Staunton, Sept. 5 – School consolidation, the almost inevitable consequence of declining rural populations in many countries, is always sold as a cost-saving measure and also as a means of giving children more educational choices because in larger schools there can be a greater number of teachers and more variety in classes.
But for those who see their rural schools closed, this is typically viewed as a threat to the survival of their villages and towns because with the closing of a school, these settlements typically lose the focus of their identity. And they are especially alarmed when, as in Russia today, the closing of schools compromises instruction in non-Russian langauges.
One place where all these factors are in evidence is in the Komi Republic. Since 2000, the number of schools there has declined from 598 to 327. Half of those remaining –163 – are in rural areas, and 96 of these have too few students to remain in operation in the view of officials. Students, parents, and teachers have a very different view.
As a result, a battle is taking place between them and officials who want to close schools, save money, and boost Russian at the expense of Komi. Yuliya Kulikova of the SeverReal portal gives a report from this front (severreal.org/a/derevenskie-uchitelya-boryutsya-za-shkolu-i-yazyk/31437329.html).
A year ago, a local mathematics teacher Tatyana Chistalyeva protested efforts to end Komi language instruction by consolidating the schools. This led to a court case with local officials. She lost the first round but won on appeal. Unfortunately, that has not ended pressure from officials to close her school in Skorodum. But it also has encouraged those Komis who are resisting.
This fall, because there were fewer than ten children in each of the nine classes, officials decided to stop instruction in the eighth and transfer the ninth graders to a neighboring school. Skorodum activists assume that is yet another effort to shut down their school but one that reflects official fears about going even further
In 2019, rumors spread that the village school would be closed; but activists gathered more than 350 signatures against such a step and the authorities then backed down. Closing the ninth grade classes, however, is what officials think they can get away with without sparking new protests.
The authorities also deprived the school of independent judicial status, something that will make it easier for them to close the school at some point in the future.
At the end of last year, the authorities replaced the longtime principal with a new United Russia Party deputy, Aleksandr Glukhanich, who immediately started going after teachers who were resisting the closing of the school and the reduction in Komi language education. His efforts were stymied by court decisions after activists turned to the judicial branch for help.
Nadezha Shcherbinina, an education activist from a neighboring village, says that the policy of the powers that be remains unchanged: they want to close small schools. And she warns that if teachers, students and their parents don’t protest, the authorities will ride roughshod over the interests of the population.
Everyone needs to recognize, she says, that “the disappearance of a school will sooner or later lead to the extinction of life in the village.” Defending schools is defending not only village life but the nation and its national language, she and other activists suggest. They plan to continue what is an unequal battle.