Bas-relief busts of the titans of Russian literature--Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Mayakovsky--grace the faded red brick facade at the entrance of Public School No. 121 in a leafy corner of south Moscow. Inside, the school's gray-haired director, Tamara Volchkova, is breaking up a scuffle between two boys. Nothing new there: She began teaching at the grammar school in 1967, became its director in 1973, and has run the place with a firm hand since.
By all rights, the Russian public education system should have collapsed by now. For the past decade, it has been starved for money, to the point that the average teacher now makes $33 per month, one-third the salary of the average Russian worker. That things are not worse is due to dedicated souls like Volchkova. Tall, with lively black eyes set beneath prominent eyebrows, she has a natural charisma, attested to by the 16 former pupils who now work under her as teachers.
Of course, charisma alone cannot sustain an education system. At long last, help seems to be on the way. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin recently proposed to double teachers' salaries by the end of this year. Education spending as a whole, now at $9 billion, will be increased by 40%, exceeding for the first time the budget devoted to the defense sector. Some 35,000 Russian public schools will get computers. "The day has come to support education," says Sergei Katanandov, leader of the Republic of Karelia and head of a Putin-appointed working group on education reform. "Children must adapt to the new life."
Conditions are deplorable, especially outside of Moscow. There are shortages of textbooks and equipment for chemistry classes. Some provincial schools lack heat. Students need more training in computers, economics, and foreign languages. Some teachers are on strike because they haven't been paid. They survive partly on donations from parents, who also kick in for supplies of pens and paper.
Public confidence in the education system is being undermined by the notorious tutor system. Parents with means hire underpaid university teachers to prepare their children for entrance to the schools. Sometimes, tutors are known to give their pupils a preview of the exam questions. What's emerging is a two-tier system, reinforcing nascent class distinctions. "The education system has not been destroyed, but it is starting to fall apart at the seams," says business leader Anatoly Karachinsky, CEO of Moscow-based Information Business Systems.
EXOTIC BIRDS. Meanwhile, impatient parents are turning to new private schools started by imaginative educators. In downtown Ryazan, a depressed, defense-industrial city 180 kilometers southeast of Moscow, Tatyana Kosmina, the daughter of a factory worker, has established the Sodruzhestvo Center, a small school that supplements the local public school curriculum with after-hours classes, such as economics. Teens play at "hot dog stand," a computer game in which teams compete for concession sales at a public park. The exercise makes them think about advertising, inventory, and lines of credit. Patronized mostly by children of doctors, bureaucrats, and other professionals, the school charges students a modest $8 per month. "Our program is designed to help the children adapt to the new realities of Russia," says Kosmina.
Then there's the Moscow Economic School, a K-12 school of nearly 500 pupils created in the mid-1990s by the capital's business barons. For $500 per month, the children of Russia's new money, when they're not studying supply and demand curves, can make their own videos and music CDs, dip into the indoor swimming pool, and amble through a small zoo stocked with alligators, piranha, and exotic birds. All students must be fluent in English by the ninth grade. "We know that Russia is not the whole world," says director Yuri Shamilov, a former deputy superintendent of the Moscow public schools.
But the private school system can never meet Russia's total educational needs. All the more reason for Putin to deliver on his promise to funnel more resources to the schools. Russia can count its blessings for the likes of director Volchkova, who works a 10-hour day. Not that she's complaining. "I love my school," she says. Now it's up to the government to give stalwarts like her the help they deserve.
By Paul Starobin in Moscow