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12 March, 2011  ▪  Stanіslav Fedorchuk

Parents to the Barricades

Donetsk officials are eager to close down Ukrainian schools even if they are 95% filled with students. But parents are fighting back

Ukrainian schools have always been seen as almost exotic in Eastern Ukraine. Yet, the remaining ones are disappearing one after another under the current government. The process in Donbas looks no different from raider attacks in business. First, rumors fill the town about possible plans to close down a certain school. The parents of first- and tenth-graders panic and start looking for alternatives immediately. These are not hard to find, but Russian will most likely be the classroom language.

The first to go was a school in Krasniy Luch, Luhansk Oblast, with a capacity of 1,200 students and only 300 left, followed by Public Schools #111 and #136 in Donetsk. Of course, the arguments for closing down Ukrainian schools bear no scrutiny whatsoever.

Blame the foundation

At the end of January 2011, Public School #136 in Budionovsk District, Donetsk, which has Ukrainian-language status, was given the thumbs-down signal: the county committee had decided to shut it down. This is the second Ukrainian school in Donetsk that officials decided should disappear, although its students have good grades and the school is considered one of the most prestigious facilities in the district.

PS #136 is supposed to be transferred to a nearby Russian public school, #120, although it remains unclear whether students will still be able to have their education in Ukrainian. On February 1, the Head of the District Department of Education met with the school’s teachers to announce that the enrollment of first- and tenth-graders this year was now banned. The teachers are certain that this is being done on purpose, as the school is currently operating at 95% capacity.

Viktor Kartsev, chair of the Budionovsk District Council, claims that the main reason for closing down the school is a crack in the foundation under the gym and the lack of hot water. He says that the choice was made in favor of PS #120 because it has a swimming pool and hot running water.

“The supervisor of the District School Board told us that UAH 400,000 had been allocated from the local budget last year to repair our school,” says Svitlana Honcharuk, one of the teachers, “but the only thing they did was reinforce the foundation. The parents paid for roof repairs. We invited an independent architect to estimate the cost of the work done. He said that the foundation work could not have cost this much. And now we get these explanations that the foundation is cracking even though it’s all just about one single plate that needs to be fixed. This kind of thing doesn’t cost UAH 1mn like the Department of Education boss says.”

Mr. Kartsev agreed to meet with the parents in a discussion that lasted three hours. Mr. Kartsev insisted that streamlining was a normal process for education facilities and he supported it. Yet, this “optimization” left the parents’ committee quite unhappy. One thing that bothered them was that the school that had partly been renovated for their money could now be handed into private hands. They even offered to set up a charitable account where they could donate money to repair the school’s foundation, but Mr. Kartsev was not impressed.

A never-ending battle

In the late 1960’s, all Ukrainian schools were closed in Donetsk. Later, students only had to learn Ukrainian on a voluntary basis. As a result, the Ukrainian language lost its prestige, not only in the city of Donetsk; it virtually disappeared from secondary education altogether in the region. In 1990, Leonid Hromoviy opened the first Ukrainian school, #65, in Donetsk, after Andrei Sakharov, the famed academic and human rights activist, raised this issue at the Council of the USSR People’s Deputies. Today’s russifiying officials are not ashamed to repeat the practices of their “great predecessors.” They simply replace the catchphrase “friendship of nations” with the more modern-sounding words like “streamlining” and “economizing taxpayer’s money.”

“My wife and daughter went to this school,” says one of the defenders of PS #136 with great emotion. “And my granddaughter, too. It’s important for us that this school remain Ukrainian. My grandfather used to have an important position and he was Ukrainian-speaking, but he was forbidden to use it on the job. Yet my granddaughter chose Ukrainian and this particular school.”

“We chose this school among all others around for secondary education,” says Larysa Petrova, one of the parents. “Now, we won’t get it. What can we do?”

“This is illegal,” claims Rufina Ishchenko, another upset parent. “My six kids go here and my last daughter was supposed to enter this school this year but we were told that our kids would not be admitted to either tenth, or first grade. This means we have to look for other options. But we don’t have another Ukrainian-language school in our district. This is not about the future of the school—this is about the future of 570 students!”

Resistance pays

The unhappy parents, teachers and students finally decided to stage a protest in the schoolyard. Nearly 400 people came. First, the school was closed and the administration refused to explain anything. But after an hour, the parents and students were invited to the assembly hall, where Viktor Kartsev and officials from the district school board had arrived.

On February 23, these efforts paid off and PS #136 was given a reprieve. For now.

The Ukrainian Arts College, which opened in Donetsk in 1992, in the flush of independence, could be the next victim of “streamlining.” And it’s not the last one on the list: the Department of Education’s plan is to eventually close down 26 schools. There is good reason to suspect that these will mostly be those where Ukrainian is the language of instruction. If this kind of selective “purging” continues in the region, Mr. Tabachnyk & Co. will eventually create the “Russian-speaking Ukraine” that they so badly want to see

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