The Chromepet Government School for Boys stands on one of Chennai’s noisy side streets, behind a yellow concrete compound wall lined with election posters. On the inside, blackboards hang from the compound wall, and students sit on the earth under trees to learn when there is not enough room inside the school’s three two-story buildings to accommodate them.
Beside the open-air classrooms are half-open ones: rooms with walls only four feet high and a terracotta-tiled roof, for high school students. Seating is slightly better here: chipped and cracked wooden benches and desks.
Even inside the buildings, seating is cramped, with as many as 60 to 100 students in each classroom.
The school has more than 3,200 students in 6th to 12th grade. And although the school is called a boys’ high school, girls are admitted for the final two years. The school collects a small fee from students, ranging from 32 rupees (70 cents) to 103 rupees ($2.50) per year.
Although government schools, which are fully financed by the state, are considered unfit by most Indian middle-class families because they lack basic facilities, the Chromepet school has made some remarkable strides over the past few years, thanks to increased aid from the government and contributions from alumni, some of them settled in the United States.
Parents, many of whom are poor but willing to contribute to improve the school, have raised enough money among themselves to construct a two-story building with classrooms, with help from a government-owned rural-development bank. They also contribute each year to pay for dozens of vocational-course instructors and lab- and building-maintenance workers.
On the day of my visit, an examination was in progress, and most of the school’s students and teachers were not in. But Headmaster N. Rajasekharan kindly agreed to show me around.
The school that once lacked toilets now has a lab with 10 computers, bought with a government grant. But unlike even low-cost private schools, the government school does not grant computer access to all students.
Mr. Rajasekharan said computer use is restricted to only those 11th and 12th graders who take the option of pursuing the computer-science track. “We do allow other students to occasionally see the computers,” he added.
Right now, the school can offer only 20 spots in the computer-science track, he said, because of the limited number of computers. Still, alumni have notched up an impressive record. Several, the principal said, are at leading engineering colleges in the state and country.
Although students often come from poor families and broken homes, the dropout rate is extremely low: only 10 to 15 students do not return each year.
From Buffaloes to Eggs
One former student I met during my visit attested to the remarkable progress Chromepet school has made since the 1970s.
Back in those days, said Padmavathy Raghavan, who is now a teacher at a private school, there were no toilets for boys and the crudest of school buildings: three to four rows of single-story classrooms, most under leaky thatched roofs. A pond sat in the middle of the school where neighboring dairy farmers washed buffaloes. Another pond lay in another corner of the school.
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Nowadays, the ponds have been filled with dirt, and a playground that includes an auditorium stands in the middle of the school. Toilets are available to both boys and girls, although facilities still appear inadequate. Drinking water is provided by a row of faucets on the outside walls of the school buildings. Separate water fountains have been clearly marked for use by girls, 11th and 12th graders, and those from the other grades, to avoid crowding.
A small hut at the corner of the school grounds functions as a cafeteria—also a new addition. Around 600 students from grades 6 through 10 qualify for a free lunch, usually rice and vegetable gravy. But anyone else who wants to partake of the free meal is not turned away.
Every Wednesday, Mr. Rajasekharan said, students get a special treat: an egg.
Editor’s Note: Education Week staff writer Vaishali Honawar is on assignment in India to report on the country’s education system. During her visit, she is also filing occasional reports for edweek.org.