About big hopes, rural wonders and schools that children love to attend
By Emil Sahakyan (UNICEF Armenia)
Located 200 km from the Armenian capital, the village of Ishkhanasar in Armenia’s Syunik province represents a sad picture of rural poverty. The village is now home to 250 people, most of whom are very poor and originally came to Armenia from Azerbaijan, fleeing the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.
The village school is located in an old Soviet-style building that once was an entertainment club for collective farmers and still carries the name of Lenin. No wonder that the school has only 40 children as conditions inside are far from being child friendly. On the contrary, the school is even dangerous for children to attend. Falling walls and ceilings, no heating in the winter, no proper sanitary facilities and the absence of minimum supplies all make the school a dangerous place not only for children, but for teachers as well.
“I was teaching history to children when suddenly I heard a crack and immediately a big piece of wall fell down just several steps from me,” says school principal Ara Davtyan.
Just a few kilometers away from Ishkhanasar the situation is different. The school in Shaki village was renovated in 2005 and is well maintained by students and teachers. It has about 200 students and as the deputy principal says, is a centre of the village community life.
However, that was not the situation until 2007 when a pilot project on child-friendly schools was introduced in Syunik province by UNICEF in collaboration with the Goris Teachers’ Union and the “Kapan Teachers” NGO.
The roots for the project were laid down in 2006 when the Ministry of Education and Sciences of Armenia with support from UNICEF developed a Child Friendly School Framework that outlines requirements that a school has to meet in order to be called child friendly.
Child friendly schools aim to develop a learning environment in which children are motivated and able to learn. Staff members are friendly and welcoming to children and attend to their health, emotional and safety needs. Child friendly schools recognzize and encourage children’s growing capacities as learners by providing a school culture that focuses on meeting the needs of each individual child.
“When we first heard about this initiative we were hesitating about our participation. Teachers believed that it was a formal ministerial check-up and that the selection process would not be transparent,” school deputy principal Rima Sargsyan says, adding that “it was worth taking a risk and participating in the project as it helped us to identify our strong and weak points and put us on the right track.”
Indeed, out of 123 schools of Syunik province only 22 submitted applications to participate in the child friendly school competition. “The biggest challenge was the lack of confidence in the project as many teachers and school principals simply refused to participate, thinking that the selection will not be fair. Yet all of them regretted their decisions when they saw the results, “ head of the Kapan branch of the National Institute of Education Magda Gevorgyan explains.
As a result of the project seven schools that were able to meet maximum of the requirements were nominated child friendly and received special prizes.
“The project helped schools to become more organized, improve the quality of lessons and served as an effective self-assessment tool and a means to mobilize communities around education and child rights issues, “ says UNICEF Education Officer Alvard Poghosyan.
They call him Lernadzor’s wonder and a pride of the village. Robert Grigoryan is a principal in a school of Lernadzor, a village a few kilometers away from Syunik’s capital Kapan. A brilliant mathematician and a knowledgeable historian, Robert Grigoryan turns on the entire village community with his enthusiasm and innovative approaches. Unremarkable from the outside, the school in Lernadzor strikes its vistors once they step inside.
Picking up a phone in school’s corridor children can freely and anonymously tell about their concerns and take issues to the school principal. Moreover, an announcement pasted on school’s wall says that with permission of the school administration and parents children can even sleep in the school.
With all this freedom, however, children are conscious of school rules of which they are constantly reminded through wall posters designed by the school principal. It’s not a surprise that the school came out as a winner in the child friendly school competition.
Friendly ambience is felt everywhere. Children are surrounding their school principal like a swarm of bees and interrupting each other as if in competition, give advice on where he should take his visitors.
Big hopes for a small village
Taking us through shabby classrooms, the principal of the Ishkhanasar village school tells us that provincial authorities promised to start construction of a new school building by the end of 2008.
There are hopes in this small village that one day the school will also deserve the status of child friendly.
In 2008 UNICEF jointly with the Ministry of Education and Science, NGOs and local branches of the National Institute of Education rolled out the child friendly school project in Armenia’s Shirak and Lori provinces, focusing as a starting point on raising awareness of communities, school administrators, teachers, parents and children on the idea of a child friendly school.