A school's century

Published : Sep 30, 2000 00:00 IST

The Kodaikanal International School, which has a cosmopolitan student population, begins its centennial celebrations.

ON August 26, 2000, the Kodaikanal International School (KIS) began year-long celebrations marking a hundred years of its founding in 1901.

On the school campus at Kodaikanal on August 26, before an international gathering that was essentially Indian in spirit, consisting also of alumni from as far ago as the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as well as pupils in their teens today, Union Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan released a commemorative stamp to mark the occasion. The stamp was received by Dayavu Dhanapal, who joined the school in 1944 as its first Indian woman staff member. (Her father, Z. Samuel, constructed the school gymnasium in 1 911.) Another person, Naomi Carman, also received the stamp. She and her husband John S. Carman came to Kodaikanal in 1934. Her 11 children and grandchildren graduated from the KIS.

Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram delivered the convocation address, urging the students to prepare for a "borderless world". The 21st century would make a pluralistic society celebrate its diversity, he said.

There was later a round of square dance, with the young and the old participating with gusto. The school band struck the school song. Then came the delicious dinner.

The previous day, Bernad Alter, the U.S. Consul-General in Chennai, released a centennial volume, "In Celebration", published in the U.S. (Rounds of celebration are under way in the United States as well, a notable one having been at Lake Tahoe.) The 'In troduction' to this book, which featured a good collection of rare pictures of Kodaikanal in its early years, was written by KIS Principal Dr. Paul D. Wiebe. The historical account was compiled by Jane Cummings.

One vignette from the book: "Today, Dayavu (Dhanapal) is still in Kodai with all her delicious secrets about Kodai kids. Dayavu's memories encompass nearly sixty years of Kodai history and make it virtually impossible for any Kodai kids to return with to o inflated an opinion of their current self importance. Dayavu's daughter, Priscilla Dhanapal Mohl, is currently a teacher at the school and Priscilla's daughter, Dana, Mr. Samuel's great granddaughter, will graduate with the KIS class of 2000."

Dr. Wiebe, who is from the U.S., is himself an alumnus, having graduated from the KIS in 1956. He said: "We are celebrating our centennial with a fine birthday party. We look back with pride at our accomplishment in educating children from around the wor ld, including India. We look forward with excitement to the new challenges in future. We want to be responsible to Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India and the international community."

The KIS had its beginnings at a little hotel called the Highclerc, situated on a hill near the Kodaikanal lake as a school for the children of American missionaries in South India. The Highclerc School became the Kodaikanal School in the 1950s. As the mi ssionary era wound down in the 1960s, the school acquired a truly international students profile. In 1975, it became the Kodaikanal International School.

Today, the KIS is a Christian, multicultural school. The mission statement says, "KIS is an autonomous residential school with a broad college-oriented curriculum, serving young people from a wide variety of cultures. The school's academic programme is i ntentionally set within a community life based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and devoted to service in India and the whole of human community." Dr. Ashish Chrispal, Administrative Principal, said, "We provide secular education with respect an d appreciation for other religions." Dr. Wiebe added, "We are based on a certain set of values. The values we want to encourage are accountability, appreciation and concern for others and the environment."

The KIS is co-educational, with 500 pupils and 100 teachers. The students are from about 30 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan and countries in North America, Europe, Latin America and Africa. The teachers are from India, the U.S., Cana da, Australia, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Tanzania and Tibet (China).

The school offers an international baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is a rigorous two-year pre-university course.

According to Dr. Chrispal, the KIS was the first school in India to offer an IB diploma. The IB programme is followed in more than 700 affiliated schools in 65 countries. In the last 20 years, the KIS has had a 90 per cent pass rate in IB diploma results compared to 75 to 80 per cent worldwide. Since 1960, the KIS has been accredited to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Philadelphia, U.S. The Association of Indian Universities has recognised the KIS diploma of high school graduation as equivalent to a pass in Plus two.

K.V. Mathew, vice-chairman of the board of management of the KIS, spoke of the school library with 50,000 volumes and the top-notch programme in computer education. It has a good music department. Mathew said, "We are as advanced as any school in the use of educational resources." Both teachers and students form part of the decision-making process at the KIS.

The history of the KIS is entwined with growth of Kodaikanal as a hill station. Kodaikanal is situated on the crest of the Palani hill ranges at an altitude of 2,133 metres.

The Palani hills were first surveyed by an Englishman, Lt. B.S. Ward, in 1821 but the survey was published only 16 years later. The first to build houses in Kodaikanal were missionaries of the American Madura Mission, which had been established in Madura i in 1834. When several young American missionaries died of "a fearful attack of cholera", Sirumalai hills, about 30 km from Madurai, was chosen as a "sanatorium". The missionaries built two bungalows there. However, malaria killed some of them, and a se arch began for another high-altitude base. In The Indian Hill Station: Kodaikanal (University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Research Paper No: 141, 1972), Nora Mitchell writes, "At this stage, the Americans appealed for assistance to the Br itish. The nearest hills were the Palanis and they were of considerably higher altitudes, a feature now recognised to be of the greatest importance."

In 1844, the missionaries turned to an Englishman named Fane, who had a godown in Kodaikanal, and to Judge Cotton, who, after retiring from service in Madurai, cultivated coffee in the Palani hills. On Fane's advice, the missionaries decided to found the ir settlement in the Kodaikanal basin. By June 1845, two bungalows were built. According to Charlotte Chandler Wyckoff, author of Kodaikanal, 1845-1945 (published in 1945 by London Mission Press, Nagercoil), the two bungalows were "scarcely better than shacks - with huts for servants". The British also built some houses in 1846. Thus the hill station was born.

