SCHOOL BEGINS: PUBLIC EDUCATION IN LUGA

September 1 is really the end of the summer in our part of Russia. One can be confident that the hot weather is gone. The temps have been consistently below 50 degrees (F) the last three weeks. Summer 2019 never really felt like summer to a South Carolinian like me anyway. We had maybe 10 days when the temps got up to 80 F (27 C) or a little above in Luga. I have enjoyed the many days we had with temps in the mid-60s to low 70s. After summers like this I’ve heard Russians say, “This summer we’ve had no summer.” I don’t think anyone in South Carolina has ever said that after any summer.

BACK TO SCHOOL. September 1 is the “Day of Knowledge” when all students go back to school in Russia. This year September 1 was on Sunday so the schools started September 2. Since I hear from a number of people who are thinking about moving to Russia but are concerned about what that would mean for their children’s education, I’ll discuss this issue in some detail.

My primary intended audiences in this blog entry are 1)those parents with school age children who are thinking of moving to Russia and want more detailed information and 2)those who simply want to know what public education is like in small town Russia. Some of what I say will be repetitive from earlier blogs, but I will add some later reflections on those earlier experiences and update what we’ve learned since the earlier posts.

My purpose is to inform, not to convince any parents what they should do. I never tell other parents how they should handle the education of their children. I don’t think anyone who knows nothing of this city, its schools and teachers, or my kids can tell me what is best for my children, so I extend the same courtesy to others. Further, the blog is based on our experience. There are many things I have not researched, e.g., what are schools like in large cities or what materials are available for English speakers who homeschool in Russia. Still, I think Luga is fairly typical of most cities this size.

As I have said, we put Gabriel in a public school because we really had no other options at that point—at least that we knew of. There are no Orthodox schools in this small town, and we did not know of any homeschooling co-ops here at the time. It was not until a year later we learned of one that meets in the church we now attend.

CAVEAT (ON OUR BACKGROUND). My wife and I had rather different experiences as part of our primary and secondary education. I went to public school in America when the emphasis was on “reading, writing, and arithmetic” (our shortened summary of basic academics), but patriotism and even religion were a part of the experience. Every morning we pledged allegiance to the flag, and then a teacher or older student would come on the PA system and read a “devotional.” Usually it was a short reading from the Bible, followed by prayer. Football games and other school activities began with a local pastor “leading in prayer.” I don’t recall that it made many of us more religious or more patriotic, but these practices were considered a part of American education in small town USA. Since then the religious and even some patriotic elements have been removed from public school classrooms.

Oksana went to public school in the USSR. The references to god or religion were usually in a disparaging manner. In addition to the traditional academic courses just like we studied in America, she was taught allegiance to country and “the Party.” As an Octobrist and then Pioneer she was taught a healthy dose of Communist ideology. I was surprised to learn from her that, contrary to what we were told in America, the Soviet students and citizens were pretty good at spotting what was party propaganda and distortions. She said they used to joke about some things they were taught as part of the propaganda. I was told Soviet citizens were gullible and believed what their government said. Turns out I was the one deceived by my government on that point.

OUR EXPERIENCE HERE. Despite not knowing the language, Gabriel adapted easily to elementary school here. The school and his teacher worked very hard to make his transition as smooth as possible. While his teacher had a reputation of being tough, she was very good at working with Gabriel, as were his classmates. There was no bullying or aggression toward him because he was American. We recently learned from another teacher that when we moved here the faculty was told an American boy who had relatives in Luga would be attending. They were asked to assist if needed.

It has become clear to us that the public school teachers and administrators in Luga believe that the parents are primary, and the school’s role is not to instruct parents on how to raise a child or covertly teach things contrary to their stated educational purposes. I recently saw a video of parents confronting a school board in Rockland County, California because the school decided to teach the elementary students about being transgender without informing the parents. One mom told of her 9 year old daughter coming home crying because she was afraid she would turn into a boy.

