Just down the hill from the Sri Sri Radha Vrindabanchandra Mandir, in a simple wooden building under the shade of tall, leafy oaks and maples, lies the key to New Vrindaban’s (West Virginia, USA) future.
Four children are currently taught in the brightly painted aqua classroom of Gopal’s Garden, a homeschool co-op established in 2007.
That may not be many, but it doesn’t make Gopal’s Garden any less important to New Vrindaban’s families, or to the very foundations of the community.
Ruci Dasi knows this – which is why she has stuck with the school throughout all the community’s ups and downs.
“My husband and I moved to New Vrindaban in 1976 to put our own children in the school here,” she says. “At the time, my daughter was one year old, and my son was two and a half.”
Now, 38 years later, they’re adults with children of their own. And the New Vrindaban school, then called Nandagram, has gone from having separate classrooms for boys and girls in the 1970s, to being the largest gurukula in the world with 110 children in the 1980s, to turning from an ashram into a day school in the 1990s, to closing down in 1999.
But Ruci, steady as a rock, has continued to teach children at New Vrindaban through it all.
Today, she’s the tutor at Gopal’s Garden, a homeschool co-op established by parents seven years ago and named after the school at Radhanath Swami’s ISKCON center in Chowpatty, Mumbai.
“The way a homeschool co-op works is the parents participate in and are responsible for the education of their children,” Ruci says. “They hire me to tutor their kids four days a week, and on the fifth day, they’re at home.”
Parents write a letter of intent to the local Board of Education, saying they intend to homeschool their child, at the beginning of every year. And at the end of the year they send a portfolio of their child’s work to a West Virginia teacher who evaluates it and decides whether they’re ready to move on to the next grade.
They always move on. Ruci, who has taken some university courses on education but learned most of what she knows about teaching on the job, creates her own curriculum that pays special attention to each child.
“It’s very individualized, because I have four kids, all of different ages: a six-year-old, an eight-year-old, an eleven-year-old, and a twelve-year-old,” she says. “If a child needs to be challenged beyond their grade level, you don’t have to keep them there. And if they need a little extra help, or time learning something, they can have that time.
Another benefit to Ruci’s teaching style is that all the children are taught in one classroom, and do some projects as a group. That way, the younger children benefit from learning from the older ones, and the older children benefit from helping the younger ones.
The curriculum itself is a balanced blend of Krishna consciousness and essential academics. The children begin their day at 9:30am with chanting and learning Bhagavad-gita verses — they now know around twenty by heart.
“We usually spend a week or two on a verse, and they write their understandings of it,” Ruci says. “They also keep a small 3” x 5” verse book, and every time we do a new verse, I print it out and they put it in and decorate it. Those books are really special to them.”
The rest of the morning is devoted to reading and writing. Students read books including classics, Krishna conscious works and Newberry Award Winners, learn to understand different literary components of stories, and write for at least one hour every day.
“I think it’s important for them to have a love of reading, and to be able to express themselves and to communicate well,” Ruci says.
On festival days and Ekadasis, the whole morning is given to Krishna conscious reading and writing. Children write poetry about the relevant sacred personality, or retell the story from a specific character’s perspective.
After lunch, they learn math, science, geography and history. Often the children help pick out a topic that fascinates them, and Ruci teaches it to them in a fun way. Most recently in geography and history they’ve studied Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Antarctica, and early America.
“They do a lot of maps, and right now they’re working on a large chart comparing all the thirteen colonies,” says Ruci. “When it’s hands-on, they remember things better.”
Ruci also weaves Krishna consciousness into these subjects, for example using early European explorers and their mistreatment of indigenous people to illustrate points about greed.
“I have two new students from the Philippines who are just being introduced to Krishna consciousness for the first time,” she says. “Kids are just naturally attracted!”
Adding more variety to the school, various local devotees sometimes teach other subjects. Ruci’s husband Sankirtan teaches poetry and literature; Kripamaya teaches how to play the keyboard and read music; and his wife Krishna Bhava teaches art, a major highlight for the kids.
Meanwhile, as it’s a co-op, parents are involved too, and participate as much or as little as they want to. One teaches Sanskrit, one oversees recess, and one volunteers to do the accounting.
“It’s more like a family, really,” says Ruci.
This family bond remains for years. Ruci often receives feedback from early students who never forgot what her teaching brought to their lives. Most graduated from college, are now married with their own families, and have successful careers as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and artists.
“I loved how everything was made real and hands on for us to show the usefulness of what we were learning in our everyday lives,” Varsha Graves wrote to Ruci. “One thing I really loved was having to do journal writing before class. That lead me to my major in college of creative writing and had a very positive impact on me.”
“The New Vrindaban school gave us such a good structure and foundation in all academic subjects and in morality and spiritual education as well,” wrote Darla Gere.
And Bhagavan Bauer wrote, “One of the biggest differences in the school we were raised in compared to public school was the personal attention given to us.”
Meanwhile a more recent Gopal’s Garden student who is now in the local public high school commented that although she’s in all Advanced Placement classes, the work there is too easy. She was more challenged, she says, by her classes at the co-op.
New families moving to New Vrindaban will be able to give their children the same experience. With several as-yet-unused classrooms, the co-op has room to grow, and New Vrindaban has other veteran teachers like Lilasuka Dasi who are ready to jump on board if needed.
“The co-op is an integral part of New Vrindaban , and the community managers realize that,” says Ruci. “We have their support, we have funding, we have a great facility. The only thing that’s stopping us from growing at this point is more devotees moving here with their families.”
Until that happens, Ruci sees Gopal’s Garden as realizing two of Srila Prabhupada’s primary objectives for New Vrindaban — Spiritual Education and Loving Krishna — and will remain just as enthusiastic no matter how many students she has.
“I feel that the school is fulfilling a need that’s very important in the community, and wherever it is now is where it’s meant to be,” she says. “And I’m convinced that just by keeping it going and doing the best job I can, Krishna willing, it will grow.”
“I’ve been doing this for over thirty years,” she assures us. “I’m not going anywhere.”
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