How a Mumbai-based institute focuses on developing skills of school leaders

Gray Matters India (GMI), which assesses low-cost private schools in India, has found that ISLI schools have seen a 20.5 per cent improvement in the number of students performing better than the GMI Average
The fate of 100 young girls hung by a thread when the head of the Telangana Welfare Society in the state’s Ranga Reddy district felt that the residential school which it ran may as well be shut down. 

Not only were the results abysmal — the students were failing most of the external examinations — the school itself was in a decrepit condition. Poor hygiene and the infestation of mosquitoes on the grounds meant that students were often sick. The problems of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential School, Gowlidoddi, looked insurmountable.

Still, the head of the Society made one last attempt to revive the school. He brought in a new school leader and sought the assistance of the Indian School Leaders Institute (ISLI), a Mumbai-based initiative. ISLI began a two-year School Improvement Development Plan with the new head. The Society also agreed to pump in more resources to improve the school’s basic infrastructure.

The new principal, assisted by ISLI, adopted a painstakingly detailed data-driven reform plan — class by class and lesson by lesson. For example, if in a class, 17 students got something right and 3 did not, the teacher was asked to focus on the three who erred. But if in a class of 20, 17 got an answer wrong and 3 got it right, the principal was to focus on the teacher.

Two years later, the change was dramatic. In 2017-18, the school’s pass rate for the Class 12 board examinations rose to 98 per cent — up from 65 per cent before the reform. As many as 55 girls joined the MBBS/BBS programme, 14 joined ayurveda and homeopathy courses, and 10 enrolled in chartered accountancy or other finance courses. 

Two girls made it to the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and three to the Delhi University — both game changers for students who were mostly first- generation learners.

Thanks to the efforts of ISLI and the new principal, the Telangana Social Welfare Residential School had been saved from closure.

Not far away, R Prashanthi, a principal in a school in Telangana’s Siddipet district, was yet another cog in the public-education wheel until she underwent ISLI’s City Fellowship programme in 2015. 

Prashanthi learnt how to develop school improvement plans, design academic calendars, and expand the scope of activities for a more holistic development of students. She also learnt how to train teachers in “flipped pedagogy”, where students are the active participants and the teachers are the facilitators. 

The personal transformation of Prashanthi is a story in itself. She trained her own teachers so successfully that she was entrusted with the training of teachers in six other schools. Today, she is the controller of examinations and training for 267 schools in the district — a star of sorts.

The two examples above — one where a failing institution was turned around, and the other where a star was identified in a system that consistently fails to recognise merit — illustrate why ISLI came into being and what can be achieved if the school leader is motivated.

Set up in 2013, ISLI is the brain-child of three key people in India’s education space. Shaheen Mistry (Teach for India), Vandana Goyal, (then CEO of Akanksha Foundation) and Ashish Dhawan (founder, Central Square Foundation) came together when they spotted the gap in the system and realised a motivated school leader can transform a failing school into a successful one. 

“At that time, there was a lot of conversation about teacher quality, but conversations about school leadership quality were limited. It was to bridge this gap that we decided to set up ISLI,” explains Dhawan. 

Moreover, global research has found that school leadership accounts for a quarter of the school’s impact on student learning. The National Centre for School Leadership (NCSL) was set up in 2012 to focus on this need in the public education system, but there was no one addressing this in the case of private schools. 

ISLI has two main interventions: the City Fellowship and a programme to work with state governments. The City Fellowship, which is an urban initiative, is one where ISLI staff work closely with a school leader for two years. 

Currently operating in Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, the programme involves ISLI running workshops every 4 to 6 weeks, where the principal is trained to raise their expectations from students (instead of writing them off), develop a vision for the school, and motivate teachers.  

Leaders learn to make academic calendars, train teachers and maximise what the school offers. ISLI is medium- and board-agnostic. Typically, training is customised depending on the region and the school. And there is every indication that ISLI’s efforts are paying off. 

Gray Matters India (GMI), which assesses low-cost private schools in India, have found that ISLI schools have seen a 20.5 per cent improvement in the number of students performing better than the GMI Average. 

ISLI has also started working with state governments. A pilot project was recently launched in Tamil Nadu, where it is working with 1,400 school principals in the educationally backward district of Krishnagiri. In 2019, it will work with 117 government schools in Pune’s Pimpri Chinchwad district over a period of three years.

Gayatri Lobo, CEO of ISLI, who quit a career in consulting, moved into education in 2009, and then joined the body in 2017, is focused on expanding its reach. 

Plans are afoot to reach 16,000 government school leaders by 2020. A model is being developed to “virtually” reach 40,000 school leaders. 

With over 400,000 low-cost private schools and private-aided schools and over a million government schools across the country, ISLI clearly has its work cut out.

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