Promoted with modest academic goals ten years ago, the Chettinad-Sath Sadhana is rapidly transforming into a model school for children and youth with disabilities – Shivani Chaturvedi
Sited on a tree-lined two-acre campus in the heart of Chennai (pop.7 million), Chettinad-Sath Sadhana (CSS, estb.2011) has earned an excellent reputation in this southern port city for providing functional academics, life skills development and skills training to children and youth with special needs. Its 13 special educators provide training programmes in vocations ranging from paper technology to baking to 63 students aged 10-22 years with special focus on developing their functional, communication and behavioural skills.
With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the closure of all education institutions countrywide last March, the past year has been especially challenging for special needs institutions such as CSS. Even as most top-ranked mainstream private schools have smoothly switched to online digital teaching-learning, special needs institutions providing remedial therapy and skills training programmes were confronted with the challenge of translating hands-on practical education to the virtual mode for students with disabilities. The CSS management prides itself for successfully adapting its essentially experiential pedagogies to continue the education of the institution’s differently abled adolescents and youth.
The successful transition to virtual classes apart, the past year was also momentous for CSS as it discontinued its affiliation with the Delhi-based National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) exam board and transformed into a fully-fledged life and skills training institution for adolescents with special needs.
CSS was promoted in 2011 as Sri Hari Vikasam, a NIOS-affiliated primary-secondary school, by Chettinad-Niyogaa — the education and services wing of the highly-respected Chettinad Group (estb.1912) under the aegis of the Gandhi Nagar Education Society. The group owns and manages seven private schools, including the Chettinad Hari Shree Vidyalayam, ranked among Chennai’s Top 10 co-ed day schools in the EducationWorld India School Rankings 2020-21; ten government-aided schools and four colleges across Tamil Nadu with an aggregate enrolment of 12,000 students and 300 teachers.
“Sri Hari Vikasam was promoted ten years ago with the objective of providing children with special needs a safe and stimulating academic learning environment. Our experience of the past decade has made us aware that we need to move beyond academic subjects and focus on developing the life and livelihood skills of our children so that they grow into financially independent and productive citizens. Therefore last year, we reworked our curriculum to supplement academic learning with skills education and training as well as life skills — communication, good manners etc — that enhance employability. To reflect our new orientation, we renamed the school Sath Sadhana which translates into ‘achieving one’s true potential through meaningful effort and devotion’. Our mission is to evolve into a centre of holistic learning that heals, enlivens, equips, and empowers differently-abled individuals and their families to realise their aspirations and potential,” says Geetha Muthiah, director and trustee of Chettinad-Sath Sadhana.
CSS’ pedagogical shift of focus from academics to skills training and life skills education is welcomed by the school’s educators and parents. Currently, the school admits children and youth aged between 10-22 with children aged 10-14 years enrolled in a functional academics programme to learn arithmetic and languages as well as life skills. Older children and youth are encouraged to enroll in skills training courses including artistry, leafware, organic farming etc. Tuition fees range from Rs.32,000-35,000 per term.
“We admit children and youth diagnosed with a wide spectrum of disabilities including Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD, etc. When the school was affiliated with NIOS, there was pressure on students, parents and teachers to prepare and excel in board exams. Now the focus is on experiential learning and acquiring practical skills to prepare for employment and life. We thoroughly evaluate and assess each child’s development potential and accordingly integrate functional academics and skills training programmes,” says Saumya Radjindrin, management representative at CSS.
To provide high quality skills training and functional literacy and numeracy education, the management has “been collaborating with special needs education experts”. For instance, it has signed up with the Delhi-based AIMS Multimedia to offer an 18-24 months ability enhancement multi-media program (AIMS) in which students learn communication and graphic design skills. “The objective of all our programmes is to prepare students for employment and equip them with the life skills needed to lead independent self-sufficient lives,” says Deepika Kaushik, coordinator at CSS.
Although the pandemic year has been very challenging for teachers, students and parents, the school has managed to maintain learning continuity of children through the virtual mode. “Initially we were hesitant about introducing online classes for special needs children because they need individual attention and in-person mentoring. But through proper planning and research we were able to adapt our teaching to deliver fundamental academics and skills programmes through projects-based online pedagogies. This initiative succeeded because of full support from parents of our children,” explains Kaushik.
To stimulate students to learn in a cheerful enabling environment, the school’s management has invested substantial resources in campus design and development. CCS’ two-acre green campus is landscaped with trees and plants and the school’s classrooms are bright and well-ventilated. The library houses interactive sensory books with reading corners earmarked for teacher-students sessions, and following recent curricular and re-orientation changes, the classrooms are being revamped to serve as hubs of life skills learning.
The school’s spacious playground boasts a sand pit and specially-designed sensory path in the shape of number 8 created with varied textured stones painted in shades of blue, grey and white. The sensory path enables development of children’s motor skills including balance, hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. Another recent addition to the campus is an organic farm hosting a variety of plants including spinach, tomato, pumpkin, ridge gourd, mint, curry, oregano, lime, etc. “We plan to introduce gardening and farm activities from the next academic year when school reopens. Also training in martial arts and theatre,” says Saumya Radjindrin.
Though this unique school for children with special needs has ensured learning continuity during the pandemic crisis, some students with severe disabilities who were unable to learn online dropped out of school. But with Covid-19 cases in Tamil Nadu on a downward spiral (489 cases per day in February from a high of 57,968 in July), the management is hopeful of the school readmitting them.
“I am very happy with the way our teachers, students and parents confronted challenge of the pandemic year. We are looking forward to restarting in-school classes with a full complement soon, and taking forward our recalibrated mission of providing high-quality skills training and life skills education to our students to enable them to be independent and pursue livelihoods,” says Trayee Sinha, vice-president, Chettinad-Niyogaa.
An institution promoted with modest academic goals is rapidly transforming into a model school for children and youth with disabilities.