A new form of sustainable and equitable education is being created at Avasa
A three-hour drive southeast of Mumbai lies the city of Pune. If you head west from there, you soon reach the village of Lavale, and this is where you’ll find Avasara Academy, a residential school for economically disadvantaged young women nestled into a valley slope above the village. Today, 350 students live and learn on this campus, which consists of simple concrete buildings, quiet courtyards and lush gardens.
First opened in 2015, Avasara has over the past four years garnered international praise for its unique educational model, its direct focus on adolescent girls, and for the design and architecture of the campus itself. Yet it could all quite easily have never existed. ‘There was a point at which I nearly gave up on the whole thing,’ says Roopa Purushothaman, an American economist who has been the driving force behind the project since she moved to Mumbai in 2006. ‘That point was after three or four years, when nothing was moving.’
It was eventually her friend, the architect Samuel Barclay, who persuaded her not to give up on her dream. ‘I think when I first met Roopa, she was introduced as "Roopa, who is starting a school,"’ he says, looking back at where their long friendship began. ‘It was Sam who said, "I’ve known you for so many years and you’ve got to do this for yourself and for these girls,"’ Roopa recalls. Thereafter, she tackled the project with renewed vigour.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see the success of the school and not realise the long and at times arduous journey it took to get there. ‘Between 2006 and 2015, it was every conversation I had. There were 10 years when we were pitching, talking about it, trying to get teachers, funders, partners all aligned,’ Roopa explains.
One of the hardest parts of the process was persuading donors to support the school before there was any real proof of concept. Roopa’s background didn’t help matters. ‘As soon as I open my mouth, I have a strong American accent. And I didn’t grow up in India,’ she says. ‘A lot of people come and say they want to do these grandiose things here.’ She often felt she was battling against that stereotype.
Moreover, what Roopa was proposing was about depth and, for some prospective donors, that wasn’t appealing. ‘Everyone in India wants to focus on scale, and our school is not going to affect millions of kids,’ she says. ‘In India, most interventions that are focused on development look to hit those kinds of numbers. People are starting to realise that interventions that focus on deep change over the course of a generation also have a place, but that’s still something we’re fighting.’
“People are starting to realise that interventions that focus on deep change over the course of a generation also have a place, but that’s still something we’re fighting.”
Eventually, the academy was helped by a piece of legislation which was passed in 2014 and which forced companies with revenues of more than 10bn rupees (at that time, around 120 million euros) to give two per cent of their net profits to charity. After that, suddenly things began to move much more quickly. ‘It took 10 years to get to the first building,’ she says, ‘but once there was proof of concept and one building went up, the rest of the funding came much more quickly than that first grant.’
The decision to focus on adolescent girls was an obvious one for her. As an economist specialising in India, she was very aware that across almost all metrics – whether health, employment or human rights – if you compare statistics by gender, you see that women and girls are disproportionately disadvantaged. She also saw that very few interventions were focused on girls in ado-lescence, even though this is exactly when they get pressured to marry and often drop out of formal education.
The education the girls receive at Avasara is also impressively progressive. In India, education often consists of rote learning, repetition and regular examinations. At the academy, however, students don’t all sit in rows facing the teacher; instead, they sit in small groups, which encourages what Roopa calls ‘learning from peers’. The young women are given a lot of agency, too, deciding for themselves what the student clubs should be and planning parent-teacher conferences.
Whereas in a traditional school, you might look to exam results as a marker of achievement, at Avasara performance is judged on other criteria. ‘We look at 21st-century skills and ask, are our girls confident, are they problem-solvers, do they think about things creatively and collaboratively? Those are hard things to measure.’ She and her team are keen to collect data to demonstrate this, but she admits ‘it’s more qualitative than quantitative’.
From the beginning, a big emphasis was also placed on design. Roopa’s friend Samuel is an architect and back in 2013 was just about to set up his own practice, Case Design. Avasara became his independent studio’s first project. ‘I believed in the mission,’ he says. ‘I have a young daughter and my wife works in education, so I was in with both feet and both hands.’
For him, one of the most important considerations was the fact that for many of the young women, this was going to be their first time away from home. He therefore wanted to create an environment that was both familiar and domestic. Starting with the site masterplan, ‘we made sure that the dormitories and classrooms were arranged in such a way that there were never parts of the campus that were unoccupied,’ he explains. Each block therefore has classrooms on the bottom two floors and accommodation on the top two. The idea was to organise the accommodation to make it easier for the young women to create close bonds with their peers.
“The campus should be a sanctuary for learning, but we also wanted it to be productive.”
When it came to choosing the materials used throughout the school, cost constraints meant that concrete had to be used extensively. ‘But we looked to materials that could soften or personalise that,’ says Samuel. ‘We used reclaimed wooden doors from schools and old historic buildings; we used mosaic marble floors that were cost-effective but also gave a kind of vibrancy to the spaces. A lot of these gestures were to soften the impact [of the concrete]. It is an institution, but we didn’t want it to feel institutional.’
A sensitivity to the natural environment and sustainability were also central to the design of the campus. Case Design worked with Pratik Raval, a climate engineer at a company called Transsolar in New York, who helped the team design and install ‘solar chimneys’ and ‘earth ducts’ that release hot air and draw in cool air, respectively. This system is entirely natural and non-mechanised and regulates the indoor temperatures in all the buildings. There are also rainwater-harvesting tanks for capturing and conserving water.
Yet the school is not only built to use very little energy. ‘Roopa always said the campus should be a sanctuary for learning,’ says Samuel, ‘but we also wanted it to be productive.’ He has worked with local landscape designers and farmers to plant trees and vegetable patches that will yield food for the students to eat. ‘Herbs and spices, fruit and vegetables, flowering plants, all of those things will be a part of the productive landscape.’
Having battled for a decade to get her school up and running, Roopa is now finally able to look to the future. The next two years will be focused on getting the first class of 12th-grade students into top universities and then on into careers. She is also keen to grow the school to between 500 and 600 students, from the 350 currently enrolled. As she puts it, ‘The first five years is about establishing, the next five years is about deepening.’ Beyond that, it’s about the long-term ripple effects that will eventually have a wider impact. ‘We’re investing in kids we think will be change-makers,’ she says, ‘so the exponential numbers will come from giving them the tools to create change in their own communities.’
Roopa Purushothaman, Founder, Avasara Academy & Samuel Barclay, Architect, Case Design