April 6, 2001
US city pages

- Atlanta
- Boston
- Chicago
- DC Area
- Houston
- Jersey Area
- Los Angeles
- New York
- SF Bay Area


- Astrology
- Broadband
- Cricket New!
- Immigration
- Indian Auctions
- Lifestyle New!
- Money
- Movies
- New To US New!
- Radio
- Wedding
- Women
- India News
- US News

- Airline Info
- Calendar New!
- E-Cards
- Free Homepages
- Mobile New
- Shopping New
- Weather

communication hub

- Rediff Chat
- Rediff Bol
- Rediff Mail
- Home Pages

Stay Updated
Subscribe to Rediff Roundup

 Search the Internet
E-Mail this report to a friend
Print this page
Recent Specials
He Chronicles the
     Silicon Raj
Internet Will Survive
     the Gloom to Bloom
An Ounce of Bronze in
     an Ocean of Snow
Wheat Complexions
     and Pink Cheeks
The Harsh Days
     of Their Lives
'Clinton says the
     people of India are
     very special to him'
A Doctor Sans
Bombay's Gateway
Stanford Holi
Real Mystic Masseur
Place Your Bets
Funniest South Asian
     in the Nation
Advocate for Aliens
The Rediff US Special/ Aseem Chhabra

A School for the Disenfranchised
Before graduating from Princeton University, Rajiv Vinnakota wondered if he should enter medical school. But being burnt out from studying molecular biology, and earning a certificate from the Wilson School in politics as well, he decided to do something different.

So he joined Mercer Management Consulting in 1993, and within three years, he was promoted three times. But he wasn't entirely happy. The "social pull" his immigrant parents, who are both educators, had instilled in him from boyhood was gnawing at him.

"If I was to stay in the for-profit world, I'd be at Mercer," he would tell the Princetonian after a few years. "It was a great learning experience. I learned so much that I can apply to the non-profit world."

At a Princeton reunion in 1994, he brought up urban policy and education with some of his classmates. He had wondered for many years about the plight of minority students in big cities -- and how after school they went back into their crime-ridden neighborhoods and fractured homes, instead of playing and studying in a motivating atmosphere.

Only if there were boarding schools for them, he thought. The safe environment of a boarding school would allow the children to learn better in a nurturing environment.

Today 29-year-old Vinnakota, who studied at one of the best universities in the world, is the president of a public charter school in Washington DC. The first chartered boarding school of its kind in America, it is called SEED (the acronym for Schools for Educational Evolution and Development).

In three years since its founding, SEED School has 40 students, 20 boys and 20 girls, enrolled each year. The amount of publicity the school has drawn has got Bill Gates interested in it.

In 1996 Vinnakota took a two-month leave of absence from Mercer and traveled the country on an exploratory mission, visiting various boarding schools. Finally, in February of 1997, he organized a two-day weekend retreat at Mercer's Washington DC office to put his vision into action.

Three things that students from disadvantaged families were missing out on were identified: strong schooling that would prepare them for college; a home that provided the simplest of necessities, such as three meals a day, a shower, clothes, and the support to ensure that homework gets done; and the values of the family and the environment.

"I always tell people, the question for me was not if I was going to college, but where I was going to go to college," Vinnakota said.

It was clear that the school project would be a major commitment, from more than one person. So Vinnakota and his friend Eric Adler -- an MBA from Wharton School and now the executive director of the SEED Foundation -- both quit their jobs. For 18 months they lived off their savings and finally in 1998 the SEED school was started.

The school is a charter institution -- an independent public school that is accountable to city regulations. It also must be a school of choice, and cannot deny a child based on their academic records, athletic abilities, race or gender.

Naturally, there are size constraints. The SEED school accepts applications and then the 40 students are picked by a federal court judge in a lottery.

"At the same time, once they come to our schools, we have standards and rules of conduct and they still have to meet those rules," Vinnakota said. "So we still have the right to kick them out if they don't meet those rules."

It is still early to say how the students have fared as compared to other children in their age group, across the country and in Washington DC. "Bear in mind, the school has been in operation for only three years," Vinnakota said. "We have seen fundamental improvement in their academic skills and also in their self-esteem. But we are not seeing the exponential academic increase that we would like to eventually see."

The children definitely are aware of their privileged position. Last summer, eight of them traveled to Greece, courtesy the US Greek ambassador.

The school was awarded $7,500 per pupil from the city's education budget. Vinnakota and his colleagues got the US Congress to pass an amendment to get more funding, since they are running a boarding school. Currently the SEED school receives approximately $18,000 per student. The families do not have to pay for their children, although they are required to commit to four hours a month of volunteer work at the school.

For the first two years the school was housed in an abandoned convent attached to the Capital Children's Museum. The school has moved to a permanent campus -- an old burnt out elementary school near the RFK Stadium. The cost to build a school and a 300-person dormitory on the campus (already half completed) is $25 million. Half the money has already been raised from private foundations and individual donors.

Vinnakota gives credit to his late grandfather and his parents for his commitment to education and the desire to give back to society. Vinnakota is named after his paternal grandfather, who died 10 days before he was born.

The senior Vinnakota was a farmer a small village in Andhra Pradesh. He earned Rs 30 a month and spent Rs 24 on the education of his six children. All of Vinnakota's aunts and uncles are now successful doctors, lawyers and professors in the US.

"It really impacted me on some level to learn about what kind of values my grandfather had, who I never met," he said. "You wonder about the soul going on to the next generation. My parents always taught me, not necessarily in words, the importance of giving and helping others."

"(Starting the SEED School) became a thing I could do. There are a lot of good management consultants out there making a lot of money. But when I looked at myself in my mid-twenties, I asked myself, 'Is this the real footprint I want to leave in life?' When I am 35 and looking back at my 20s, where do I want to be?"

Design: Dominic Xavier

Back to top

Tell us what you think of this feature