgotten people:

Nineteenth century was possibly India's greatest reformist era; and there was much to reform. British Rule had been seen through for what it was, and nationalist aspirations were rising. Simultaneously, flaws in Indian society were being looked at anew. Ram Mohun Roy, Vivekananda, Aurobindo are some of the many Indian names that come readily to mind from that period.

But there were also several non-Indians, drawn to the east by India. Of them, Henry Steel Olcott, an American, is one of the more extraordinary. In legendary American fashion he was many things rolled into one; he had been a farmer, teacher, soldier, lawyer, writer and of course co-founder of TS.

"Olcott was an educator," says Radha Burnier. "When he looked around, he found the caste-less Indians excluded from all considerations. There may have been mutual barriers among the four castes but they at least had their own spaces in society. Those that were called Panchamas, or 'fifth class', had none whatever. Mission schools did accept them, but what Olcott dreamed of was a service without a religious agenda."

In 1894, in a charming little building that still stands, the first of Olcott's Panchama Free Schools opened its doors to children of toiling, ignored people of Chennai.


Starting the school was easier than running it: trained teachers were unwilling to teach Panchamas. It was a time before Gandhi coined the word Harijan and started the ongoing process of integrating them. So the early teachers were theosophists, who transcend doctrinaire religious sanctions.

Radha's father N Sri Ram was a theosophist who went on to become the President of TS in 1953. She was born in 1923 and grew up in the environs of TS. In her young days, the Panchama Free School had only teachers from abroad. She remembers Miss Sarah Palmer and Miss English and her brother. Olcott had died in 1907. By then the school was in steady-state and had produced an alumnus good enough to become a teacher. He was Ayya Kannu, who served the school for long.

Fast forward to now:

Annie Besant had taken over from Olcott as President. The five Panchama Free Schools in Chennai were consolidated into one at Adyar. Fittingly, it was renamed Olcott Memorial High School [OMHS]. The Olcott Education Society[OES] was formed to integrate many related activities.

A 19th century classic

Henry Steel Olcott was born in 1832 in New Jersey. After education at Columbia University, NY he was a share cropper in his uncles' farm in Ohio. There he discovered his interest in the occult that was to be his life-long driving force. He then studied agriculture formally and started a farm school and wrote extensively on the subject.

Olcott was a daring man as well. When Virginia banned any Northerner from witnessing the hanging of John Brown, he made it incognito and wrote an account of it in a New York paper. He then served in the Civil War and after the war ended studied law. His integrity led to his appointment as investigator of fraud in the US Navy. After Lincoln's assassination, Olcott was appointed to the three man investigating commission.

In 1894 he met Madame H P Blavatsky and it proved to be a seminal event. Mme Blavatsky had been a para normal since a child. She identified her master in a childhood dream, met him [-he was a Rajput.] in Hyde Park when she was 20 and went into Tibet in 1868 and trained for two years under her masters. She and Olcott were drawn to each other. They founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 in New York.

That was not the end of Olcott's talents. He turned out to be a popular healer, converted to Buddhism and established Theosophical Society branches throughout the world.

In such a large man's life, the founding of Panchama Free Schools is but a tiny achievement; but it nevereless underlines his search for fairness, and from there, perfection on earth.

He passed away in Adyar in 1907.

Based on a memoir by Sarah Dougherty

All the foregoing is by way of a foreword. If that were all there is to it, it would be mere history. Instead, OMHS is a living throbbing school. By 1972, the small parcel of land where OMHS had begun, was bursting at its seams. TS moved it to its present premises about a kilometer away, closer to the sea. That's how it has come to be the envy of even schools for the well-to-do.

OMHS sits on a 9 acre campus constantly aired by the sea. It has vast playgrounds, as Annie Besant strongly believed sports to be a great character builder. There are leafy lanes and class-rooms are abuzz with children. 750 in all, 35% of them girls. Teachers are mostly alumni. The medium of instruction is Tamil.

The charming, original school building and campus remain with OES. A Social Welfare Centre operates there under the OES umbrella. There is a training centre for women to earn home based incomes, like tailoring. More importantly, there's a bustling playschool with ample playgrounds, for nearly 200 children. They are between ages 2½ and 5. After that age, OMHS welcomes them and takes them all the way to Class-10.

OMHS provides all class materials and uniforms, a welcoming bowl of grain porridge as children arrive in the morning, and under the government mid-day meal scheme, a hot lunch. H P Blavatsky Hostel run by OES, is home to 30 boys. [There's a fourth institution under OES, the Besant Animal Welfare Centre]. Amazingly, the entire service is free. Not a 25p is collected for even the application form.

There are 48 teachers who are paid a low average salary of Rs 2500/ month. Understandably, the 20% attrition rate is rather high, but the Principal says, "They go on a new career stream as better paid teachers. As most teachers are alumni, this can be seen as a placement programme."

It costs Rs.23 lakhs a year to run OMHS, of which a budget of Rs.2 lakhs per year reserved for nutrition alone. TS raises this sum from its members.[See notes at the end of this article for details on you can contribute.]