Charlotte Wyckoff was one of the first 13 pupils who joined the Highclerc School in 1901. As years passed, more and more missionaries came to Kodaikanal in the summer months and built their own houses. "The life of a child during this time was idyllic an d carefree," says Jane Cummings in In Celebration. "Days of freedom from lessons provided ample time to explore the sholas, fish in the lake, wade in the streams, search the woods for beetles or stuff their pockets with roly-poochies. Soon, howeve r, there was to be an end to such unbridled childish freedom." The missionary parents felt the need for a school in Kodaikanal for their children.

In June 1900, the committee established by the Kodaikanal Conference said in its report: "We, the undersigned... believe for the following reasons that a School for Missionary Children at Kodaikanal is a desideratum:-"

"By the establishment of such a school parents could secure for their children good training in a salubrious clime and at the same time be with them a part of every year on the plains during the children's Winter Holiday and on the Hills during the paren ts' Season of Rest..." The committee suggested that a matron be found "who shall be a lady of culture and some experience in India, preferably of missionary experience, as well as a Lady Instructor secured from America or England."

These recommendations were affirmed by members of the London Missionary Society, the American Lutheran Mission, the Wesleyan Mission, the American Arcot Mission, and the American Madura Mission. However, only the American Madura Mission and the American Arcot Mission agreed to put up the money. On June 5, 1901, Rev. J.H. Wyckoff of the American Madura Mission wrote: "Dear Brethren, Our respective missions having authorized the opening of the school from July 1, 1901, certain preparatory measures have be en taken informally by members of the committee." They included employing a principal and finding a location for the school.

At that time, one Margaret Eddy, was in Madras (now Chennai) visiting her son, a missionary. She was persuaded to become the school's principal. According to Jane Cummings, "It was an extraordinary providential move for the fledgling school. Mrs. Eddy wa s a woman of remarkable ability... Besides being a competent administrator, she was a motherly type with a keen sense of humour and wide interests." Highclerc Hotel, which had been built in the late 1880s on a hill overlooking the lake, was rented to hou se the school. Cummings says, "On July 1, 1901, thirteen little tykes, boys in their knickers, girls in their pinafores, appeared at the Highclerc Hotel to start school."

As the rent at the hotel became high, Margaret Eddy and her pupils moved to Central House and Rock Cottage in 1902. In 1905, owing to failing health, Margaret Eddy resigned and returned to the U.S. However, she remained principal emeritus until her death in 1935. She stayed in touch with alumni and helped in recruiting teachers. She was succeeded by Miss Case and by Mrs. Allen.

The institution became a high school in January 1930. According to In Celebration, "Tracy Manley was the first proud student to receive a high school diploma from Kodai School in 1930." More buildings were added through the 1910s to the 1930s. In 1924, a classroom building, the Quadrangle was built with a grant. The Quad went through a major renovation in 1999. "This renovation involved taking the old building down stone by stone, pillar by pillar, beam by beam and rebuilding it in the same place , with the same stones and pillars in the same design in a record eighty-three days," says Jane Cummings. The gym was built in 1911 on what once was a lovely garden. The gym still stands, having undergone renovations in 1932 and 1995.

Until the late 1920s, only "children of pure European descent" were admitted to the school. In 1930, members of the school council resolved that "... admission shall also be open to any child whose parents are from North America, Europe or Australia - be they missionaries or civilians."

For 26 years from 1932, Carl Phelps, a "diminutive dynamo of organisational and academic energy", led the school as its principal. According to Jane Cummings, Highclerc School was essentially an American school through the 1940s and the 1950s, "predomina tely for the children of missionaries but with a liberal sprinkling of the non-mission, European types who wandered from time to time... The curriculum was not too much help for those who wanted to go to Cambridge University or the Universities of Nottin gham, Berlin or Delhi."

The 1960s saw big changes. The missionary era and the colonial era came to an end. In evocative images, Jane Cummings says: "Missionaries... encouraged Indian colleagues to take over their work in churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages. As the shift in leadership was realised, most missionaries willingly handed over and departed; but not without a lump in the throat or tear in the eye for the country where they had lived for twenty, thirty, sometimes fifty years and which was their spiritual and em otional home in a way that Buffalo or Chicago or Portland could never be again." The nature of the student body changed; it became cosmopolitan and this brought new challenges to the administration.

Also, a debate began on the Christian education the school offered. A meeting of the school council in 1971 decided to favour "the development of the Kodaikanal School into an autonomous, plural cultural, multinational Christian school". Dr. Frank Jayasi nghe, a remarkable man with international experience in education, was principal from 1973 to 1983.

Statistics show a noticeable shift in the nature of the student population since the 1960s. In 1966, 90 per cent of the students were from North America. In 1971, 83 per cent of the 280 students were from North America and only 5 per cent from India. In 2000, of 480 students, 312 (65 per cent) are Indians and 168 (35 per cent) are from 23 other countries of which 49 are from North America. As Jane Cummings says, "Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, French or Korean can be heard in the corridors or dorms alongside English, but all conversations are still laced with Kodai slang which is passed from generation to generation: dish, budge, slips, canteen chuma, hunk, hey man, cool..." The school has had several student newspapers, which include Highclerc Herald, Ko dai Kourier, Kodai Times and Tahr Tribune.

It was a memorable home-coming for Dr. Wiebe in 1988 when he took over as principal. He and his wife Donna Beth have become synonymous with the school in the last 12 years. Dr. Wiebe and former Finance Director D. Ernest Chandrasekaran together fought a six-year legal battle to retrieve the six-acre Loch End, the portion of the school campus that was occupied by a Karur-based company in June 1991 when the children had gone home on vacation. About future plans, Dr. Wiebe said that a practical course on e nvironment studies and a social studies centre with cooperative effort from teachers from other schools were being added.

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