In this third story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores a high school in India specializing in training future social entrepreneurs, farmers, and even midwives.
With lunch now concluded, Lakshmi excuses herself from the meal at her parents’ home, grabs her knapsack, and heads off to school. Unlike most schools, class at Bunker Hill doesn’t start in the morning but in the afternoon, continuing late into the evening. Here, in the southern Indian hill station of Ooty, much of the economy still revolves around agriculture, so mornings are reserved for helping parents or extended families with their farms. The high-elevation town is dominated by a mix of sufficiency gardens, tea plantations, and commercial plots of “English vegetables,” an export that, due to global population growth and the loss of agricultural land from climate change, is now as valuable as tea.
Today is a particularly important day at school. The entire student body—comprising 500 high school students—is gathering to hear four finalists present their project proposals for a new social enterprise that will be implemented when school gets out next month for the summer. Afterward, the entire school will discuss the projects and vote on how to distribute the $50,000 reserved for social enterprise investments each year.The headmistress introduces the four project teams, and the presentations begin. Some students use high-tech video and slide presentations to help make their case, while others tell stories of what their enterprises could mean to Ooty. But all four teams present well-thought-out projects: a preventive health clinic; a permaculture design consultancy; a bicycle-sharing business with stations around Ooty; and finally a “Circular Café,” a teahouse that would sell local teas and vegetarian foods, procuring these from nearby farms and later returning the food waste to the farms to rebuild their soils.
After the presentations are concluded, the students return to their homerooms and spend the next two hours discussing the merits of the projects and determining which they feel should be supported, and to what level. While some of the conversations get heated, all remain considerate. Lakshmi, who loves drinking tea, is a strong advocate for the Circular Café, and helps win over her classroom to the project. Once the homeroom group comes to a decision, they elect one student to be the spokesperson for the final discussion. The 20 representatives, including Lakshmi, then gather in the auditorium and discuss—in front of the whole student body—what their homerooms decided on.
While not all homerooms chose the same winner, through a process of open discussion and consensus-building the representatives end up awarding the Circular Café the lion’s share of the funding. They decide to allot $45,000 to the project, praising key components like the identification of a vacant building on a high-traffic street; the agreement of the property owner to rent out the space at an affordable rate; and the vision for how the café could serve as a “third space” for the community, providing a place for tutoring and community meetings and for sharing important civic information via a prominent bulletin board. The remaining funds are allocated to the permaculture consultant team, which had required only $5,000 to start their venture.
For the winning team, the work has just begun. This summer will be their first taste of independently leading a social enterprise, even though collectively, over the course of their school careers, they have been involved with at least half a dozen. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be determining whether they can balance the café and their upcoming college studies, or whether they’ll need to defer admission for a few years.
This certainly wasn’t a typical day at Bunker Hill, but rather the culmination of months of collaborative work determining what the local community most needs and how to implement these new services in ways that sustain both the workers and the venture.
The school’s more typical curriculum includes a significant focus on regional ecology, agricultural sciences (including geology, biology, chemistry, and climatology), languages, first aid, and household management. Through this, students learn not only the basics like budget management, cooking, home building, and repair, but also comprehensive sexuality education—from family planning to how to raise a healthy baby and child.
There is even a track for students interested in nursing, midwifery, and maternity care. Students who excel in this track typically help to deliver their first babies at age 16 (as a doula), and by graduation they can serve as an assistant midwife. Research has found that having knowledgeable peer-midwives in schools helps to disseminate information about sex, family planning, and pregnancy more effectively and, in the process, helps to lower teen pregnancy rates.
Lakshmi didn’t choose the midwife track, although her midwife friends have certainly shared lots of stories with her. Rather, she chose the social entrepreneur track, and is eager to pitch her idea for an intergenerational learning academy next year in front of the school. She’s already brought together a team, and over the summer they’ll set the foundation for how to bring the idea to fruition. Lakshmi knows that helping to ensure that the wisdom of elders gets transferred to the community’s young people (and that the elders don’t get left behind with all the changes happening these days) would be a win-win. Perhaps the academy can even be based out of the Circular Café. However it shapes up, Lakshmi can’t wait for the summer to begin.
I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand and Barefoot College in India as inspiration for this scenario.