Winners and Losers

Twenty mothers in burkas excitedly rushed into a classroom to participate in the junior kindergarten class lottery at an Akanksha school in Mumbai last week.  Five fathers also attended, but remained calm and quiet.  Because the municipal corporation only approved one junior kindergarten section for the next school year instead of the expected two, this admission lottery was going to be particularly difficult.  Still, the mothers were excited.  One in particular, wearing a full burka with a pair of the brightest neon pink trousers I’ve ever seen underneath, was particularly cheerful and chatty.  She talked with other mothers in the circle and sat anxiously with her hands on her face waiting for the process to begin.

The administrative assistant at the school explained the rules of the lottery.  To even be given an application, families needed to live within a one kilometer radius of the school – this is because Akanksha schools are municipal schools and must follow the rules of admission outlined in the Right to Education Act.  The class would be limited to 35 students, also a restriction of the Act.  He went on to explain that, according to Akanksha’s rules, applicants with a sibling already attending the school would gain automatic admission.  This meant that 22 of the 40 spots available for junior kindergarten students were already filled.  The excitement in the room began to feel more like nervous energy.

Three mothers were invited to pick six applications each from the box of 42.  Once all 18 were selected, the education leader (principal) of the school began reading off names and a teacher wrote them on the blackboard.   Excitement turned to anxiety turned to teary eyes.  Once the process was over, only five of the 25 parents in attendance “won” the lottery.  We clapped for them.

As parents began leaving the room several mothers began crying, including the one that stood out to me from the beginning of the process, the one with the neon pink pants.  The education leader explained to me that this mother has always been supportive and even an advocate for the school.  Already emotional, watching her plead with the school administration was really hard for me.  I decided not to return to classrooms to watch the last few unit assessments of the day, the reason I was in Mumbai in the first place, and to just get away from the scene before becoming emotional.  Having studied international education policy, I have thought a lot about access to quality educational opportunities, particularly for Muslim girls in India.  Still, watching this scene unfold, watching mothers feel like their daughters had just missed out on of the most important opportunity of their lives, was an incredibly poignant experience for me.

I can’t say that I’ve really had any profound revelations about educational opportunity and equity after watching the lottery process.  I can only say that I can not seem to get the scene out of my mind, and it has affected me emotionally more than I expected.   I have been thinking about the fairness of lottery admissions processes, what opportunities that seem so small (admission to a school as a young  child) can mean in the long-term for an individual and even an entire family.  It just doesn’t seem fair that there were so few winners and so many losers after this process.

At the same, I have been thinking about my time here and how it relates to my career prospects and opportunities.  I have been feeling down the last few weeks, like coming here was not the right choice for me.  But, moments like the lottery remind me why I signed up to come here for ten months instead of taking one of the other jobs I was offered; being here allows me to feel what I know theoretically or have studied, and will ultimately make me a better practitioner.  These experiences, good and bad, can not be replaced by any other kind of experience.

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