George Packer recently wrote a lengthy article on his experience as a parent of two children educated in public schools in New York. Packer is a self-described liberal who does not like Donald Trump at all. Yet he has experienced the impact of progressivism on public education in New York City, and he now fears it. Serious study of traditional subjects like math and science have been largely abandoned for identity based opinions. Even his son complained because he wasn’t learning math and science. Packer describes the current educational philosophy as, “I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it true.”

(https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/10/when-the-culture-war-comes-for-the-kids/596668/)

I cannot imagine these kinds of situations happening in Russia. First, Putin has stated clearly that gender identity and related issues are something that each individual decides as an adult. Second, schools try not to go beyond the authority of the parent. For example, they vaccinate children in schools in Russia. Before they do, however, the school must receive written permission from the parents. If the child forgets the parent’s note, then no vaccination is given to the student. Parents must approve before the school will act. Third, school leaders here strongly believe that academic preparation, not social awareness, is the primary role of schools.

In elementary schools the teacher stays with the same group of students until they finish elementary. That is, Gabriel had the same teacher every year in elementary school. One can choose to be with a different teacher if there is a problem, but for us this system worked out great. Gabriel loved his teacher. He also moved up with the same classmates, so he became quite comfortable socially. The biggest benefit by far was how quickly he learned the Russian language. He went from knowing only the letters and sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet to speaking Russian by Christmas. He was comfortably bi-lingual by the end of his first year.

Gabriel is now in the fifth grade, and middle school in Russia starts in grade 5. In middle school they change teachers depending on the subject. He will have the same homeroom teacher every year, and the teachers will be the same in each subject each year. For example, his math teacher will remain his math teacher through high school. Nevertheless, I could tell he was anxious about having different teachers for each subject. After a couple of days he was satisfied. He came in my office, sat down and told me about each one of his teachers. He likes all of them.

The negative side of his changing to middle school has been the dramatic increase in the degree of difficulty in the subjects from elementary to middle school. Other parents are complaining as well. Oksana had a long discussion with Gabriel’s homeroom teacher, and she said the teachers all agree this is a problem. Ironically, while many parents in the U.S. agree with George Packer that there has been a “dumbing down” of educational standards in America, many Russian parents believe the subject matter is too complicated, and the tests are too difficult here. Clearly the math and science courses here are far more complex than what a fifth grader gets in a typical public school in America. Furthermore, Gabriel’s class is taking two courses on Russian language in addition to English and German. Gabriel already speaks Russian and English, so he’s excited about studying German. For the other students, it is very difficult to be studying two foreign languages at once—in the fifth grade. The standardized tests the children must pass to graduate are very rigorous, so the curriculum is designed to be difficult.

As far as we can tell there is healthy discipline in the classroom, which I think is conducive to learning. As I mentioned, there is also a lot of communication between parents and teachers on any potential problems. I think we have received more than the normal amount of attention, but we sense good relations between teachers and other parents. Also, schools require uniform dress. Gabriel wears navy dress pants, collared shirt and either a vest or sport jacket to school as do all the other boys. Girls wear uniform dresses, no pants.

Many of my readers are Orthodox Christians, so in addition to the quality of public education they are concerned about the tension between “faith and learning” in a public school. We have not sensed that that tension is as strained here as it is in America. The topic came up in our dinner time conversations this past week. Gabriel had studied “origins” in science class. I asked him how the teacher handled it. He said the teacher basically just covered what the book said, which I gathered was the typical evolutionary approach. I pressed him a bit more. He repeated that she goes over what the book says. He continued, “But she wears a cross, and she’s already talked to us about the birth of Jesus, and we had to say what year after Christ’ birth we were born. I don’t think she agreed with the book, on evolution, but she explained it.” He told his mom, in reference to pictures showing a monkey turning into a man, “Pretty sure it’s fake news.” (Has he been listening to Donald Trump?)

He is also taking a course called, “The Basics of Morals and Virtues.” He’s just started, but it looks like the course entails a look at how morals and virtues are defined by different religions. Then they will do an overview of how those characteristics and actions impact both society and the lives of individuals in a country like Russia which has several major religions. It looks like pretty heavy stuff for a fifth grader.

