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Russia: Children Start School Amid Funding, Safety Concerns

Maintaining Soviet custom, all schools in Russia start the new year on the same day -- 1 September. However, 12 years later, Russian schools are still in the process of adapting to the difficulties and challenges bred by post-Soviet society. While modernizing obsolete school programs is a recurring issue, the lack of funding is perceived as the most critical problem.

Moscow, 1 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It's 7:30 a.m., and at School Number 175 in Moscow, just off central Tverskaya Street, director Natalya Sorokina switches on a CD player, which blares mostly Soviet-era melodies about happy school days.

Tall and elegant in a peach-colored suit, Sorokina directs the children to different parts of the schoolyard and tells them to gather in groups according to their classes.

As in Soviet days, the youngest girls have their hair twisted into elaborate braids and wear white organza bows. Most children also carry bunches of flowers for their new teachers.

But any similarity to their parents' school days ends there, Sorokina told RFE/RL. "Parents don't really ask for knowledge anymore but mainly just want us to keep the children off the street," she lamented.

Sorokina explained how education in Russia has changed under the economic pressures of post-Soviet upheavals. "Unfortunately, education nowadays is such that while before you would get into university if you went to a good school, well, today, you can get into university no matter which school you went to," she said. "It depends less on the quality of education than on the size of your parents' purse -- [what you pay] to get accepted, preparatory courses, and so forth. So for me, my school's mission is to make the children feel comfortable and to teach them a good, honest basis."

Indeed, money is the main issue when it comes to education in Russia, where, at least in theory, free state-financed school education until graduation is the rule. But the responsibility to provide this benefit is increasingly resting on the financially fragile shoulders of local budgets.

Municipalities not only pay teachers' salaries -- for example, about 1,000 rubles, or $32 a month, in Belgorod, a poor region south of Moscow -- but also the upkeep of the schools. As a result, the quality of schools varies widely, according to a region's income and governance.

According to the Russian Education Ministry, in many schools across the country, small children don't even have desks adapted to their size. And the economic disparities took a large human toll last spring when fires in two underequipped orphanages and a school killed some 50 children.

As a result, the Emergency Situations Ministry has made a big display out of getting schools to adhere to fire safety regulations. In the Buryatia region in Siberia, only one school out of 645 fulfilled all of the safety rules.

The improvements that were made show just how desperate the situation is. That's according to Sergei Namtsaraev, Buryatia's education minister, in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service: "Things really reached horrible proportions when for many years not a single fire extinguisher worked. That was put straight. Freeing up fire exits, fire escape maps, evacuation trainings -- all that was taken into account."

However, full compliance with fire safety rules, such as the installation of fire alarms, would cost Buryatia about $3 million, more than it can afford. Although schooling is officially state-financed, parents are constantly asked to contribute money.

In kindergarten, for example, families might be asked to pitch in to buy a new tape player so that children can listen to music. And in Moscow schools, the services of 24-hour guards - a new mandatory safety measure -- will be paid for by parents.

However, most parents agree that the real expense comes in the form of corrupt teachers who take money to award good grades. Antonina is the mother of two school-age girls in Arkhangelskoe, a town west of Moscow. She said such corruption has grown worse over the years. Five years ago, she said, parents could buy good grades for lazy pupils. But lately, even good students are sometimes blackmailed into paying for a good grade.

According to a study made by the INDEM think tank, around 7 percent of Russian parents admitted to paying kickbacks to teachers or professors.

Some parents believe these new troubles are the price to pay for a more diverse education. But for Inna Belyaeva from Klimovsk, a city near Moscow, the new freedoms exist mostly in theory. "Before, everybody was studying according to one and the same program, and now there are so many different programs! But it's the teacher who chooses the program! And we're not allowed to give our opinion," she said.

One aspect of Russian schools' newly won but hotly debated freedoms is the right to teach religion at school. Beginning this year, many schools will offer optional classes in "Orthodox culture," despite fears it might disrupt the fragile coexistence of Russia's many ethnic minorities. In theory, schools may also offer classes in other "traditional" religions, according to an Education Ministry memo earlier this summer.

However, according to Liubov Kezina of Moscow's Education Department, "Orthodox culture" will not be on offer in the city's state-financed schools. "This is a secular state where state schools are separate from the church," she said.