Volume:1, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2009

A Center of Education: Past, Present, and Future
Peisakhovich, Grigory E. [about] , Tyrtyshnaya, M. A. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: a school holistic system; School Complex; a Center of Education; creative teamwork; interconnection of education, labor, sport, art, and creativity; thematic periods; personality and character formation; school traditions; a creative literature program; a school theatre.

SYNOPSIS: The authors are administrators of a well-known Russian school with a very developed infrastructure, combining a number of different schools and extracurricular facilities. The article presents a long history of the school development with interesting insights and reflections. Readers will find an analysis of ways to connect education, labor, sport, art, and health care under the roof of one Center of Education. The authors share their thoughts and challenges their school has faced.

A Center of Education: Past, Present, and Future

Ioshkar-Ola Secondary School No. 18 was established in 1961. In 1991, it was transformed into a School Complex, and since the year 2002 it has been providing educational services as a Center of Education. The school is located in one of the industrial areas of the city. For many years, it has been the only public school in the area – always overcrowded, and with classes held in three shifts.  From the first day, we had to deal with numerous at-risk teenagers and students from underprivileged families; we also had to keep in mind that the school is located far from the primary cultural institutions in the city. Reflecting on our forty-five years of existence, we can retrace the entire process of transforming an ordinary public school into a new type of an educational institution.

When a new principal was appointed in 1983, the school had already accumulated a well-trained group of professional teachers with a high (though not fully actualized) methodological and didactic potential. But everything else in the school, including its structure, strategic priorities, curriculum development and quality of education together with primitive facilities placed it among other ordinary city schools. Quite regularly, in order to achieve higher academic results and maintain school discipline, authoritarian methods were used.

Beginning in 1983, serious changes in every aspect of school life occurred – from structural transformation to alterations in its educational content. The most extensive changes happened in 1986, after we learned about the creative teamwork practices of Moscow Secondary School No. 825 (Principal Dr. Vladimir Karakovskyiii). We decided to introduce the concept of humanistic educational systems to our teachers and students. To make it more effective, we put teachers through intensive professional workshops in Moscow; we also organized the first communards’ camp assembly that proved the importance of the pedagogy of common careiv. Moscow workshops helped our  teachers to use state-of-the-art teaching methods and techniques. At that time we realized the necessity of providing students with training sessions as well.

Literally, everyone was “infected” with the common idea and, as a result, creative teamwork became the “backbone” of the school structure. Among other positive results we can mention the following: the student-teacher relations significantly improved; the school atmosphere became truly democratic; new humanistic traditions were established; and the school’s unique image and spirit were born. This was the development of the school holistic system, humanistic by its nature.

At the same time, a number of internal contradictions, mostly between higher standards, insufficient school facilities, and narrow educational content were revealed. By the end of the 1980s, humanistic guidelines for personality development became firmly established in our school. Higher standards of  achievement, variety of educational programs and the quality of instruction and character development were adopted. But the school was still overpopulated, the curriculum and its regulations were too restrictive, and the academic process was definitely blocking the development of the teachers’ and students’ creativity. In addition, financial problems for the majority of students’ families became overwhelming, and made extracurricular activities and hobby clubs practically unaffordable. It was the most difficult time for our economy, right at the beginning of the Perestroika.

In other words, total school transformation into a School Complex became our priority as we realized how well such a complex could serve common interests. At the same time, the already existing humanistic school holistic system and the concept of an innovative School Complex proved to be complementary for each other.

The integral interconnection of education, labor, sport, art, and creativity (the areas, responsible for personal development) also remained the school’s primary goal.

The School Complex consists of: traditional elementary and secondary schools which provide students with general education; Sports School, where students are trained in different sports activities; Vocational Training Center, which provides opportunities for forming work skills; and Art School, where students learn to develop their creativity. Such a structure gives equal opportunities to all students to realize their individual potentials, regardless of their academic success. Students receive a chance to choose both the activities and the level they wish to achieve in mastering them, depending on their abilities and previous experience (education is differentiated in elementary and secondary grades).

During the following decade, we managed to provide separate buildings, first, for the Secondary School building, and then, a separate building for Sports School. Art School opened its doors together with Health and Rehabilitation Center. We also started  a kindergarten program, and introduced psychological and counseling services. At the same time we were experimenting with how to manage and operate this new type of an educational institution and where to seek financial support. We were also developing new educational content of various departments and School Complex as a whole.

