SECMOL

overall rating:

3

planets

Michaela Cooney
3/20/2022
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I first learned about this school listening to a National Geographic Overheard podcast episode on ice stupas (large piles of ice that help to keep farms irrigated year round) and the students from a Ladakhi school, led by their headmaster Sonam Wangchuk, that created them in the first place. The deeper I dug into the structure and goals of the school and the organization behind it, the more intrigued I became. From everything that I’ve read, I’ve become more and more impressed with the work that they do and I'm excited to highlight it!

What it's made of:

3

As the organization stands now, SECMOL is first and foremost a school. It was founded to fix the stark educational gaps in the local community of Ladakh. In the 90s, the local schools held classes in Urdu up until 8th grade and then switched to English for 9th and 10th grade, but class was never held in Ladakhi. All the textbooks were in a different language, with photos of coconut trees and other marks of a foreign culture that the students had never seen before and couldn’t relate to. 95% of students would fail their final 10th grade exams because they were all in English, a language students could never fully master, and never made it into any sort of higher education. So the SECMOL Alternative Institute was built to give those students the education they should have received in the local school system. 

The school also promotes eco-friendly living. The entire campus is powered mostly by solar energy. They teach their students how to build and maintain it, and the benefits it brings them. They utilize solar electricity, solar pumps to pump water, solar cookers and both low-tech and commercial water heaters. Their website is chalk-full of photos and descriptions of exactly what they use, and how you can too. They explain why hydro and wind energy are not viable energy sources for them but they are experimenting with biogas and biomass cooking. They discuss their passive solar heating, the building of buildings that absorb heat from the sun and store it. They don’t emit any CO2, burn firewood or gas, or run electric heaters. They only use thermal mass (earthen walls and floors), natural insulation, and the sun. They also produce as much of their food on the property as possible and the students do all the work. They have organic gardens, trees, and greenhouses where there was once just a barren plateau and they never use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. They have composting toilets and cows that create all the manure they need. They use all their water, greywater or otherwise. The students run it all, giving them life-long skills and enhances their problem solving abilities. It isn’t a big operation and there are also local programs that SECMOL runs to give these same tools to other local students, and short courses in solar design, natural building and other topics that they offer to anyone.  

A big part of SECMOL’s work also included a program called Operation New Hope, where work was done to overhaul the education system in these government run schools. This work officially ended in 2007 and focus was turned more directly onto the alternative institute and their youth programs.

How it's made:

3

In terms of Operation New Hope, SECMOL created Village Education Committees (VECs) to make parents and students aware of their rights and to get them a voice to change the school system for the better. They also worked to create better textbooks that the Ladakhi students could connect with and trained teachers to engage with their students more effectively. Even the government teachers sent to Ladakh had been suffering from disaffection and various solutions were created to bring their interests back to life. Eventually, ONH training was taken over by the Education Department and the District Institute of Educational Training (DIET) and they continue to run teacher training courses to hundreds of teachers. ONH also took teachers to other areas across India to see what successful education could look like and give them inspiration. 

ONH put the local teachers, SECMOL staff and experts to work on eleven textbooks and four supplementary bilingual Ladakhi/English storybooks. The books produced under ONH have simpler English than the previous textbooks, though are not entirely in Ladakhi for some political reasons that could not be worked around. And they also have familiar images and faces that they could relate to to help them better understand this foreign language. Today, over ⅔ of the students pass their final exam and go on to higher learning. ONH direct school reform ended in 2007 as accusations were made against the organization and its founder Sonam Wangchuk by a local government official. They give a lengthy description of the incident on their website, complete with a way to contact them to request any related documents, and claim no wrong-doing on their part. The issue went to court and in 2013 the case was resolved and Wangchuk was acquitted of all charges. They explain though that because of this, they had no choice but to pull out. They admit that this is not ideal and that more still needs to be done in the government schools. 

SECMOL Alternative Institute on the other hand is entirely student-run. They grow their own food, milk the cows, and they work together to solve problems, particularly those affecting local livelihoods. They came up with the concept of the ice stupa, which has taken Ladakh by storm. Due to the effects of climate change in recent years, the glaciers whose runoff used to be the water source for the local farms is no more than a trickle in the summer. So the students, with the help of founder Sonam Wangchuk, created ice stupa, ice mounds that, because of their shape and height, release enough water all summer long to keep the field irrigated through the growing season. Listen to National Geographic’s Overheard episode on the ice stupas to learn more!

Who makes it:

3

SECMOL was founded by Sonam Wangchuk, who is a mechanical engineer by background, but has spent much of his working life pushing for education reform. He founded the school in 1988 for Ladakhi kids who were failing in traditional school. Due to the legal issues of 2007, he stepped away from the organization full time but he is still president of the board and actively engaged with the programming and the steps that the organization has taken since. He now works at Himalayan Institute for Alternatives, Ladakh, where their state admission is to “develop the dock into a benchmark for sustainable economic living for the mountain world, where all children receive a meaningful education that prepares them for a life of dignity in harmony with nature”.

Most of the current teachers are local community members as they can connect better on a cultural and linguistic level. They teach both practical stuff, like farming techniques and equipment management, as well as English, math, science, and social studies. They also take volunteers, preferably those with sport coaching experience. SEMCOL has a board and their funding comes from donations and partnerships. 

SEMCOL is still quite small and much of its programming is only open to a select few Ladakhi students, but they hope to create more programming in the future and return to the local schools.