Russians return to schools amid celebrations, promises

Ceremonial first day ignores internal decay

September 02, 2001|By Douglas Birch | By Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

OGUDNYEVO, Russia - Eighteen nervous children were lining up yesterday in front of the chalkboard at Ogudnyevo Municipal School in this village, preparing for a critical rite of passage. They had reached the tender, terrifying moment when they would become first-graders.

As their teacher instructed them on how to march outside in front of several hundred people, one wide-eyed girl clutching a spray of flowers had this question: "Where will my mother be?"

Yesterday marked the ceremonial start of the school year for children in this rural area about 30 miles northeast of Moscow, as it did for 20 million other children across Russia. As was traditional beginning in Soviet times, the occasion was celebrated as a national holiday. Though formal classes don't begin until today, school officials were handing out awards and giving speeches. Children dressed in their best clothes recited poems and presented their teachers with bouquets of yellow and white gladiolas.

But Russia's economic troubles have left the people who depend on schools like Ogudnyevo's with little to celebrate. Teacher salaries range from $24 to about $40 a month. Pupils read outdated textbooks held together with tape. And there is no money to repair the school building, a two-story brick structure that appears to date to the 1960s but has cracked tile floors, crumbling concrete and a nest of pigeons in the attic.

Across Russia, schools were among the institutions hardest hit by the economic crisis of the late 1990s, and they appear to be among the last to benefit from the rebound.

"Of course we complain that we don't have money," said Svetlana Zhemyova, the school's principal, wearing a formal black dress for the occasion. "But when we enter the classroom, we forget all about money. People whose hearts are not in the school, they left a long time ago."

To try to halt the decay of Russia's schools, President Vladimir V. Putin proposed doubling teacher salaries yesterday and raising spending on education by 60 percent over the next year. He said that the budget, if adopted, would mark the first time that Russia's combined federal and local spending on education would exceed spending on the military.

It's a popular plan even though no one seems sure how to pay for the improvements. "A teacher reduced to being a beggar is the shame of the nation," Yegor Stroyev, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, told reporters last week.

Zhemyova, the principal here, said a doubling of salaries would help her staff make ends meet. Like many rural Russians, they rely on vegetable gardens to help put food on the table. "We are all farmers as well as teachers," she said.

Another urgent task is repair of the dilapidated building. "I would buy new furniture and fix the toilets," Zhemyova said. "When we took the children to the Kremlin, they were shocked by the beauty of the toilets. They asked why they didn't have them." But she knows that the government's plan is so far just a proposal: "Everything depends on the financing."

Declining enrollment

Money isn't Zhemyova's only worry. Russia's low birthrate means that fewer pupils are entering the education system. There were 117,000 first-graders in Moscow in 1990; last year the number was 77,000. Officials say that the total number of children in Russian schools could drop to 13 million from the current 20 million over the next nine years.

That trend has, paradoxically, led to crowding in Ogudnyevo, a village set in a pine-and-birch forest northeast of Moscow. Residents have a bus stop, a collective farm, a chain-link fence factory, a few apartment blocks and not much else. But it is the largest settlement in the area, and the school serves pupils from 11 other villages. As neighboring schools have closed, they've sent their few remaining pupils here. Built for 280, the school squeezes in 308.

By law, the government is supposed to supply rural schools with school buses, but that hasn't happened in Ogudnyevo. So some commuting pupils must take municipal buses. None lives farther than about six miles away, but some have to transfer buses at least once - a practice that in winter can mean long waits in sub-zero weather.

In some ways, Ogudnyevo has been lucky. It was spared the teacher strikes that crippled other Russian schools after the 1998 economic crisis - because teachers here continued to get paid. Some rural schools report that they have only half the required staff. But Zhemyova has managed to hold on to most of her teachers, mostly because of their sheer dedication.

They are proud of what they've been able to accomplish despite the hardships. Last year, two Ogudnyevo graduates won highly competitive government scholarships to Moscow universities. "The most important thing is to be a professional," said Lydia Bogdonova, who has been teaching first grade for 17 years.

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