At Choice School, child is the choice
Elsa Jose, Director of The Choice School, Ernakulam, is the fifth and youngest daughter of Jose Thomas, a businessman better known for his love for art and culture. This 23 year old is at the helm of the school, living up to the dearest dream of her father, basking in the glory of 25 years of powerful presence in the education sector in Kerala. With new branches coming up soon at Kozhikode and Thiruvalla, she shared the growth and expansion plans of the School.
Excerpts from the interview given to Jyothisha V. J.
What makes The Choice School the school of choice?
This school was a dream for my father. At the inaugural function in 1991, someone passed a chit to him questioning the audacity of a 10thstandard dropout opening a school. The goodwill of this school is the result of a promise he made 25 years ago. Quality is ensured in every single detail and that is what defines Choice (school). And it is not exclusivity, we’ve had parents approaching us saying they cannot afford the fees but want their children to study here. About ten percent of our students study for free, including the children of our drivers and aayas. That’s the commitment you see here, they are not just staff but also parents.
The focus is on a balanced human being, and we work very closely with our parents. We get expat teachers to come and teach in the junior classes. There are also visiting faculty members who come for a day in a month. For senior classes, we have a more professional approach, for example, we get doctors to teach portions of biology. Most of these guest teachers are also our parents. This way we orient them for the future; it can be simply very inspiring too. Our children also visit a lot of other schools and social institutions for interaction sessions. They also travel to different countries. All of this makes them aware and holistic. We also have cultural exchange programs. The INKO (Indo- Korean) Centre is soon performing at JTPAC (Jose Thomas Performing Arts Centre) and will introduce our children to authentic taekwondo and calligraphy.
At 23 you are working with colleagues who were once your teachers, handling a 2500-strong school, simultaneously managing the establishment of two another schools, in Kozhikode and Thiruvalla, tell us about the experience?
I believe in bringing in best practices, we have been adjudged amongst the top eight schools in India, but we believe in constantly growing, keeping our eyes open to the latest developments in the world. The CBSE curriculum we follow here is still largely text book-oriented, the first difference it has from the best schools in the world. That’s the reason why we are looking at IB (International Baccalaureate) and hope to be able to offer it soon to our students. Also we are running a pilot program where the Grade eighth students do their entire learning on an IPad. They maintain notebooks for records, but we are trying to digitise the learning environment as much as we can. This is despite all the worries we have about children and technology, but at the end of the day we cannot keep them in a bubble, they should learn how to live with all that is there around them.
What inspired you into education? Was this just the part of the business you took up?
My first stint with teaching was when I was 17, just out of school. At that time my favorite activity was cooking and baking and wanted to take a professional degree in it. I wished to join the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and that needed a six month internship. I joined Le Meridian, Kochi, for some work experience and was prancing around the hotel doing everything from housekeeping to cooking. At the same time I used to teach the Grade one students of our school in the afternoons. It was then that I realized I loved teaching more than cooking. I joined CIA soon after but left it for a degree from St. Xavier’s college, Mumbai. There I interned with Teach for India (TFI) and was teaching in an All Girl’s School in Dadar (Mumbai). Three years later I was back and had no qualms what I wanted to do the most in life. Here, it is tireless work simply because it is not a job, I am just here doing what I love doing the most.
What is your vision for your schools?
My father once told me that despite all the success he has had as an entrepreneur, he wants to be remembered for the school when he leaves this world. That’s the dream I am trying to live up to. The target is 25,000 students by 2025 and a school on every continent. We are looking at opportunities in Dubai and Tokyo in the near future. We will be the school of choice by then. I am new and was more conventional with my approach, it was father who insisted that once you’ve decided on expansion go for it in a big way.
Whenever I travel abroad I ensure I visit the best schools there. The Parson’s High School in New York was a brilliant one I visited recently. The Montessori schools are another place that I never miss. They always have something to learn from. You realize the great schools across the world share the same virtues, commitment, quality and technology.
Choice is not just about quality, it is also inclusive wherever it can be. We have children with special needs, sometimes up to 80% cognitive disorders, in every class and there are separate labs to help them catch up with the other students. We do not have the required infrastructure for children with visual difficulties, but the future plans will certainly take this into account.
We do not hold a hard-to-crack entrance test except in Grade 8th which is a mandatory requirement according to the CBSE. We do not believe in getting the cream of the lot, what’s there for a school to do then? Education is about getting the best out of every child, we need to equip them to get there, not screen them out without being given a choice.
What are the challenges you face in running the school?
Ah! They are multipronged, ranging from security to human resource.
Safety of our children is of utmost importance and we have a reasonably strong security system in place now. It is definitely up for a revamp and we will be foolproof very soon. The children can be tracked on their Radio frequency ids, embedded in their school identity cards. The parent receives a message when the child boards the school bus and gets off. The buses are all GPS tracked. The counsellors on campus talk to them about a good touch and a bad touch right from the kindergarten level. We believe it is important to make the child aware according to his/her age and maturity. Awareness and communication are the best defenses our children can have. We also conduct drills for a fire emergency or a lock down.
Despite all the digitizing, we are still deeply concerned about what our children are exposed to in the cyber space. One way we try to handle this is by trying to offer the children different kinds of extra-curricular activities after school timings. The idea is the child spends lesser time unattended at home. The response is still picking up.
The biggest crisis we face today is the dearth of good quality teachers. Our teachers are our strength and that’s the reason we opened the Choice Academy for Teacher Development. All our teachers are trained there. Some opt for jobs abroad after the course. So far only three Choicians returned to teach in this school. Not just more qualified teachers, we also need more genuine private players in this field. More schools should come up and we should have healthy competition. We need to adapt to the world and grow and give the best that we can to our children.
Isn’t Choice an expensive school?
We have a Rs. 500 crore business in North America and that is hard core business, but this school is not. This works on a no-profit-no-loss basis. There are high quality schools around the world that serve as hard core business concerns, when they run into losses they shut down. The fees we collect and the initial infrastructure fund covers the teaching and infrastructure costs. We have teachers in the senior school who get paid more than a Lakh a month, while our starting salaries are between Rs. 25000- 30000. Three years ago when we increased the base salaries for all our teachers, the school budget touched Rs.3 crore; this is the kind of money we need to run a good quality school with such infrastructure. At Choice, the child is the choice, we don’t compromise on anything.
(Photo credit: Athul Sathyan)