Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Dr. PC Thomas Leaves Behind a High Aim For Good Shepherd International School

When Dr. PC Thomas, Founder and Principal of Good Shepherd International School of Ooty passed away for his heavenly abode, he is not just leaving behind his legacy of building one of the finest international schools in India from scratch. It is surely an indomitable legacy that transformed himself from a humble school teacher to one of the most respected educationalists in the country, but what he leaves behind is a formidable trajectory that he not just set for the school, but one in which he led the school till his last breath, to reach amazing heights. But like all great visionaries, he was not one to rest on his laurels, and outlined his final ambition for Good Shepherd International School, when Seasonal Magazine interviewed him in depth a few quarters back. 

Well before that itself, he had led Good Shepherd International School to a Top-10 International School of India. But this pioneering educationalist’s vision was to make GSIS to be Asia’s top ranked school and one among the world’s top-10 schools.  But at the same time, he made it clear that he was not willing to make any ideological compromises to achieve his lofty objective. For example, Dr. Thomas was not willing to branch out to India’s bigger metro cities, to ramp up admissions multi-fold. One fine school was enough, he told us. 

Again, he was not willing to compromise on the issue of allowing day scholars in the school. As a veteran teacher who had worked in various kinds of schools, even as the head-teacher, he understood the value of inculcating discipline in his students. His clear view was that a school can be for day scholars or for residential students, but not for both. Mixing both would be worst for discipline, he had told us. Even students who were residents of Ooty had to be residential at GSIS and to drive home that point to all, Dr. Thomas and his pillar of strength, wife Elsamma Thomas, made their kids Jacob and Julie to be residential students at GSIS. Elsamma, daughter of renowned Malayalam film actor Jose Prakash, has been heading Good Shepherd Finishing School, while Julie is now in the top management of GSIS.

Forget such ideological compromises, Dr. Thomas was not even willing to compromise on any aspect of quality living for his students.  For his students to get the healthiest food, he created the school’s own organic farm for sourcing unpolluted vegetables, a cattle farm of 450 cows for the milk, and a poultry farm with 50,000 birds for the eggs and meat! Coupled with such quality of living initiatives was his penchant for breaking new ground in cutting-edge academics as well as sporting prowess. The school was the first in India to install a state-of-the-art 3D Printer for enabling next-generation student projects and startups, at a time even renowned engineering colleges didn’t have a 3D Printer, and even now most colleges don’t have one. The twin campuses at Ooty are spread over 180 acres, and have extensive sporting facilities, but Dr. Thomas also encouraged students to visit slums and teach English to economically weaker students.  A well-known humanitarian and philanthropist, Dr. Thomas was also a Rotary Governor. Under the aegis of Rotary and Dr. PC Thomas Foundation, he was actively involved in tsunami relief and rescue, which attracted wide attention.

Ask any 14 year old what he or she wants to become, and the answer would be inventor, scientist, engineer, doctor, researcher and those kinds of aspirational roles in our society. Only a very few would tell about an ambition to be a teacher, as at 14 years, most would be fed up with studies, teachers and schools. And almost none would answer this question like this – “I want to run a great school.” Yet, this is what a 14 year old Keralite boy answered to this question, decades back. Almost all his friends laughed at his ambition. But young PC Thomas, hailing from Ettumanoor in Kerala, was determined enough to see his dream through. 

He started his career as a teacher at Loyola Public School of Trivandrum, then shifted to Sainik School there itself, and later became the Principal of a 150 year old international school in the hill station of Ooty, in Kerala’s neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. While serving there, young Thomas decided to act on his ambition to start a fine school of his own. But he didn’t have a lot of money to buy land and build a campus. 

One day in those days he came across an advertisement by the erstwhile King of Baroda to sell off the famous Baroda Palace at Ooty. Thomas had no hope of getting the property as many buyers were there to buy the prestigious property at sky high prices. Yet, he met the Maharajah and conveyed to him his need for a ready campus and building to create a noble institution in education. Much to his surprise, the King agreed and conveyed to all other bidders his decision to hand over the land and palace to PC Thomas at a much lesser rate than the prevailing market rate. 

Today, this is known as the Baroda Palace Campus of the Good Shepherd International School. 44 long years have passed since then. GSIS has grown from strength to strength, branching out from the original ICSE syllabus to the more international IGCSE and IB curricula. A fully residential school, the integrated nature of GSIS would stun anyone as the campus is fully self-sufficient with its own organic farm for sourcing unpolluted vegetables for students, a cattle farm of 450 cows for the milk needed by students and a poultry farm with 50,000 birds for the eggs and meat! 

