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Sikh school's plans to grow spark debate

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    Community split over balance between isolation and preservation of culture


    At the age of 11, Ontario's only Sikh school is getting ready for a growth spurt. The Khalsa Community School in Mississaugahas acquired five hectares of land in Brampton and is drawing up plans to extend its program through high school.

    There is excitement among staff and students about the project, but 11-year-old Herleen Gill sits alone, sullen.

    A Grade 7 pupil, she's flipping through a brochure. "It's not fair," she fumes. "This will take a few years but I have to go to a [public] high school soon."

    Herleen, 11, has been going to the school since kindergarten and it's a family away from home. She says she's afraid to go to a public school.

    Her predicament points to a debate in the community about the Khalsa School and the balance between isolation and preservation of culture.

    The school offers a means of holding on to tradition, yet some believe this leads to isolation for pupils.

    The alternative, integration, could mean a consequent loss of distinctiveness.

    Some say it's a no-win situation.

    Herleen is standing outside the entrance of the school, which is located on the grounds of the Malton gurdwara (Sikh temple).

    A Nishan Sahib (a saffron triangular flag symbolizing sovereignty) flutters from a flag post. A few metres away, a group of women, their heads covered with scarves, make their way to the temple. They are followed by men with long beards and turbans in various colours.

    At the school, too, students and teachers have their heads covered by a turban or patka (handkerchief). Girls wear scarves.

    Strains of religious hymns, called kirtan, waft from the temple.

    "We offer Sikh families a choice," vice-principal Harman Ahluwalia explains.

    The school follows the Ontario school curriculum along with lessons on Sikh theology. "People have different priorities -- we give them a chance to exercise their choice," Ms. Ahluwalia says.

    The Sikh community in the Greater Toronto Area is exercising that option. Started in 1995, the Khalsa School has grown from 68 pupils to more than 400.

    Besides kirtan and theology lessons, students are taught Punjabi and about Sikh heritage.

    Roma Kaur, editor of Toronto's Kaur magazine, which targets Sikh women, says the Sikh population in the GTA, now 150,000, is growing and that the Sikh high school is coming at the right time. "The school's doing a good job of preserving the Sikh heritage, but it is time to upgrade it. I know there's been a demand for it."

    She says the Khalsa School has made a difference to pupils. Some of them agree, saying the distinct curriculum has given them a new perspective on life.

    "It's changed my entire outlook," says Grade 8 pupil Simrat Tung, who began attending the school two years ago, and recalls having been reluctant to leave public school to go there.

    "My parents were worried that I had no idea about my faith, my heritage," the bespectacled youngster says. "They wanted me to get back my moorings."

    It was not an easy transition. Simrat knew neither Punjabi nor kirtan. "It was tough, especially since I was the only one in my class learning the language from the alphabet stage," she says. But she treated it as a challenge and within a year she was reading and writing Punjabi and even taking examinations in the language.

    But more than mastering her cradle language, she's glad to be at the school because she now knows what it is to be a Sikh. "I knew I was a Sikh earlier but now I know what it means."

    Principal Ripsodhak Singh Grewal is elated to hear Simrat's assessment. "That's the idea of a Sikh-centred education," says Mr. Grewal, one of the school's founders. "Besides academics, students are given lessons about the Sikh heritage."

    In his office, a gurbani CD plays softly.

    Students start their day at assembly with hymns, recite ardas (prayer), read hukamnama from the Guru Granth Sahib, or holy book of the Sikhs, before they distribute the parshad (sweet offering).

    A few weeks ago, a religious symposium was held to mark the birthday of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth of the 10 Sikh gurus. Besides kirtan and ardas, students talked about the Guru's life and teachings.

    "It's a Sikh upbringing," Mr. Grewal says. "We give them reason to be proud of their roots."

    That's one of the reasons more and more Sikh parents are sending their children to the school, despite an annual tuition of $3,875. It decreases substantially if other siblings enroll in the school.

    "It keeps them closer to their faith and their culture," says Deepinder Gill, who has two daughters attending the school.

    "I don't have to worry that they won't know anything about Sikhism," says Mr. Gill, a Toronto software engineer who works with Nortel.

    He says his daughters, Tuvreen, 11, and Harkiran, 7, are doing well academically.

    For Manjeet Kaur, one of the benefits is that she is spared embarrassment when the family travels to India. She had struggled to teach her daughter Punjabi, but the school has brought success.

    "Imagine trying to speak to your grandparents in English -- it was a conversation that no one understood," Ms. Kaur says. "She speaks perfect Punjabi now and it's no longer embarrassing when we go to India."

    While support for the Khalsa School is strong, there are some voices of dissent in the Sikh community over a school that segregates students from their peers in other walks of life.

    Kaylene Brar, a teacher at Nahani Way Public School in Mississauga, sees children in her Grade 3 class learning about different cultures and mixing with children from all over the world. "Canada's USP [unique selling point] is its multi-ethnicity. Kids, at not just the Sikh school but other religious schools, miss out on cultural assimilation that starts at the school level."

    Born in Britain and raised in Canada, the 38-year-old teacher insists that her background has nothing to do with her ambivalence toward the school. "I'm a Sikh and my parents ensured my sister and I learned about Sikhism. But learning about your religion can't be at the cost of isolation."

    To learn more click on Khalsa Community School (


    School Bus
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