12 May 2020
A sensitively designed school for disadvantaged girls in western India proves sustainable projects don’t have to be on a big scale to have lasting impact.
Head west from the city of Pune in India’s Maharashtra state and you’ll find the village of Lavale. Nestled in a valley slope above the village, stands a remarkable school based on an unusual educational model.
Avasara Academy is a residential college, where 350 students live and learn on a campus consisting of simple concrete buildings, quiet courtyards and lush gardens.
Opened in 2015, the school has garnered international praise for its innovative focus on educating adolescent girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, and for its design and architecture, which emphasise the positive effect of sustainability.
Avasara is the brainchild of Roopa Purushothaman, a high-flying American economist of Keralan heritage who moved to Mumbai in 2006 and worked tirelessly over a decade to get the school off the ground.
When Purushothaman speaks, the academy’s aspiration becomes clear immediately. “We are trying to prove the idea that if you have girls in front of really strong teachers and being pushed to think about how they can change the world, you’ll be able to produce leaders,” she says.
People are realising that interventions that focus on deep change over the course of a generation have a place
That’s no small ambition and one of the hardest parts of the process for Purushothaman was persuading donors to support the school, partly because what she was proposing was about “depth”, rather than numbers.
“Everyone in India wants to focus on scale, and our school is not going to affect millions of kids immediately,” says Purushothaman. “People are starting to realise that interventions that focus on deep change over the course of a generation also have a place.”
The decision to focus on adolescent girls was key. As an economist, Purushothaman was keenly aware that women and girls in India are disproportionately disadvantaged – be it in terms of health, employment or human rights. She saw that very few interventions focused on girls in adolescence, even though this is precisely the time at which they are pressured to marry and often drop out of formal education.
Avasara has adopted an impressively progressive style of teaching. In India, education often consists of rote learning and regular exams. At the academy, however, students sit in small groups, which encourages what Purushothaman calls “learning from peers”. The young women decide for themselves what the student clubs should be and plan parent-teacher conferences.
“We look at 21st-century skills and ask, are our girls confident, are they problem-solvers, do they think about things creatively and collaboratively?” explains Purushothaman.
From the beginning, much emphasis was also placed on design. At the heart of Avasara is a holistic ethos infused with the idea of sustainability – from the irrigation in its grounds to the heating systems, to the extensive use of recycled materials in the building design.
Purushothaman was fortunate to enlist the services of a young American architect, Samuel Barclay, who in 2013 was just setting up his own practice, Case Design.
Everyone in India wants to focus on scale, and our school is not going to affect millions of kids immediately
“Careful use of resources was a key focus – from money to time to materials,” says Barclay. “It became an exercise in getting maximum results from minimal input.”
It’s an attitude that Barclay and Purushothaman hope percolates down to the students.
Use and management of water was critical to the concept of sustainability – visible from the water channels that criss-cross the site. “We took a lot of inspiration from the local farmers – the way they used water and distributed it across their land,” says Barclay.
For many of the girls, this would be their first time away from home, so Barclay set out to create an environment that was both familiar and domestic. For example, prefabricated industrial paints were eschewed in favour of natural pigments – the colours you see in Indian villages, which the girls would be familiar with.
In particular, Barclay worked on creating what he calls “spaces in between spaces” – verandas, staircases, courtyards – where the girls could interact with each other and their teachers in an informal, more intimate setting. “We used reclaimed wooden doors from schools and old historic buildings," he says. "We used waste mosaic marble floors that were cost-effective but also gave a kind of vibrancy to the spaces. We didn’t want it to feel institutional.”
If you have girls in front of really strong teachers and being pushed to think about how they can change the world, you’ll be able to produce leaders.
Care was taken in creating tranquil spaces full of plants and greenery between classrooms. “We wanted to develop a safe space and a sanctuary to be able to develop who you are as a person,” says Purushothaman.
There is a wider educational purpose to these numerous actions both large and small. “I want the girls to see all the thought that has gone into the craftsmanship of this campus and all the materials we’ve reused, and really think in the future about how to take whatever resources you have and stretch them to the max,” says Purushothaman.
It seems to be working. As Sharon Patole, a Grade 11 student at Avasara, remarks: “It feels very earthy here. Nothing is artificial or superficial, but everything is natural, reused and recycled. It feels like home.”