GSIS is also renowned for having the most extensive sporting facilities including equestrian with 30 thoroughbred horses, polo ground, golf course, swimming pools, grounds for all popular outdoor sports including a cricket ground, which is the highest cricket ground, not just in India, but in the whole world! Now, under the visionary guidance of Dr. PC Thomas, GSIS is expanding its bigger Palada campus with an additional 4 lakh sq ft of construction for housing new world-class cubicle based hostels and a new Indoor Sports Complex where all students can play simultaneously! 

Dr. Thomas is a visionary edupreneur who dreams and executes larger-than-life visions like how he sends 50 of his students each year to NASA for their renowned Space Camp program. Yet, Dr. Thomas is particular that his students have their feet planted firmly in the ground realities of India, and inspires them to do a lot of charitable and relief works for the afflicted and the downtrodden segments of the society. A firm disciplinarian, Thomas has brushed aside all temptations to diversify the Good Shepherd brand to start international schools in India’s metro cities or to admit day scholars or to get into related fields like higher education. Unlike most of his peers, he is a firm believer of quality over quantity. Says, Dr. Thomas, “My professional ambition was to build just one fine school in all respects, not to be the largest or fastest growing school chain. Schools are not saloons or parlours to be replicated fast.” 

He derives his satisfaction from the fact that some of the finest surgeons, engineers and entrepreneurs in USA, India and elsewhere are GSIS alumni. GSIS was the first school in India to install a state-of-the-art 3D Printer and a Design Technology Lab which give its students a head start in designing, innovating and inventing. With such initiatives it is no wonder that over 35 renowned universities from across the world come to GSIS every year to invite students to their institutions for higher studies. Dr. Thomas next aim is to make GSIS the very best in Asia and one of the Top-10 schools in the world. 

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Dr. PC Thomas, Founder, Good Shepherd International School, Ooty.

You have a vision for making GSIS one of the Top-10 schools in the world, and Asia’s best. What have been your initiatives in this regard, and how far do you think GSIS has progressed in this direction?

As you know, excellence in schooling is driven by mainly two factors, one is the infrastructure or facilities, and the other is the quality of teaching as well as learning. For long, Good Shepherd International School has been running on two campuses – the Baroda Palace campus for the lower grades and the newer Palada campus for the higher classes. Now, we think we need better integration and are planning to shift all the activities to the Palada campus. We already have enough classrooms at Palada for this integration, but I want more supporting facilities to be built. Towards this, we are constructing 4 lakh sqft of additional space at Palada. This will enable GSIS to have additional facilities for students, main of which is that each student will have his or her own cubicle rather than a dormitory to study and sleep in privacy. Research also shows that students learn better when they play better. So, the additional construction also houses a new Indoor Sports Complex catering to most sports. GSIS is already a leader in sporting facilities, but this one is so huge that all students can play indoors even if there is unexpected rain or adverse weather. We are also building a new hospital, in addition to the one we already have.So, altogether, the campus is being upgraded to a world-class facility. Some of these buildings are already ready, but we will wait for the full construction to be completed by 2020 before shifting the classes at Baroda Palace campus to the expanded Palada campus.

You mentioned the quality of the teaching and learning processes. How is GSIS implementing this?

The very best schools in the world have only 15 students per class. This ensures that each student gets individual attention from the teacher and ensures better teaching/learning outcomes. At GSIS, we are very close to this gold standard, with less than 20 students per class. Very few schools in India have such a facility. Secondly, many schools can’t afford the kind of highly educated, specialist teachers for advanced subjects. But we employ such teachers too for the benefit of our students.

Is Good Shepherd International School, a fully residential campus?

Absolutely. Even if a student is a resident of Ooty, we will not allow him or her as a day scholar. There are no exceptions to this rule. Even my grandchildren studying here are boarders. This is because, in my own long experience, mixing day scholars and boarders in one school is the worst thing we can do to destroy the discipline in a campus. Many international schools in the metro cities have learned this the hard way. Instead, we strive to be a true home away from home for all our students. This is a fully integrated campus with all facilities. We are also very holistic and self-sufficient in sourcing the highest quality food. Towards this, we run our own organic farm which supplies all the fresh vegetables we need. We have 450 cows for sourcing pure milk for our students. Our poultry farm has 50,000 birds for the best quality eggs and meat. 

You have been following innovative programs like sending 50 of your students every year to NASA for a visit. What led to this, and can you explain the relevance and positive outcomes from this long-running program?