We faced a number of complications, which, as specialists say, are an essential part of many educational institutions of a school-complex type. For instance, every school department has its own specific professionally-colored goals and objectives: secondary school teachers strive to achieve high academic results, to develop students’ skills and abilities, and to provide for rich knowledge and continuing education capacities for entering colleges and universities. As for Art School, its major goal is to “produce” musicians, artists and dancers, while the coaches at the Sports School aim for outstanding athletic achievements.  Each of these schools made its own contribution to the curriculum in the form of new types of specialized activities:  concerts, competitions, optional courses and special training sessions, field-practices, coursework and tests, etc. A number of new secondary school teachers, Art School specialists, and Sports School coaches became members of the teaching staff. But unfortunately some of them were totally unaware of the “school holistic system” concept; many of them lacked experience of creative team activities and building humanistic relations among adults and students. As a result, students were pulled apart, teenagers were complaining of being overloaded with home assignments, often at the cost of student-to-student communication. The creative teamwork spirit was slowly fading away, and taking the whole school spirit and a sense of unity with it.

However, it was the humanistic school holistic system that became the integrating force. For a long time our school had an unofficial council consisting of high school  students  and “old-school” teachers who were brought up with the communards’ methods. This council played a major role in the school decision-making process.  Numerous agitated disputes and discussions, in which students, teachers and parents took part, enabled us to systematize the school holistic system.  From the very beginning we decided to introduce universal “thematic periods” for every  department.

According to the school year calendar, there are four such thematic periods. During the annual off-campus planning assembly the content of these periods is defined.  Such an assembly is a massive “brainstorming session” where all the participants thoroughly prepare for it and fully understand its meaning and importance. Here, the students from the sixth to tenth grades and the teachers are mixed into six or seven teams.  The main goal of both the preparatory stage and the assembly itself is to outline and later agree upon four thematic periods.   Sometimes, we have up to fifty ideas, which have to be considered before four of them are selected by voting. These four themes become the framework for all extracurricular activities and, partially, for the curriculum.   The assembly is also the time when we analyze the previous year, reveal acute problems and outline their solutions. This enables students and adults to become part of a community where  everyone feels involved and responsible for the school’s future.

The idea of thematic periods “worked” in the past: we had them for five years when our school was still a regular secondary school. But since that time they have become the integrating force that brought all the school departments together. Unexpectedly, students made a number of suggestions which changed the content and types of activities provided by the school departments.  While in the past these periods were mostly entertaining, they have gradually become more intellectually and spiritually oriented. When Art School instructors and Sports School coaches started taking part in these assemblies, they realized the importance of creative teamwork; they also learned to offer such activities in which students could do both -- use their own knowledge and skills while fulfilling the type of work, meaningful for their instructors.

From that time the thematic periods became part of all school events  --useful and bringing joy for all. They share the same theme and are limited by the timeframe.  Various events and activities are organized not only within classes but also within other teams and groups. At the end of each period a key event is organized.   The Great Council, a temporary body, consisting of  the class group temporary student leaders, homeroom teachers and clubs’ representatives is responsible for defining the key event’s content, forms and ways to organize it.

The all-school key events bring order to school life, and set up a certain rhythm to it, thus becoming the structural foundation of the system. School life became more organized, and the educational process was enriched by its professionally-oriented operation.  For instance, students started to use the skills they learned at the Art School in their other classes and at all-school creative team events.  This was important for making the school holistic system truly humanistic. For instance, one of the events suggested by the students was to organize a personal exhibition of the artwork of their talented classmate; or senior students consider it an honor to shake the hand of  a fifth-grader who won a sports competition. The educational meaning of such “indicators" of school life is evident.

We also changed the responsibilities of homeroom teachers, Art School instructors, Athletic School coaches and vocational training specialists. A  common schedule for the entire school was prepared so that it would be convenient for those students, who participate in sports, arts and various extra-curricular classes.

We facilitated all-school faculty board meetings where important educational issues were discussed; our coaches and other instructors participated in various psychological and pedagogical  councils; and school departments were well coordinated. All of this enabled us to create a unique model of a school  complex, providing positive organizational and educational conditions for instruction and child development.

