A School for Democracy in Slovyansk

In April the Schools for Democracy Programme was presented in all of the 32 participating schools in Ukraine. Over 60 workshops were carried out by the Network of National trainers at schools, gathering teachers, students, parents and local community for joint discussions. The working groups have explored current situation at schools and looked into the ways how to make the school governance, teaching and learning process and cooperation with the local community more democratic. Khrystyna Chushak, National Coordinator of the Programme in Ukraine, visited one of the schools and writes about her impressions:

A democratic school in Slovyansk 

Late spring in Slovyansk, Donetsk region, looks attractive. There is a lot of green trees in town, parks and flowerbeds blossom. The local inhabitants enjoy spending time outside, children run around in the silent squares. Our volunteer guide from the local youth center “Teplytsya” (“Greenhouse”) takes us to the comfortable and lively town library. In one corner of the room librarians are preparing for a meeting with children, where they will speak about the history of the town. In the other volunteers are making camouflage nets. Some visitors of different ages sit in the reading hall looking through newspapers. Then we go to the “Mriya” (“Dream”) square, where we meet one of the activists campaigning for its revival. This square has arisen on the spontaneous garbage dump in town. Now there is a playground for children and a sports area here, benches are gradually repaired. All of this happens thanks to the enthusiasm and the generosity of the local people.

Nevertheless, we, “coming from the outside”, cannot fully enjoy the peaceful life of the town after we hear the phrase “This was before the war”, often casually repeated by the local inhabitant while telling about the recent history of their town.

School visit

We came here to visit one of the twenty schools in town, Slovyansk secondary school № 13 which has joined the first cycle of the National Programme in Education for Democratic Citizenship “Schools for Democracy”. This Programme has been launched in Ukraine by the European Wergeland Centre and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway. The Programmes’ National Network of trainers will work with 32 schools from all over Ukraine in 2016-2017, including three schools from Donetsk region.

The first day of the school workshop included a presentation of the Programme for the entire teachers staff. The teachers asked what this Programme will change in the life of their school. The answer was obvious: the Programme itself will not change anything at school, it will rather aim at changing the mindset of the key stakeholders at school. Both teachers, students, parents and local community are the vehicles of changes bottom up, without waiting for the laws or instructions from above. Participants of the meeting learned the key ideas of the EDC/HRE. After that they compiled a detailed vision of the democratic school based on the EDC/HRE principles and approaches.

When discussing possible democratic changes in small groups, participants raised the issue of coming late for classes. The teachers asked if this problem could be solved and if they could ask their director about it. Afterwards, sitting back in the big hall altogether, they were more confident and brave enough to come up with this suggestion in front of the entire school audience. It turned out that many of their colleagues were concerned about this issue as well. Even if this problem cannot be solved right away, and rather requires involvement of all the stakeholders in the discussions, but the first step is already taken.

Main Goal

School director Anatoliy Pohoryelov says that the main goal of the school in this Programme is “to develop a real democracy at school, not a rhetoric one”. Mr Pohoryelov teaches World Literature. He creates the atmosphere of openness in class, gives space for discussions and suggestions, communicates with his students as with his equals. He follows the same approach as a school adminsitrator too.

When 5 years ago he was appointed a director at the school № 13, it was considered to be one of the worst in town. The school was the leader in Slovyansk by juvenile delinquency. Mr Pohoryelov remembers the teachers coming to his office with the students who had problems with discipline at first, hoping that the director would shout at them and show how wrong they were. “They were wondering why I was not shouting. And I was just talking with them”. These elements of a democratic treatment of students, respect to their dignity gave results. Now the school enjoys a good reputation and status, children from all over the town come to learn here.

The school builds multifaceted and intensive links with the community and representatives of the local community in general. Oleksandr Pohoryelov believes that openness brings only positive things to school. He underlines that thanks to the school’s readiness for cooperation and its hospitality it succeeded in implementing several good initiatives, including cooperation with the UNICEF. Both teachers and students are actively involved in the community initiatives in Slovyansk. 

Student initiatives

This atmosphere of active participation and openness has influenced the students. They started to come up with their own initiatives. Revival of the student self-governance is taking place indeed bottom up at school, initiated by the students themselves. This will become the focus of the school activities next year, and this is a priority shared by both teachers and students. Ivan Korzhov, Deputy Director of the school for the extracurricular activities, underlined that it is very important to establish a working student self-governance which could make decisions and bear responsibility for their implementation. 
Students took an active part in the workshop with the Programme presentation. 10th grade student Serhiy told us that it was interesting to work with teachers in the same team as equals. He was a bit uneasy in the beginning, but soon he realized that his adult team colleagues listened to his ideas and appreciated them. This inspired Serhiy a lot. His classmate Liza told us that during the training she happened to join the team of teachers whom she did not know quite well. Soon it tuned out that one may successfully cooperate on equal terms with other people who you do not even know from before.

During the two day workshop both school administration, teachers and representatives of the local authorities maintained that the school № 13 has to become a launching pad for positive changes in the work with youth in town in general. Nadiya Chyrykova, representative of the local department of education, underlined that one of the pressing needs in Slovyansk is to strengthen civil society, and to succeed in this task, one has to “educate the new generation of citizens who as adults will be aware of their rights to say “yes” or “no” in the life choice situations, or just to express their own opinion, thus changing the world for the better”.

Despite this generally positive attitude, the school teachers realize that such approaches are not shared by all in town. “Some school directors will find it difficult to give up the authoritarian style of school management, so the school self-governance bodies that asks questions and does not obey the school director, will not be very welcome», believes Ivan Korzhov.

After we have arrived back home, we could not stop thinking about the active and persistent inhabitants of Slovyansk, about the interesting and useful initiatives intensively developing in the town captured by the war just two years ago. It is very important that these changes do not leave the local schools aside. We hope that the future success of the school №13 will be a bright example for others proving that democracy at school is possible. And it is not a chaos or a threat, as some educators fear, but on the contrary a possibility for growth and development.

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