I have been a leader at Rotary for long, in various capacities, and used to visit USA. On one such visit, some Rotary friends there took me to Huntsville in Alabama which is a major center for NASA. We visited the US Space & Rocket Center (USSRC), which is a sprawling museum, set up by the state of Alabama with the support of NASA and US Army Missile Command. USSRC is the world’s largest spaceflight museum and carries original and uniquely valued exhibits like the hardware used for the first moon landing. When the authorities there came to know that I run a school, they offered to welcome our students for annual visits. USSRC has been running the renowned Space Camp programs with advanced simulators, for students, and that is how these study trips of GSIS to USA started. Every year we send around 50 students, and in one year we sent 62 of our kids. Usually we send students from grades 6 to 11, since grades 10 and 12 will be busy with their board exams. There are four programs at Space Camp suitable for different age groups and a few of our students have even attended all the four programs. This has been a life changing experience for the participating students as they get to experience the most challenging real world applications of the science and maths they study. Inspired from these tours, some of these students have went on to study subjects like aeronautics, space research etc. We have been sending our students to this US facility for more than 10 years now, and I have also been appointed as an ambassador for the program who can recommend students from other schools for the program. While in America, we also take our students to other renowned landmarks like Universal Studios etc. For around Rs. 4 lakhs cost per student, which is all inclusive, this has been a real inspiration for the participating students.

You have been a pioneer in the finishing school activity. How has the GSIS finishing school evolved during the last 5 years to meet the changing college and workplace requirements?

We were pioneers in this concept, and this is the 14th year of operation for our finishing school. Our courses are quite unlike what passes off as finishing school courses these days in the metros, which are purely oriented towards winning IT and BPO jobs. Our finishing school on the other hand focuses on all round grooming, personality development and skill development in fields like business English, accounting, fashion designing and French. The finest international or national bodies in these fields like the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) come and administer the relevant professional tests here. We also have different tenures like two month summer courses to nine-month programs. This is not for our regular students, but for students who have studied in other schools. Girls enrol here after plus-two, graduation or even post-graduation. All our finishing school courses are also fully residential. Going beyond smaller objectives like winning a job, our finishing school equips ladies to start their own firms like boutiques etc. My wife and partner, Elsamma is in charge of the finishing school.

Some time back, GSIS became the first school in India to procure a 3D Printer. How has it helped the aspiring students with their projects, and what all have been you more recent procurements or initiatives to make your students abreast with the latest technologies?

GSIS has design classes from grade 7 onward. We have a good Design Technology Lab in which this 3D Printer is the main attraction. We got it imported from abroad at a high cost and it has been working excellently, proving to be of much use to our students who are interested in design. We were the first school in India to install this, and even now most premium schools and even renowned engineering colleges don’t have it. Apart from the high cost, it also requires highly qualified faculty like the teachers we have employed in our lab. The Design Technology Lab and the 3D Printer are great aids to those students who have the flair for design, architecture, engineering, modelling, graphic design, biomedical engineering and several such buzzing fields. The 3D Printer enables the students to build and test rapid prototypes. Since the equipment is still very rare, we also get student visitors from other schools and colleges.

Being an international school, which are the world bodies that accredit your courses, or with whom you are affiliated?

We have several affiliations and accreditations, among which I will mention just two here. GSIS is accredited with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which is a United States based accreditation association providing educational accreditation for all levels of education, from pre-kindergarten to the doctoral level. NEASC serves over 2,000 public and independent schools, technical/career institutions, colleges and universities in the six New England states, plus International Schools in more than 65 nations worldwide. Founded in 1885, NEASC is perhaps the oldest and most prestigious accreditation bodies based in USA. GSIS is also affiliated to Council of International Schools (CIS) which includes more than 1300 premium institutions comprising of 738 schools and 583 colleges and universities across 116 countries.

With the advent of nuclear families and further with parents working thousands of miles away from each other, there has been an increasing trend to send even pre-schoolers to boarding schools. What are GSIS initiatives to ensure a home away from home for such tiny tots?

Yes, there is such a trend which is driven by a real social need. We see these doctor couples, often working in different cities, in overnight shifts etc and these situations happen both in India as well as abroad. We too used to have LKG and UKG classes. But being a fully residential school, we have realized that this is not the way to go. Without doubt, young children need to be with their parents. That is much needed for their proper development. Keeping this in mind, we have already stopped KG classes, and gradually we are phasing out even grades 1 to 3. By 2020, we will have only grades 4 to 12 at GSIS.

GSIS has been famous for its sporting facilities including equestrian, polo and golf. What all have been your latest initiatives in this regard?

Yes, we already have one of the largest sports facilities among all schools in India. And as I told you a while back, we are now constructing a huge indoor sports complex. A new synthetic track is also being made. Our last completed project was a full-sized cricket ground, which happens to be the highest cricket ground in the world. As such it is also useful for high altitude training activities for sportsmen.

While GSIS and its locale of Ooty have been greatly synergistic so far, considering the new scale of activities and growth in India’s biggest metros, do you have plans to start campuses in such cities?

We won’t do that ever. We are running an excellent school and that is enough for me. Education is not a business like saloons or parlours which can be replicated fast. In fact, due to our success and the brand image, we have many offers to start GSIS institutions at various big cities. Many people are coming with franchise arrangements too. But we are not open to any such arrangements. At the end of the day, we should have professional satisfaction. For that, the way to go is run this one school with full dedication and excellence.

