In India, the world's largest school succeeds by focusing on globalism and morality

January 2, 2002
With an enrollment this year of more than 25,000 students, in grades ranging from pre-primary to college, City Montessori School nevertheless has a high academic reputation.| Shown here is morning assembly at the Gomti Nagar branch, one of 20 branches in Lucknow. Each branch is a small, self-contained campus, with about 1,250 students.

LUCKNOW, India — Fresh out of college and newly married, Jagdish Gandhi knew some 42 years ago that his main goal in life was to serve humanity. And he felt educating children would be a good way to do that.

So he borrowed 300 rupees (the equivalent of less than $10), rented a couple of rooms, and founded City Montessori School in this historic provincial capital in northern India. The school's first class consisted of five students.

Little did Mr. Gandhi imagine that it would one day become the largest private school in the world -- or that it would also become widely known for its distinctive emphasis on teaching students the value of world citizenship and religious tolerance.

"There are hundreds of other well-established schools here," said Mr. Gandhi, 66, who founded with his wife Bharti Gandhi in 1959. "So we never realized we were going to be the biggest school in the world -- or that we would be so focused on imparting educational globalism."

With an enrolment of 22,612 students in 1999, CMS, as the school is commonly known, won a place in the year 2000 Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest school by enrollment. It now has over 25,000 students, in grade levels ranging from pre-primary to college.

According to parents and faculty here, the high enrollment statistic is not a fluke or the anomalous reflection of something like exceedingly low tuition fees or a high achieving sports team. Rather, they said, CMS has been supremely successful at attracting students largely for two reasons: 1) its reputation for academic excellence, and, 2) its distinctive program of moral education.

In terms of academics, CMS students consistently earn top rankings in government examinations and places in prestigious colleges and universities throughout India. For the year 2000-2001 school year, for example, out of 1,192 CMS students taking the national standardized Indian school certificate examination, 1,179 passed and 1,099 of those passed in the "first division," with aggregate marks over 60 percent, which is considered to be "honors." Some 79 students secured 90 percent marks and above.

Jagdish Gandhi and Bharti Gandhi, founders of the City Montessori School in Lucknow, India.| They are standing in front of the main building of Gomti Nagar branch of the School, one of 20 branches in Lucknow. A quote from Bahá’u’lláh, "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens" is on the awning behind them. Slideshow
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Jagdish Gandhi and Bharti Gandhi, founders of the City Montessori School in Lucknow, India.| They are standing in front of the main building of Gomti Nagar branch of the School, one of 20 branches in Lucknow. A quote from Bahá’u’lláh, "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens" is on the awning behind them.

Beyond academics, however, parents also say they also choose to send their children to CMS because of its singular effort to provide students with the intellectual, moral and spiritual tools for success in an increasingly globalized world -- a world in which the ability to get along in harmony with people from all religions, ethnic groups and nationalities will be of supreme importance.

"Exposure to globalism"

The school's emphasis on this mission is clearly apparent. Its prospectus advertises "international interaction and exposure to globalism," while banners and posters at CMS's various school buildings proclaim slogans like: "Every child is potentially the light of the world." Other banners emphasize principles of interfaith harmony and acceptance.

"Why do so many parents send their children here? The reason, I feel, is that parents want their children to be good," said Mr. Gandhi. "Yes, they want them to have a good education. They want good results. And we give that. But they also want them to have good morals. And we strive to give that, too.

"Parents also know that their children will be exposed to an international atmosphere," Mr. Gandhi added, noting that one distinct feature of the school is its hosting of various international conferences, on topics ranging from music and culture to computers and robotics, which bring many visitors from overseas.

"The children here are inhaling a vision -- a vision of globalism," continued Mr. Gandhi. "So that they can take up a position where they can change the world. I want our graduates to be self-motivating agents of social change, serving the best interests of the community and the world as a whole."

Technically speaking, CMS is not so much a school as a school district, with some 20 branches spread throughout Lucknow. Each branch is a small, self-contained campus, usually with a main school building and several auxiliary structures. On the average, each branch hosts about 1,250 students.

Some of its campuses were built specifically for CMS, and the school's infrastructure is among the most modern of the many private schools in Lucknow, if not India. Further, in their quality of construction and overall design and layout, the many campuses here might more accurately be compared to those of a small college or university rather than a combined elementary and secondary school.

The curriculum covers all the traditional subjects required by students to pass India's state examinations, but with an additional emphasis on moral education. And at CMS, moral education is very much equated with the concept of world citizenship and interreligious harmony.

The source of moral values

The moral values promoted at CMS are drawn directly from the teachings of the Baha'i Faith. In their early life together, Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi were greatly influenced by the humanitarian ideas of Mahatma Gandhi -- an influence that, in part, led Mr. Gandhi to found CMS. In 1974, both Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi became Baha'is. Since that time they have increasingly introduced the Faith's spiritual and social principles into the moral and spiritual curriculum at CMS.