Numerous changes in educational objectives and priorities stimulated the beginning of the next stage in the school history (starting tentatively in 2000). Though the development of individual skills and abilities still remained our primary objective, many teachers emphasized individual students’ development and social integration, and the social environment became our target.  The school established strong connections with the local community, involving it in the solution of many educational problems. This interaction with various social institutions has become the school’s primary means for pursuing its future improvement.

There was one more formality that prompted our transformation: School Complex as an educational institution was not recognized by the federal authorities as a separate type of school and therefore was not included in the official register of Russian Federation educational institutions. We had to find another solution.

In 2002, our School Complex was transformed into a center of education with a long official name – Public Educational Institution of  the Republic of Mari El “Center of Education No.18.” This is how our school became an educational institution with the highest status in the Republic, and that was most important.

The basic organizational pattern and philosophy of the Center of Education  did not change. As before, the Center housed a number of academic, culturally and socially oriented departments, which shared the same location and the same  developmental paradigm and philosophy, and finally, the same groups of educators and students. In addition to regular secondary education programs, the Center of Education provided high school students with an opportunity to choose their major classes. The Center includes Art School, Sports School, Health and Rehabilitation Center, Vocational Training Center,  the Interregional Center for College Preparation, Leisure Center, and local Culture College Branch (ballet and dancing classes).

Though variety of activities and their multi-level character are not the goal by itself, they still remain an essential condition for personality development, helping students to grow into self-determined personalities, actively seeking their place in this world and able to set goals for self-improvement. It is obvious that whenever a student is engaged in a variety of activities, his or her  social connections and social positions grow in diversity, which makes the process of his or her personal development more successful. At the same time every type of activity has its own educational value in the social development of every student.

Traditionally, our school pays a lot of attention to basic vocational and pre-vocational training, which help students to develop such social qualities as readiness to work hard  and to be competitive.  To achieve these results, our school offers students an opportunity to choose their major or to join a specialized class group.v  This permits students to receive a quality college preparation and also to develop insights on what it is like to be an engineer, a doctor, or a teacher during numerous field trips and practice.

Art and sports facilitate the development of communicative skills, sympathy, and emotional sensitivity. We use the following indicators for one’s personality development: a level of self-actualization of potential skills and talent; an individual style and character; creativity; an ability to make prospects, plan for future activities and predict their consequences; experience of proper behavior in unusual situations.

Our Elementary School differs from other schools of this type in many ways. For instance, starting from the first grade, students can take a number of special classes (foreign languages, computer science, chess, logic, geography, history, natural science). These advanced programs have an experimental and authorial character. Personal development is monitored and facilitated by psychologists and speech therapists; special-needs’ support is provided; each student can follow a special program   tailor-made to his or her needs with the use of multi-level and “health-preserving” educational programs, teaching methods, and strategies. Moreover, all elementary students take entry level classes in Art School where they study different types of music, art, choreography, drama, and where they can choose which department to specialize in later on.

Secondary School provides differentiated curriculum from grades five through nine, i.e. advanced classes in foreign languages, sciences, humanities, physics and mathematics at the students’ choice. All the innovative educational technologies used here have been carefully selected and tested. For the tenth and eleventh grades our school offers majors in technical subjects, health care, humanities, and education. We also offer a number of special and optional courses preparing students for college or any other post-secondary education. These courses are taught by college professors and research specialists. Our students also perform research within our Student’s Research Society, take part in annual conferences, and conduct specialized field practices in our country and abroad.

Vocational Training Center includes five specialized workshops, where students can receive pre-professional and basic professional training. For instance, students from grades eight through eleven can become tailors, programmers, radio technicians, or truck drivers.

Our Health and Rehabilitation Center is not only the school’s subdivision but also a department of the Republican Children’s Hospital. Ten medical doctors, specializing in different fields, monitor and provide medical assistance to special needs’ students.  The Center has a number of specially selected medical and diagnostic facilities. Students can undergo a medical screening and receive personal health advice and disease prevention services.

In 2004, due to the growing professionalism of our instructors, and to an increase in our financial capacities our School began new educational practices. We also learned how to involve specialists from different non-educational fields into our school’s life.

