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One of a kind: the Freedom School for children from Ukraine was opened in Tallinn


Narrow corridors, recreational areas on all floors, small classrooms - this is what the premises of the Freedom School in Estonia look like. Three months ago there was no school here: in the summer the building of the former state institution in the capital was rebuilt and adapted to the needs of the pupils. Now almost 600 children from different regions of Ukraine study here.

The Freedom School is unique in its kind - it is a state school, fully budget-funded, with an Estonian-language curriculum and bilingual Estonian and Ukrainian instruction. The idea for the school emerged after the outbreak of war, when a large number of refugees from Ukraine came to the country. At that time the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research decided to create additional opportunities for Ukrainian children.

To make learning interesting.

The name of the school was not coincidental; two factors influenced it: first was the solidarity of the Estonian people with the Ukrainian in their struggle for independence and freedom, and the second was Freedom Square, which is very close.

"Our classrooms can accommodate 20-22 pupils. Some Estonian schools have bigger classes, but we have children who are more difficult to educate and the administration decided that the classes should be small so that teachers can work individually with students," says Vladislav Lushin, head of communications at the Freedom School.

Each classroom has an interactive whiteboard, and all teachers are provided with personal laptops; when they come to class, they connect their laptop to the blackboard and show their presentations. The institution also plans to buy laptops for the students. The textbooks here are different, both paper and digital, it depends on the subject.

"We combine and practice different approaches in order to involve the children and make them interested in learning", says Daria Levanchuk, community leader at the Freedom School.

In one of the classrooms all the walls are covered with children's drawings - this is an art class room. In the Estonian school there are no separate subjects for algebra and geometry, only mathematics. Some subjects are aimed at developing general skills, e.g. career basics - it is taught to high school students. In years 10-11, pupils are given the opportunity to choose what they want to study in addition to the core subjects. The choice of subjects is extremely wide, ranging from mathematics to photography; the grades go on their school leaving certificate, too.

Language immersion

The school provides bilingual tuition in Estonian and Ukrainian, with a 60/40 split. Estonian is studied here intensively, with five hours per week, one lesson per day. Estonian also covers literature, music, art, physical education, technology, some maths, history, biology, chemistry and geography.

Teachers understand that it is difficult for children and they show them everything they talk about visually. For example, a biology teacher prepares special pictures for the lesson so that children can learn the material and terms.

In Estonia, the language immersion method has been used for more than 20 years. This means that language and subject are learnt together: when the children learn a subject, each new word is shown to them by the teacher by drawing on the board. The task of the teacher is to understand these new words together with the children. Texts for children are prepared as simple as possible, they should contain many familiar words, sentences are used very short, of three or four words. The answers from children are accepted in different forms - from simple words to gestures and drawings. This method of teaching has long since paid off, explains Vladislav Lushin.

Studying at an Estonian school is compulsory for every child living in the country: the child must attend school in Estonia, says Lushin. If the child has the desire, opportunity and energy, he or she can study somewhere else, for example in a Ukrainian online school. But for many children this is too much of a burden: the child goes home after classes at one school and studies at another.

"We ask pupils and their parents to take their studies seriously and attend school in Estonia, it is very important for us. Even though everyone wants a quick end to the war and dreams of returning home, not everyone will have this opportunity - many houses and entire towns in Ukraine have been destroyed, and children and their families will have to stay in Estonia for longer than they had planned. This means that they need language skills and education according to Estonian standards for the future," continues the educator.

The Freedom School is attended by children from seventh grade to graduation. Nearby, there is a separate school for children from first to sixth grades, which also teaches in Ukrainian.

"We now have 578 pupils and the number is growing. When the institution opened, there were more applicants than places. Some places are vacant as people return to Ukraine and we take children from the waiting list. Those who did not make it to the Freedom School go to ordinary Estonian schools and many schools have set up special classes for children from Ukraine," says Darja Levanciuk.

The school has just over 80 employees. Of these, 60 are teachers, almost half of them from Ukraine. So far they have been offered temporary work conditions, as in order to get a permanent contract they need to know the Estonian language and to prove their qualifications.

Psychological assistance

The Freedom School employs a large team of psychologists.

"When we set up the school, we realised right away that we needed a supportive team of professionals, as many of the students have traumatic experiences. Another component is social, as many children live in conditions that are hardly ideal. Some are still living in temporary accommodation, for example on a ship in a port. We understand that the social environment can cause some difficulties. We have two psychologists, two social pedagogues, three educational advisers and one special pedagogue on staff. They attend classes and "look for" children who need their help. The teacher can also report that a particular child needs support," continues Lushin.

Children can also seek help from any specialist from the support team and ask for a solution to their problems.

But it took some work to get the children to want to do this. We had to create a trusting relationship, so that the children understand that the support specialist who comes to class is not someone who will correct them or try to make the 'wrong' children right - it's someone with whom you can talk frankly and who can really help sort out the tricky parts.

Where it's safe

The abilities of the children at the Freedom School are very different: the children come from different regions, some study in prestigious grammar schools, others in small schools in the villages, so their knowledge is also different. Quarantine also had a strong impact, children lost the ability to study, the very habit of doing something on their own. So in the first month of school they had to do a lot of repetition.

"The level is a bit lower than we expected. Especially in English language, but it can be easily explained: expected level of language knowledge is different in Ukraine and in Estonia. There are pleasant exceptions though: in every class there are children who know English very well, and we have reformatted classes so that teaching would be the most effective for them. In other subjects, knowledge can also vary greatly, but it is worth remembering that children here are from different backgrounds.

We don't aim to become the most academically strong school and make our students winners of national competitions. First and foremost, we want to create an atmosphere where children feel safe, comfortable and want to learn.

The value of the school, as we see it, is the following: it is a place where children want to go, where they want to learn and where they are met by adults who want that for them too," Vladislav Lushin continues.

The school day at the Freedom School starts at 8:45, with the first lesson at 9:00. Prior to this, teachers can hold counselling or tutorial classes. Classes lasts 45 minutes, with a 10 minute break and a long lunch break of 40 minutes. Meals are free and include porridge for breakfast and a full lunch.

Assessment is on a five-point scale, with 5 being the highest and 1 the lowest. The grades are recorded in an electronic register, they are not discussed in public, but only between a teacher and a student.

Electronic services have been used in Estonian education system for quite a long time, 15-20 years, but for most teachers from Ukraine it was a novelty. At the beginning of the school year a lot of time was spent here to teach children, teachers and parents how to use them. Now children can find out their homework, marks, information on tests online, look through the materials that were in the lesson and need to study independently at home, and parents can control it.

The whole education system in Estonia is built around the pupil, his or her development needs and opportunities. Every rule in the school serves the sole purpose of ensuring that pupils receive a good, high-quality education.

The study visit took place as part of a joint project of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre and the Estonian Centre for International Development with the support of the US Embassy in Kiev and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By: Irina Fedolyak

Photos by the author

Cover photo: ERR

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