Jaya Sri Radhe Dasi, head of Bhaktivedanta Academy's new Krishna Sharanam Middle School
Bhaktivedanta Academy, the largest ISKCON school in North America, is now accepting applications for the 2013-14 school year for all grades, including its brand new middle school, Krishna Sharanam.
The Academy, which sits on a five-acre plot at ISKCON’s New Raman Reti farm in Alachua, Florida, has been offering an innovative Montessori-based learning program for pre-k through 6th grade since director Visvambhar Das introduced it in 2007.
But this year will mark a major milestone for the school, as it launches its first ever middle years program.
Fifty-three students are currently spread throughout Bhakti Bhavan (Pre-K to Kindergarten), Audarya Bhavan (first to third grade), and Madhurya Bhavan (fourth to sixth grade).
But this August, twelve of them will move on to the brand new middle school program, along with twelve new students for a total of twenty-four. Krishna Sharanam will start with only seventh grade, but each year it will add another grade until, in four years, it covers grades seven through ten.
At full capacity, the middle school is expected to house nearly fifty students, which will double the size of Bhaktivedanta Academy to about one hundred students altogether.
Classroom space will also be doubled this summer to accommodate the new students. And more additions will come—the full four-year expansion plan is expected to be a $400,000 project.
“The middle school has been something we’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” says Visvambhara. “But we were reluctant to do it until we knew we had the right person to head it up.”
The right person was Jaya Sri Radhe Dasi, a second generation devotee who has taught at the Alachua Learning Center, a local charter school, for the past thirteen years, and who is well-known in the Alachua devotee community for her years of service with ISKCON Youth Ministry. Highly qualified with a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and a Master’s in educational administration, she has always dreamed of doing something big for ISKCON education.
“I had seen so many schools over time that that either couldn’t sustain their programs, or had low academic education, or had so many problems in the past,” she says. “I wanted to get into teaching to try to make a difference at our ISKCON schools. I wanted to do something big for Srila Prabhupada.”
So when she heard of Bhaktivedanta Academy’s need, Jaya Sri Radhe jumped at the opportunity. And in the fall, she came on board as head of the Krishna Sharanam Middle School program.
Since then, she has been developing the vision and mission for the school, as well as its educational framework and spiritual and academic curriculums.
She explains that Krishna Sharanam will take a slightly different route from the rest of the school and will not use Montessori, but rather the Montessori-compatible International Bacclaureate program.
“The IB program was originally developed for diplomats’ children from around the world, so they could have a standardized curriculum if they jumped around to different countries,” she says. “It’s very flexible, allowing us to have our own Krishna conscious spiritual themes within an academic context. It also has a very holistic framework that looks at the whole child. And its intercultural awareness is very compatible with our devotee culture.”
The IB program is also known for its academic rigor, which directly addresses the issues that past ISKCON gurukula systems had.
“There was a lack of an overall comprehensive plan for education,” Jaya Sri Radhe says. “It wasn’t always clear whether or not students were getting the academic skills they needed. But this program ensures that students will get what they need.”
Krishna Sharanam’s academic curriculum will blend subjects such as Fine Arts, Technology, and Physical Education with more standard subjects like Language, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and Foreign Language (Spanish).
And with IB’s holistic approach, the focus won’t be only on what the students are learning, but how they learn too.
“There’s very little that’s just rote memorization, or spitting back information in a multiple-choice test type of way,” says Jaya Sri Radhe. “There are many projects and performance tasks with which the students can show what they know. It’s really dynamic and interesting for them.”
Meanwhile the spiritual curriculum at Krishna Sharanam—literally “under the shelter of Lord Krishna”—is also very strong, featuring three main aspects.
The first is creating an environment that facilitates the cultivation of the bhakti, or devotion, that is innate within each child.
“We will really put the students in situations where they can develop their personal relationship with Krishna,” Jaya Sri Radhe says. “Part of that is with a regular sadhana practice. But not one of repetition and routinization; rather, one of thoughtfulness and mindfulness. A morning program in itself is not enough. It’s the dialogue that occurs in that morning program that’s important—talking about the meanings of verses, the mood that we should have when we’re chanting them, and giving examples of acharyas and how they lived their lives.”
The second aspect of Krishna Sharanam’s spiritual curriculum will be teaching the students about the roots of their rich Vaishnava culture, educating them in the fundamentals of the theology, and preparing them to sit for the Bhakti Sastri scriptural study test at the end of tenth grade.
Finally, the third aspect of the spiritual curriculum will be helping students to take the spiritual concepts they have learned and apply them in everyday life situations, so that each student can enter the outside world while retaining their core as a devotee of Krishna.
“For example, we’ll take a theme from the Bhagavad-gita such as the modes of material nature,” Jaya Sri Radhe says. “Then we’ll look at different areas of their life—such as food, association, activities etc—and ask, where does each one fall? And is that where you want to be? We’ll also do goal setting, so that they can see that their life choices impact where they’re going to end up.”
Another interesting feature of the Krishna Sharanam Middle School will be its “Exploratory Wheel,” a multifaceted life skills program. Taking into account that middle school students are at the age of exploration, it will offer them the chance to try on a variety of different hats in order to find out who they are and what they want to do.
Skills taught will include fine arts, dance, drama, music, devotional arts, technology, foreign languages, communication skills, gardening, outdoor activities such as native plant identification, and old-time crafts such as spinning and woodworking. In the process of learning all these, students will also gain understanding of how Krishna is the source of everything, and learn how to use their talents in his service.
“As our program continues, we also want to give the students spiritual apprenticeships with local devotees who are putting on festivals, cooking for the Deities, etc,” says Jaya Sri Radhe, “So that they will be prepared for success not only in an outside world professional setting, but also in a temple setting.”
Once Bhaktivedanta Academy students reach tenth grade, they will have the choice of either taking advantage of Florida’s robust dual enrollment system, and getting their high school diplomas and college credits at the nearby Santa Fe College; or, they will have the option to do the IB diploma program offered through the local Eastside High School.
Whatever their future holds, Jaya Sri Radhe hopes that Krishna Sharanam will give them a solid foundation for it.
“My dream is for children who grow up in Krishna consciousness, especially in these middle years, to identify with being a devotee of Krishna, and want to be one in the future,” she says. “I want to give them all the necessary tools, faith-building exercises, and academics expertise they need to be successful in the world while being a devotee of Krishna.”