The Revival:

Between 1935 and 1998, OMHS was a government aided school, in that its operating costs were met by the state. This arrangement had its advantages but also several drawbacks. Primarily to put energy and enthusiasm back into the school, TS re-assumed responsibility. In 1999, Mrs Lakshmi Suryanarayanan joined as Principal and that year can be said to have begun the revival of OMHS. The nearby KFI School was co-opted as curriculum advisors and the new arrangement has re-energised the school.

Lakshmi was born in 1950. She was a brilliant student throughout. She majored in physics and after her BSc, earned a BEd as well. For a few years she taught primary school and was married at 21. She resumed her teaching career ten years later, once her two children had grown up a little. She taught in various cities where her banker husband was posted. But none of them was anything like OMHS.

"My last job before coming to OMHS was as Principal of Dr Radhakrishnan Vidyalaya in Mumbai," she says with a wry smile. "It ran in a multi-story building that stood on barely an acre. An incredible 5,500 children studied in three shifts and paid good money that no poor can afford to pay." Her pay was Rs.25,000 and at OMHS, it is Rs.3,500. Lakshmi though, seems delighted at her decision.

Bridges to confidence:

"These are all children of domestic helps, labourers, hawkers, municipal workers, flowers seller and artisanal fishermen. They grow up pretty much by themselves and are street smart. What they lack is social poise," says Lakshmi. Learning to read, write, calculate and passing examinations is a very small set in the learning process. Her first reforms were centered on teaching social skills to children. Playing together, communicating ideas, creating with hands, expression through song and dance, discussing civic and world issues and speaking up without fear of being stopped have all become a part of OMHS culture in 6 years.

Discipline comes by promoting positive peer pressure: a child that embodies responsible behaviour is encouraged, not so much praised, while a rowdy one is mildly rebuffed without any scolding. Caning and coprporal punishment are banned. Silent disapproval is the extent of punishment.

"There are two gaps these children must close. One is the English language gap and the other the computer gap." The school has a computer centre where children get exposure and gain familiarity. Although the medium of instruction is Tamil with English as only a language subject, OMHS adopts novel methods to expose children to English. The daily assembly is conducted entirely in English. Then they have teachers and volunteers reading from English books with children learning by immersion.

Lakshmi is a good networker. In addition to her day job at OMHS she puts in 4 hours a day as a volunteer of Asha for Education. There's a buzz of ideas about her. She wants to add to crafts and vocations being taught at the school. She is looking out for people to sponsor them.

Life after school:

The idea behind OMHS is to give a special place for the maginal children and their parents. And what a place it is, too. They swarm in from their humble homes with great eagerness and once in, the 9 acre space is all theirs. Mothers saunter in for a chat on their problems. When children have spent years here chirping, playing and relating, they have had a great childhood and youth; examinations become a secondary issue. "42% drop out after Class-10. But they are self-assured kids with a positive outlook. Of the 58% that go on to Class-12, 70% go further on to graduate courses."

Examination results bring on new tasks for Lakshmi. Children with a desire to study further are coming out of a no-cost economy into a world that calls for money at every step. Most parents are unprepared and it'd be a shame not to support promising ones. Luckily little-known philanthropists exist in Chennai. She has standing commitment for 26 scholarships. She is looking for more.

She is heartened with the many successes. Sujendran is fluent in English and studies for BCom in Chennai's prestigious Vivekananda College. Santhosh Mary is a trained Lab Technical Assistant. Raja completed technical studies on Merit Scholarships and is a supervisor for erecting large air-conditioning systems. Suresh is a trained printer, working in the Deccan Chronicle press. Subha is technically trained and works in a medical transcription centre. Radha is bright and fluent in English and is likely to enter medical studies. It may not be a long list but pretty satisfying.

Lakshmi is a dynamo of energy and ideas. "My teachers may be of humble stock but I run a continual training programme that ratchets them up. Once they are motivated, rest follows," she says. Here you see a huddle of teachers discussing time-tables and course materials. There under a tree sits a math teacher, with a young ward in a one-on-one session. Now Lakshmi stops to find out why 6 year old Kaavya is on the edge of guilt and tears: she has pushed a pea into her nostril and must go see the school doctor now. Nearby, teenage girls are into an energetic Kabbadi game. On an another plane, the school won the Intel-Best Integration of Technology into Classroom Award 2002 with a prize money of Rs.100,000. OMHS was only one of three winners from 900 applicants

It's a rare piece of India out there. Pity there are not enough of them. But why? Close to 50% of Indians are truly wealthy in the sense they have more than enough for their family's secure future. If a school like this is replicated their wealth would be more secure and India a better place. The convese, alas is true as well.


The Theosophical Society, Adyar, Chennai-60020
Website: http://www.ts-adyar.org/
Contributions to OMHS can be drawn to favour Olcott Education Society and mailed with a note that it be used for the school. You can also email calling attention of Miss Keshwar Dastur, Treasurer
The Principal can be contacted if you wish to sponsor scholarships or special activities. Her mail-ID. You can call her over 0-9841091424

June, 2006