for ISKCON News on Feb. 18, 2012
Bright, smiling children in colorful kurta tops run and sport in their playground at the TKG Academy, nestled in a pecan grove one block from ISKCON Dallas’ Kalachandji’s Palace, temple and restaurant, and four residential streets full of devotees. The school is still small, with just sixteen students. But with a strong academic and spiritual program, highly-trained teachers, and a history of successful alumni, it’s an idyllic location for these children to thrive.
The truth should be a soothing balm to the hearts of those who still hold negative notions of the school, equating it with the former Dallas Gurukula (literally, “house of the teacher”) of the 1970s.
The school was originally established back in 1972 by ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada, who intended it to be a loving, consistent and peaceful environment where children would develop an honorable character and a love for service to God, and become responsible successful citizens of the world we live in.
Unfortunately, from 1972 until 1978, when it was closed down, children at the school—which was the only Gurukula in ISKCON at the time—were the victims of an immature society with few safeguards and were subjected to heavy physical and emotional abuse from untrained and ill-equipped teachers.
In 1980, however, the school was reopened in a new location by the late ISKCON guru Tamal Krishna Goswami, who established policies to prevent further abuse and nurtured ISKCON Dallas as a family community, encouraging his many disciples there to make caring for their children their top priority above any other service.
New principal Dhrista Dasa raised awareness for student safety by inviting the World Health Organization to make presentations at the school. During his term, there was only one case of abuse, for which the abuser was prosecuted and spent thirteen years in prison.
In 1987, Jayanti Dasi became the principal, ushering in another new era. The problematic ashram (boarding school) was closed and the school continued as a day school. Jayanti launched a screening process for teachers, increased awareness of safety principles, introduced teacher training and development programs, and revised the curriculum for all levels.
In 2001, the school was incorporated as a legal private school with a new name, TKG Academy. It has now been successfully abuse-free for the past twenty-five years—ever since the arrival of Jayanti Dasi, who remains the principal.
Today, TKG Academy continues to increase its levels of professionalism and childcare. It’s now one of the top two ISKCON schools in North America, along with trailblazer Bhaktivedanta Academy in Alachua, Florida, whose standards the Dallas school is attempting to incorporate.
“This year, we’re really focusing on growing from a small, homegrown school into a more professional, 21st century one,” says Gopi Gita Dasi, an alumni of several different North American gurukulas herself and a teacher at TKG Academy for the past five years. “We’re establishing a school board, starting a fundraising plan, introducing new policies for better parent/teacher communication, increasing the quality of education, and only employing fully accredited teachers.”
Like the Bhaktivedanta Academy, the TKG Academy employs the Montessori model for their younger students from Kindergarten through first grade. And for their older students, from second to eigth grades, they utilize a project-based, thematic kind of learning rather than the old-school model of simply sitting at a desk and reading from a book.
It’s an approach that’s being pushed throughout schools in Texas at present, but at the TKG Academy, there’s a difference: the integration of Krishna consciousness.
“We start our day with a sadhana, or spiritual practices, class, where students learn Vaishnava songs and prayers, chant the Hare Krishna mantra on their beads, and learn verses from the Bhagavad-gita,” Gopi Gita says. “We also have a temple room with Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities that they worship every morning. And on Fridays, we have a special hour-and-a-half program where students bathe and dress the Deities themselves, offer arati, lead kirtan, and take turns giving talks on the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.”
The children then go into their academic classes, where they continue to learn through Krishna conscious themes.
In the story of Govardhana puja from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, for example, the demigod Indra, who controls the weather, sends stormclouds to rain upon the fire sacrifice where Lord Krishna’s father Nanda Maharaja is worshipping the hill Govardhana instead of him. Teachers use this story as a framework for teaching students about the weather, clouds, and principles such as precipitation and condensation, as well as about land formations and mountains.
Upper Elementary teacher Melissa Flores, meanwhile, uses the story of Srila Prabhupada’s journey to the US on the ship the Jaladuta to teach temperatures and cities—students chart the route he took, as well as the temperatures in Delhi, where he left India, and Boston, where he arrived in America.
In learning environmental studies and how to be conscious of the earth, students discuss the story of Krishna’s avatar Lord Varaha, and how he protected the Earth planet when it was under attack.
Some projects are not directly connected to Krishna consciousness, but to other important character-building themes—for instance, students learned mathematical principles through helping to build a wheelchair ramp for their school.
“The projects help children to see how all the academic subjects they’re learning have a purpose, and they get excited about it, rather than thinking, ‘Oh no, I have to do my work again!” says Gopi Gita. “It also helps to eliminate discipline problems, because the kids are so well engaged and engrossed in their work that they don’t have a need to act out—an essential Montessori principle.”
In addition, the small student to teacher ratio—1/10—allows teachers to work individually with each child, and to be attentive with their particular learning styles, interests and needs. This motivates the children and instills in them a love for learning and aspiration for academic excellence.
As well as its regular academic program, TKG Academy also features a thriving Sunday School, now attended by forty-five children, and growing. The three classes—ages 3 to 5, 6 to 9, and 10 and up—are taught by Director Rasakeli Dasi and others. Children learn Bhagavad-gita verses and songs, and do hands-on activities such as discussing the verses they learn, coloring, arts and crafts, and acting out pastimes. They also get involved in temple activities such as cooking, making Deity garlands, sewing, woodworking and other services.
“One week, the Sunday School students made a model for the new parking lot being built at the temple,” Gopi Gita says. “Another week, they made all the decorated flags and labels for the Govardhana Hill at the temple’s Govardhana Puja festival.”
The Krishna conscious education and temple involvement, and the solid academic program at TKG Academy has, for the past twenty-five years, yielded alumni that truly embody Srila Prabhupada’s real dream for the Dallas Gurukula: youth brought up in a caring, loving atmosphere who remain excited about Krishna consciousness and helping ISKCON, while also being upstanding citizens successful in their college studies or chosen careers.
“That’s something that really stood out to me about the Dallas alumni when I moved here,” says Gopi Gita. “It’s a gift the school has really contributed to the community. ”
Plans are now underway to expand TKG Academy in a major way. The short term focus is building awareness of the school around ISKCON through blogs, newsletters, and a brand new website at www.tkgacademy.com.
The mid-term plan is to increase the school’s enrollment to its current full capacity of fifty students.
Finally, there’s a long-term, five-year plan to build a new school building, with larger classrooms, a front office, a wheelchair ramp and more. Blueprints and architectural designs are already completed, and fundraising is the next step.
“I’m really hoping that as we work with Bhaktivedanta Academy in Alachua, and as TKG Academy here in Dallas grows, the word will get out around ISKCON that there are successful gurukulas that are working hard to provide a quality spiritual and material education,” says Gopi Gita. “And as interest grows, I hope that there will be more support from the GBC and other organizations for these kinds of initiatives, and that eventually we will have a high quality standardized program, like Montessori has, for Gurukulas.”
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