Let us consider an impressive list of women professionals from all spheres of work in Sri Lanka:The current sixth citizen of the country, the first woman Public Trustee of Sri Lanka – Attorney Tharangani Keenawinna Dissanayake;  the first woman president of the Institute of Engineers of Sri Lanka – Eng. Lanka Hathurusinghe; the first woman [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Many an outstanding woman stepped out from her gates

Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya marks a 64-year journey

Students engaged in handwork activities. Pic by Amila Gamage

Let us consider an impressive list of women professionals from all spheres of work in Sri Lanka:The current sixth citizen of the country, the first woman Public Trustee of Sri Lanka – Attorney Tharangani Keenawinna Dissanayake;  the first woman president of the Institute of Engineers of Sri Lanka – Eng. Lanka Hathurusinghe; the first woman electrical  engineer of the country – Eng. Sumithra Munasinghe; the first woman maintenance engineer and electrical superintendant – Eng. Chitra Boteju;  the first woman Deputy Chairman of the Central Bank – Dr. Rani Jayamaha; the first woman Director of the Department of Archives – Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe;  the first woman professor of psychiatry – Prof. Samudra Kaththriarachchi;  the first woman Director of the  Commonwealth Youth Programme  (who served the Asian region) & first woman administrative officer of the Defence Ministry – Seela Narangoda Ebert; the current Chief Epidemiologist of the country – Dr. Paba Palihawadana,  the present Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka – Dr. Deepika Udagama and many more highflyers (with sincere apologies to all those wonderful ladies whose names were  not mentioned here due to restricted word limit of the article)………the common link among all these energetic, efficient women is Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya, Colombo 8.

This is no surprise….they simply embody the vision of the school that reads as “To enrich the mind, body and spirit of all and to develop a community of lifelong learners”  and with the mission “To provide a safe and collaborative environment where students develop positive self concepts, empathy, respect and decision making skills; To inspire students to make quality performances, incorporating technology and the arts which empower them to contribute positively within the global society”.

Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya, the government girls’ school with a longstanding reputation for academic brilliance, celebrates its 64th anniversary this month.   Devi, as the school is popularly known, had her humble beginnings on January 15, 1953 when the then Ministry of Education set up a school for a small group of gifted upper secondary students in Model Farm Road in Borella.  Dr. Wimala de Silva was appointed the first principal of the school, who, it is said, handpicked a group of excellent teachers for the school.

Past students remember with gratitude the exceptional education they received at  Devi Balika.  “It was a complete and hands-on education we had at Devi. We not only studied, we also developed our aesthetic and creative sides, and our social consciousness,” says an old girl who studied in the early 1960s.

First principal: Dr. Wimala de Silva and below present principal: Pradeepa Samarasinghe

At the beginning, there were only two classes, one for O/Level students and one for A/Level science stream students, housed in the small, modest building of the school in Model Farm Road, with the most basic of physical resources. But there were outstanding teachers like Jezima Ismail and Kamini Meedeniya, and very quickly, the school became known for its brilliant academic achievements, with a disproportionately large number of students getting top results and university entrance since the 1950s, achievements that remain the same even today.

As a government school, Devi Balika has been nurtured by a succession of outstanding principals. The first principal Dr. Wimala de Silva was a much respected educationist and feminist in the country who went on to become the Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.  Mrs Kalyani de Zoysa, the longest serving principal, who took over from Dr. de Silva in 1967, continued the tradition until her retirement in 1985.  Subsequently Mrs Jayanthi Pinnagoda, Mrs Kalyani Lakshman, and the current principal Mrs Pradeepa Samarasinghe who has been serving since September 2009, and others have continued to develop the school in many ways, contributing to its excellent standing today.

The school until the early 1980s had only a maths and science stream, but now boasts of Advanced level commerce, arts, IT and Technology streams, catering to scholarship winners who enter the school at grade six, as well as outstanding students with good O/Level results.  The school continues to attract students from all over the country from diverse economic and social backgrounds.

The current principal, Mrs Pradeepa Samarasinghe, continues to develop the human and physical resources of the school to ensure a holistic education for the students. She recalls the contributions of the outstanding principals of previous years:  “Mrs Wimala de Silva set up a school for upper secondary students geared for excellence.  It was during Mrs Kalyani de Zoysa’s time that the Grade Six classes began, giving an opportunity for grade five scholarship winners to enter the school. This was in 1976. It was Mrs De Zoysa who also began the A/Level arts stream in 1980 and the opening of much needed new classrooms in the late 1970s.  Mrs Jayanthi Pinnagoda, who became principal after Mrs De Zoysa in 1988 saw an increase in student numbers when the school became a National school,” said Mrs Samarasinghe.

“Mrs Pinnagoda ensured the development of physical resources for the school, and also successfully organised the old girls’ association which went on to support many school development projects. Thus, Mrs Pinnagoda’s successor, Mrs Kalyani Lakshman, was able to open the new auditorium during her tenure, as well as the multistorey library building.  A long felt need to provide accommodation to bright students who enter the school from outstation was also fulfilled during Mrs Lakshman’s time, when the ‘Sarana’ hostel was opened,” continued Mrs Samarasinghe.

The current principal sees the continuing development of the teachers of the school as one of her main duties.  “I am determined to prevent a purely subject-centred and examination-centred system of education, and to provide students with the freedom to go beyond the textbook towards the arts, sports and the IT skills needed for today’s world, in a positive environment,” says Mrs Samarasinghe.

During her tenure, Mrs Samarasinghe has been able to bring about  significant physical developments in the school. Old girls entering the school now marvel at the many multi-storey buildings and the landscaped gardens, a far cry from the low, single-storey half walled classrooms of the past. The old school hall building does not exist. Instead, the familiar maara tree, which sheltered three generations of schoolgirls during their interval games, gossip and camaraderie, now overlooks a vast expanse of manicured lawn.

The achievements of the students, however, are a constant. In 2012, the best performers in the country at A Level arts, commerce and IT were all Devians. In the 2016 A levels, 100% of the languages and arts stream, 99% of the IT stream, 96% of the commerce stream, and 89% of the science stream, commerce stream, of AL students have qualified to enter university. The 2016 island second place for biosystems technology, the island 5th place for bio science, and the island 10th place for all streams were from Devi.

But the achievements are not limited to the academic, and the extra curricular activities of the students contradict the old assumption that Devi Balika girls are nerdy bookworms. Last year, Devi became one of the four finalists of the hotly contested inter school Shakespeare contest organised by the YMBA with their performance of ‘As You Like It’.  The best woman rifle shooter is a Devian, and the school has won a slew of awards for sports, art, music, and dance. Girl Guides and cadeting groups also win regular prizes.

Today, high achieving past students of Devi Balika serve in leading positions in education and academia, medicine, law, engineering, all the sciences, public administration, in the NGO and the corporate sector etc. etc.. Overseas, too, Devians continue to flourish, with active OGAs in London and in Melbourne that also strongly support the school.

In its 64th year, the school’s hopes for the future are voiced by her Principal. “I believe in collaborating with other schools, educational institutes, and foreign missions, to develop the school,” says Mrs Samarasinghe.  A four-storey building for aesthetic studies is being constructed.  Plans are under way to expand and develop the school hostel, and to build their very own swimming pool.  “Ultimately, the school’s aim is to nurture educated, cultured and knowledgeable young women who will contribute positively to society, the country and the world at large,” she concludes.

Devi Balika: Humble beginnings

(The writer is Head, Department of English, University of Kelaniya)

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