Does GSIS promote an alumni network, and can you share the achievements of some of your greatest performers in the corporate and social entrepreneurship sector?

Absolutely. We have a great alumni network, that too across the world. You will be surprised to know that many major US cities have a GSIS alumni group. At least 50 of our students would be there. They keep in touch with each other and meet together occasionally. Our students have went on to become some of the best surgeons in USA as well as best engineers in companies like Microsoft etc. We, on our part, run a website for alumni to register and network with each other, as well as hold a mega annual event for alumni in April of every year. Dates are fixed one year in advance and invitations sent early, so that our former students can come from places as far as North America, Europe, Australia etc. All get inspired by the warm stories that get shared in these annual events.

Start-ups have been changing the face of business across the world and even in India. What are GSIS’ initiatives in facilitating start-up activities in the campus?

GSIS, as well as all our teachers, provide all support to promote student start-ups. In fact, our Design Technology Lab with its 3D Printer is great at fostering inventions and innovations. We also see a lot of our alumni working in prestigious MNCs for a while, and then starting out on their own ventures, and some of them have become very successful. It goes on to reveal the kind of courage and independence we have fostered in them from the young age.

For many years now, GSIS has been having the three curricula of IB, IGCSE and ICSE. How far have these syllabi evolved during recent years, and what would be the approximate students strengths under each syllabus?

We started off with ICSE, 42 years back, and for many years of our existence we were only an ICSE school. Then I personally visited Cambridge in UK for discussions regarding IGCSE and that is how this second curriculum came into being here. Growth wise, in recent years, the number of ICSE students have been dropping and the number of IGCSE students have been steadily increasing with students from the major metros especially Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai etc preferring it. Demand for ICSE still continues to be strong from students hailing from West Bengal, Bihar and neighbouring states. Now, ICSE students are around 20% of our strength. Regarding IB, its adoption came about after I personally visited Geneva to meet with the IB authorities. We never employ agents or agencies to do these kind of work. IB is perhaps the best syllabus especially for those who have already made up their mind to attend colleges or universities in USA and UK. We offer IB only in grades 11 and 12, so they form only around 120 students. So, the majority of our students are now IGCSE students.

How well does GSIS perform in overseas academic placement of your students?

You will be surprised to know that admission teams of around 35 universities from USA and across the world visit GSIS campus every year. This is because, our previous generations of students have made their mark in higher studies at these and other universities like Harvard, other Ivy League universities etc. For the benefit of our students, for them to interact directly and properly with the university authorities, we also conduct an annual exhibition of universities in our campus, and teams from these institutions participate enthusiastically. Our students also get generous scholarships from almost all of these universities.

What do you think is the most neglected dimension today in India when it comes to providing highest quality education to our students?

Our education sector is performing, but there is no doubt that a lot more can be done. The biggest deficiency is the poor teachers training. Except for in medical education perhaps, the brightest minds are not considering teaching as an option at all. Teaching is often regarded as the last resort job. This is the case in schools as well as colleges, and the plight that engineering colleges face today with lakhs of vacant seats is also due to this extremely deficient quality of teachers. We have an HRD Ministry that oversees these affairs, and I would put the affairs of this ministry as much larger than the Indian Ocean itself. It tries to do everything from kindergarten to doctoral level, and ends up being unable to do much in any of these domains. This should change, with schools having a separate ministry, colleges having another, professional colleges having yet another etc. We recently celebrated 71 years since Independence, and we have had several Education Commissions, and all their reports are simply gathering dust in some offices. As a veteran, I have read most of these commission reports and they were all outstanding. But none of their recommendations got implemented. The most famous of these, the Kothari Commission, had this poignant warning too, “that the destiny of India will be determined in its classrooms.” But, unfortunately, that report too got no attention from the successive policy makers.

Your students have attracted attention for visiting slums and teaching English to poorer students. What prompts you to lead in such activities?

You see, as a premium school, we get to teach children from affluent homes. And it is so easy for them not to understand the real plight of the downtrodden in this country. That is why you see so many rich young people dress like mad, drive racing cars and get into all kinds of trouble. But you will never find a GSIS student with such insensitive behaviour. Because, I have always personally believed that it is extremely important to look after the downtrodden and help them in all ways possible. I have inculcated these values into each generation of our students and they go all out to help the poor around the school. They visit the slums, teach their kids English, give provisions to them, and even gift them larger items like cots etc. I have given them a free hand to take whatever food items as needed from our stores to give to the poor, even if what they want is 1000 packs of biscuits. Once a poor old lady was crying and blessing our students when they gifted her a cot. We also do a lot of relief work when disasters like Indian ocean tsunami, Chennai floods etc struck. Now, we are also doing the same for those suffering from the Kerala floods. This kind of social participation is much needed if we want our students to grow up as top contributors to our society.

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