So in science class they study evolution. Apparently the teacher tries to be as objective as possible, but doesn’t hide her personal views. In another class they take an objective (to whatever degree possible) look at the area of religion, morals, virtues, and how these play out in a pluralistic society. There has been “blow back” from some atheists who do not believe religion should be discussed in public schools, at least not in this manner. They have not gained much support as far as I can tell.

As a former atheist I understand their concerns. My own hunch is that they know schools are not going to undermine the Orthodox Church teachings if they can avoid it. Also, many of the teachers are Orthodox. Nevertheless, Russia was Communist and “officially” atheist for 70 years, so there is a significant number of atheists in Russia. In addition to the heavy population of Christians, there are also about 21 million Muslims, and about a million Jews. It is a difficult balance for schools I’m sure. Russia is pluralistic. If you send your child to public school, that is the atmosphere in which they will learn.

On the other hand, angry public debates are far less common in Russia than America. People are still able to discuss differences in a civil manner. I have spoken with other American expats both personally and on-line, and we talk about how public debates and discussions in Russia seem to us so respectful in contrast to America. I realize that is not the way the U.S. media presents the situation in Russia. I think reasoned discussion is something valuable for children to learn. Nonetheless, parents are the ones who decide if their children should be a part of such an environment of learning.

I’ll add a couple of other considerations. First, if a student wants to go to university here, he or she must pass additional standard tests. The public schools prepare them for these tests as best they can, but those tests are also known to be quite difficult. If one chooses homeschooling, then much consideration should be devoted to preparing their children for these tests IF they are thinking about going to university in Russia. So it is not just a matter of the students learning the language; the parents or tutors must be able to prepare them for these tests. ( As an aside, what Americans call homeschooling is called “Family Education” in Russia. The term “homeschooling” here is used for situations when a public school sends its teachers to teach a disabled child in the comfort of his or her home.)

There are practical matters that also impact the decision. Primary considerations are obviously financial resources and the job demands of the parents. If a family decides to homeschool then clearly sufficient money must be available for private tutors if the parents are not fluent in Russian, as well as for securing the textbooks needed.

My own grandchildren back in America were homeschooled until this year when my son took a position as principal in a classical Christian school. They learned so much at home! So my purpose is not to discourage anyone from homeschooling. I have profound admiration for parents like my son and his wife who diligently followed through on their convictions about homeschooling and did it well. I am simply alerting parents to as many of the ramifications as possible if they are thinking of moving to Russia. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of people here who choose “Family Education.” If possible, talk with other English speaking parents in Russia who do so. Obviously there are factors about which I am ignorant since we do not homeschool. Also, since there is no Orthodox school here I can offer no details on that option either.

To sum up, the two biggest advantages of public schools for us were that Gabriel learned the language quickly, and he developed close friendships. Since he learned to communicate so quickly, he stayed around after school to play with the other kids. Then he met other children at church and enjoyed becoming an altar boy and then playing with friends during Trapeza. In the process he has learned this culture. If we had seen red flags in what or how he was taught in the public school we would have had to do something. As of yet we have not faced such a crisis.

I realize for some readers just the phrase “public schools” has a bad ring to it. Our experience in Russia has been very different from what some of our friends in America are facing. That is not to say we’re “starry eyed” in our view of Russian life in general or public education in this city. We know there are problems, and we won’t always be happy with everything. Important choices always involve examining the costs versus the benefits. At this point we believe our son is getting a good education, and the school does not try to undermine our parental authority or demean our values.

I still believe there are good teachers and good options for education in America. I have dear friends who teach in public school there, and they take their job with utmost seriousness. Some of them have told me they believe they are making a difference in children’s lives. Nevertheless, I am retirement age, and I have never seen the U.S. Government intrude in the lives of its citizens and decisions of families to the degree I am seeing now. And powerful people seem hell-bent on shaping the education of children in the way the education establishment deems best. I also have never seen the main stream media so cooperative with those efforts.

I know how the Russian government is portrayed in the Western press, and my regular readers know why I think those portrayals are so wrong so often. People in Russia can send their children to public schools, teach them at home, or send them to private Orthodox schools. The government does not dictate what they decide. I see no evidence it intends to do so in the future.