Thus, we initiated and organized a number of important social projects, significant for the whole Republic of Mari El, for instance, the Warm House Project. In this project students installed heat insulation in the entrance windows of local condo and apartment buildings, and helped senior citizens. Some projects were fulfilled in cooperation with the interregional social movement Image of the Future, other schools and children’s public organizations, and with a number of governmental institutions. Our projects were often supported by various grants, we were also winners of a number of contests with monetary prizes.

Students and teachers took part in the projects as volunteers. Recently, our school initiated and implemented eight important community-oriented social projects. For instance, the Rainbow Bridge Project has been ongoing for 3 years. Over 5,000 children and teenagers of different ethnicities and religions  took part in the project’s key event, called the Festival of Tolerance. The Festival is the time of community and mutual understanding. The Understand Me Project is a different project with the primary objective to provide social adaptation for the deaf and hearing-impaired children. Last summer our school hosted a group of 25 students from the special school for the deaf. For a whole month they lived and worked together with the children without any hearing problems at the school camp, attended different clubs at the Camp for the Gifted Children and took part in different concerts, organized by the patronage teams.

We are proud of our achievements but we don’t mean to say that the School has solved all of its problems. No doubt, a number of areas need to be addressed and improved in order to update the School’s objectives and activities. The need for such renovations was caused not only by the common social and economic changes in our country (and as a result, the changes in state social services commissioning from the educational institutions). Because of the changes in today’s children, in their living conditions and social life, some structural changes had to be made at school, and the teaching staff also had to be modernized.

On the one hand, some experienced teachers have difficulties in accepting the ideals of "new" children; some teachers are not ready to use modern computer-based technologies. On the other hand, some of the young teachers think that all they have to do is to merely transmit knowledge, and for any other kind of work with the students they expect additional bonuses. Such positions are rather alarming. Evidently there is a contradiction between the high creativity of the School students, who gained experience in different projects and independent social and organizational activities, and a confusion of the old-fashioned teachers, who adhere to out-of-date work principles. These principles are inefficient in the present situation when some children possess low-moral standards, and when mass media substitutes true values with false ideals. In this situation  support and celebration of the common values of truth, labor, friendship, and mutual understanding is of primary importance.

Up-to-date school objectives open new prospects for the strategic improvement plan that includes three categories:

  • Organizational strategies to create new departments and subdivisions,  oriented at health, rehabilitation, and social adaptation of students including socially vulnerable groups; to create systems providing and processing various types of information which will enable communication with the public; to make the school environment more ecologically-friendly and aesthetically-oriented; to provide continuous personality development, enabling student flexibility in changing conditions.
  • Renewal and educational content enrichment strategies: to provide pedagogical monitoring of child development; to increase integration and autonomy of independent subdivisions sharing common ideas and strategies within the school; to develop self-government and co-management mechanisms; to increase financial support.
  • Interaction with the public strategy.

Much has already been done, though the goals and objectives remain quite complicated. But when we achieve them, we will create a new image of a school. And it will be an image of a new School for the Future.

i Peisakhovich, Grigory E. [In Russian: Григорий Ефимович Пейсахович], Ph.D., Executive Principal, Center of Education No. 18, Ioshkar-Ola, Republic of Mari El.

ii Tyrtyshnaya, Marina A. [In Russian: Марина Алексеевна Тыртышная], Ph. D., Vice Principal for Research and Experimental work, Education Center No. 18, Yoshkar-Ola, Republic of Mari El.

iii See in detail: Karakovsky, V.A. and Grigoriev, D.V. (2009)  School of Practical Humanism: Program of Development for 2006-2010  Russian-American Education Forum, vol.1, No.1.

iv Pedagogy of common care by Dr. Igor Ivanov [In Russian: Игорь Петрович Иванов] was one of the first who started using Makarenko's ideas in after-school institutions; the first was Frunzensky Palace of Pioneers in Leningrad.  The scheme he and his colleagues developed involves the following steps: (1) working out aims; (2) collective pplanning; (3) collective preparation; (4) the activities themselves; (5) collective analysis; and (6) follow-up. The whole approach can be called «pedagogy of common care.»

v A specialized class group is a group of students who have an opportunity to study certain subjects at an advanced level. It usually happens at the level of 9th-11th grades and gives students an opportunity to acquire standard knowledge in all subjects and more profound knowledge and skills in certain areas like mathematics and physics, or chemistry and biology, or humanities, etc.

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