In 1992,only about seven percent of tenth grade students in Ladakh were able to pass the national proficiency programs. Geshe Tsetan received money from the United Nations to help pay for tutoring of the children of Stok during the winter vacation period. However, Geshe-la soon realized that tutoring did not address the more basic problem—the inadequacy of the education the children received during the school year.
Geshe Tsetan shared his concern about the problems of education in Ladakh with one of his former Smith College students, Laura Kogonis, then at Harvard University. He told her of his visit to a public school in the village of Stok where he had been shocked to discover that sixth graders were unable to write their own names.
Geshe-la knew then he wanted to open a private school, but felt unable to handle all the grant applications and fundraising that would be required. Laura offered her assistance and with the help of fellow Harvard classmates, Sonya Rhie and Gray Tuttle, the board of the Siddhartha School Project (SSP) was formed.
Siddhartha School enrolled its first class of 25 children, ages 3 and 4 years of age. Although 40 acres of land had been donated by the community, nothing had yet been built. After the June 1 opening ceremony, led by dignitaries Prince Thupten Tsewang and Princess Sarla of Ladakh, classes began in a rented house in Stok. Tsewang Dorjay taught the children the English and Hindi alphabets, simple songs, and how to count to 50 in Tibetan, Hindi and English. The children quickly adjusted to the school routine.
1995 also saw the rapid growth of an infrastructure to support the fledgling school. SSP was granted nonprofit status under the umbrella of Friends of Tibetan Women’s Association (FOTWA) and the Siddhartha Cultural and Welfare Society. A Ladakhi board of prominent community members was established to guide the school’s development. It was also in 1995 that Uschi Erny, a German marketing executive, visited Ladakh and saw the school for the first time. She would become instrumental in founding a support organization in Munich and in bringing her friend, Dr. Heinz-Guenther Koke, to Stok to develop a health care program for the school.
Math teacher Tsering Dolkar joined the faculty. Seventeen new students began Nursery School. The school hired Padma Dorjay while still holding classes in the rented house, but in May 1996, construction began on three classrooms on the site which is now Siddhartha School.
Geshe-la arrived in Ladakh in June 1996 with news that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had named him abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in South India. Concerned that his new responsibilities would interfere with his leadership of the school, Geshe-la met with His Holiness on September 4 to ask whether he should take up the abbotship or continue to focus full-time on the school. His Holiness gave his full support to the school project, donating 50,000 rupees and a new thanka to the school.
Shortly thereafter, construction of the classrooms was completed, and on November 1, 1996, students and teachers moved into the new buildings. Siddhartha School parents and family members spent two days clearing away the many stones that covered the 40 acres of land the school had acquired, making possible the planting of grass and trees to beautify the children’s learning environment.
Sarah Lukas donated the school’s first computer and Sarah Noetzli trained the staff in its use.
Siddhartha School welcomed T.N. Vivek, who taught social studies for one year before going on to serve as principal. A new Nursery class was also added. With only three rooms and three classes, the school secretary Padma Dorjay, worked in an area curtained off from one of the classrooms.
A new Hindi teacher was hired and work began on two new classrooms. The school also added a second computer, a donation from Bill Kite.
The high point of 1998 was a visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who blessed the school. His Holiness also donated 50,000 rupees and a thanka. Siddhartha School was the only school in Ladakh honored by a visit from His Holiness and the villagers of Stok will remember the auspicious occasion for years to come.
The organization Building With Books came to Siddhartha School and built two new classrooms. The construction begun in 1998 was completed, bringing to four the number of classrooms completed. A wall was built around the classroom blocks and trees were planted. Two additional computers were donated by Bill Kite—one for the school and one for Geshe-la’s personal use, creating a dependable communication link between Geshe-la, the school, and the growing network of volunteers in the United States and Germany.
Three new teachers joined the faculty.