This is not to say, however, that the school imposes the Baha'i Faith on its students. Indeed, if anything, the school seeks to uphold the values taught by all religions and to respect the beliefs of all students and their parents, who reflect the diversity of Lucknow itself, which is composed of roughly 70 percent Hindus, 25 percent Moslems, and 5 percent Christians and Sikhs.

"We respect every religion in our schools," said Bonita Joel, principal at CMS's Indira Nagar branch, who is herself a Christian. "No one religion is taught in our school. It is a secular school. But we teach our children to respect every religion."

Ms. Joel and others at CMS see this emphasis on religious pluralism as strongly linked to the school's emphasis on globalism.

"We basically believe -- the school professes -- to break down narrow domestic walls and to reach out to other nations and cultures," said Ms. Joel. "We feel with globalization taking place, the students can no longer be confined in their thinking to just their neighborhood or culture or their nations. They must reach out to the broader world."

Ms. Sadhna Chooramani, the principal of the CMS Chowk branch, believes that emphasis on globalism and religious tolerance very much helps to prepare its students for success in the modern world.

"Our students have no inhibitions about going out and working with others, whatever their religion or background," said Ms. Chooramani, who is 38 and a Hindu. "They accept people as they are. The feeling of being one with the human race is deep-rooted."

Ms. Chooramani believes that CMS's long-standing promotion of tolerance and oneness has contributed to the overall sense of communal harmony in Lucknow. In 1992, when riots broke out in many urban centres after fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, Lucknow escaped serious disturbances and it is widely acknowledged as a peaceful city.

With such a large student body, and its high level of parental involvement, CMS is almost certainly a contributor to that sense of harmony in Lucknow, Ms. Chooramani said.

"The people of Lucknow have started feeling that this concept of oneness of mankind is the only way by which we can have progress toward harmony and peace and a better way of living," she said.

Ms. Chooramani organized a neighborhood meeting in 1992 during the Ayodhya crisis and made an appeal for calm. "I said that there is no religion that teaches this kind of violence," she said.

Other branches of CMS likewise held similar meetings or activities during that period, and the school as a whole organized a general peace march. "We had hundreds of children marching, with a banner saying 'God is one and all mankind is one,' " said Mrs. Bharti Gandhi, who serves as the Director of the CMS system. "And at that time, there were no casualties in Lucknow, even though in other places Hindus were killing Muslims and Muslims were killing Hindus."

The school seeks to reinforce its ideal of internationalism not only through its curriculum but, as noted by Mr. Gandhi, by sponsoring various international conferences. On several of its larger campuses, hostel-type dormitories and food service facilities make hosting such events possible at a relatively low cost.

Each year now, the school hosts a variety of international events, including "Macfair International," a mathematics and computer fair; "Celesta International," an international music and culture festival; the "International Astronomy Olympiad"; a "Science Olympiad" on math, computers and robotics; an "International School-to-School Experience Exchange"; and a "Children's International Summer Village Camp." In 2000, CMS organized and/or hosted nine such events, and 11 were scheduled in 2001.

The school also strives for educational innovation. It has adopted various management practices, such as Quality Circles, that encourage the generation and refinement of new ideas. It also has its own "innovation wing," a 25- employee unit dedicated entirely to researching, developing, and bringing into the CMS system new teaching methods. In that effort, the researchers draw on ideas both from around India and abroad.

For their part, parents are pleased with the direction the school has taken. The school's enrolment continues to climb, reaching 25,172 this year.

"There are a number of schools that give a good education, but this one goes beyond, giving all of the best features: personal development, good academics, and moral values," said Manoj Agrawal, a 35-year-old electrical engineer, who has two children at CMS.

"They bring out the best in the child," added Deepa Agrawal, his wife. "They are given opportunities and the right encouragement."

The Agrawals and other parents also praised the school's emphasis on strong relations between parents and teachers. Teachers are required to make periodic home visits and parents are invited to regular functions at the school. "It develops a kind of rapport between the teacher and the parent," said Mrs. Agrawal.

Om Prakesh Patel, a 32-year-old landowner and farmer from the Kaimur District some 390 kilometers away in Bihar State, felt so strongly about enrolling his son in CMS that he moved in with his wife's parents here in Lucknow -- something that goes completely against tradition.

He and his wife, Sunita, decided on CMS because of its academic reputation, the high level of parent-teacher interaction, and its emphasis on moral education.

"The moral emphasis is a plus point," said Mr. Patel, whose nine-year-old son Harsh has been attending CMS for five years. "We are a secular country and communalism is rising in India. So we feel we need a more religiously tolerant society. And moral ethics in this materialistic age are very important."