As the new Lithuanian government urges emigres to return home, the education of their children moves center stage, with promising results.
Linas Jegelevicius, tol.org 6 February 2017
Even locals would probably admit that Taurage – a town in the southwestern part of Lithuania, in close proximity to the Russian border – is a pretty tedious place, ridden with social problems and notorious for its bootleg alcohol and tobacco sales.
But one of its secondary schools has offered some rare positive news, thus putting the media’s spotlight on the town for the right reasons. The school in question is called Jovarai, and this academic year it introduced a so-called leveling class for Lithuanian children who returned from emigration. Until now, only major urban centers and towns with abundant ethnic minority groups could boast of such classes – not the ethnically pure hinterlands. And journalists have come out to these parts in anticipation that such a school might also forecast what the new government, led by the Peasants and Greens Union party (LVZS), plans to do in the education sphere and beyond.
“As the new government’s primary focus is tackling emigration and solving education issues, our class may signal what to expect at secondary schools across the country,” said Egidijus Steimantas, head of the Education Department at the Taurage municipality. “If there are more Lithuanians making their way back home from long years in emigration, such classes will be the solution for their children.”
More Here Than Meets the Eye
According to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, 153 Lithuanian children returned from emigration in 2015, compared with 177 in 2014 and 106 in 2013. The number for 2016 is “tangibly larger,” a source at the department said, but official data will be available only later this year.
Despite such increases, the emptying of Lithuanian schools, the reflection of emigration and demographics, remain one of the new government’s biggest headaches. Just in recent years, the numbers of pupils has dropped from 357,481 in the 2013-2014 school year to 330,826 this year.
At first glance, the leveling class in Taurage appears to be a garden-variety Lithuanian class with a bunch of kids scampering around. Yet one with keener eyes and ears would notice that something is different here. Perhaps it’s the pronounced drawl in some of the children’s Lithuanian or the terse exchange between siblings in another language than Lithuanian – be it English, Spanish, or Russian. And, certainly, the variety of tools that Ritonija Galkauskiene, the teacher, uses to patch up the language gaps among these kids, aged eight to 14, is unusual. Such differences have even led other pupils in the school to taking sneak peeks into the classroom right in the middle of class.
Students in the leveling class
To take over the class, Galkauskiene moved from Visaginas, a predominantly Russian town in eastern Lithuania known for its defunct nuclear power plant. There, she had helped Russian children master Lithuanian. At her new job, her eyes shine with happiness and confidence.
“Four months into the new school year and my efforts have panned out. The children – all of them – have made great progress in figuring out the peculiarities of Lithuanian grammar and pronunciation,” she beams.
Such statements are definitely music to the ears of Ramunas Karbauskis, chairman of the LVZS, the ruling party that saw a landslide victory in Lithuania’s parliamentary elections last autumn. Among his priorities, he has cited curbing emigration, solving demographic problems, reducing social exclusion, and placing a special focus on education. On the campaign trail, and in language tinged with anti-migrant statements reminescent of populist leaders across Europe, Karbauskis stressed his desire to see Lithuanians abroad return to their home country, instead of seeing immigrants from countries in the Middle East and elsewhere come to Lithuania.
“In the context of the topic of the endless flow of refugees to Europe, one key thing has been omitted. No word is heard of the million Lithuanian citizens who have become, forcibly, economic emigrants,” he said in one of his speeches. “We will be a lot happier if the Lithuanians, not the Syrians, will come to toil in Lithuania.”
At another point, Karbauskis, whom many believe LVZS will select to run as the party’s candidate for the presidential elections in 2019, chastized local industrialists for speaking out for more flexible legislation to attract foreign workers. “We have to understand that the integration of our emigrants’ children is no way simpler than that of Syrian families … I am aghast at some of our entrepreneurs’ statements that immigrants in Lithuania are needed as a breath of fresh air.”
Responding to Demand
Well ahead of the 9 October elections, Taurage had done precisely what the LVZS leader had vowed during the election campaign: to highlight the situation of Lithuanian emigrants’ children. According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Education, there are eight leveling classes in the country. The class in Taurage was the latest addition to those in other municipalities.
“The creation of the leveling class in the Jovarai school had nothing to do with politics,” said Steimantas, the Taurage Education Department head. “It was prompted by a larger number of Tauragians who have returned from emigration, especially from the United Kingdom, which I see as possible fallout from Brexit.”
He insisted that the accumulation of the school’s good experience while teaching enhanced Russian 25 years ago is now being successfully used in the leveling class, popularly dubbed among educators “a catch-up” class.
Echoing the notion that the introduction of the class had nothing to do with LVZS campaign pledges, Algimantas Kaminskas, the school principal, said that he initially had just a few applications from local emigrant parents wishing to enroll their children into the school.
“But when the number steeply increased last summer to a dozen requests, the urgency for such a class was there,” the schoolmaster said.
Parents have been thrilled with the results. “I was really worried in the beginning when my daughter told me that some of her peers wanted to brand it as a ‘ghetto class,’ ” said one mother, referring to fears that the students would be viewed as outcasts. “I was afraid that my child could fall victim to bullying. Thank God, that didn’t happen – thanks to the teacher and the school community that have made the emigrant children feel comfortable.”
The reality was just the opposite, say teachers and parents. Soon the other schoolchildren from ordinary classes were in awe of the English and Spanish skills of the children in the “catch-up” class. “My daughter, who has spent quite some time in the UK, felt like a celebrity in the Taurage school because of her excellent English,” said the mother quoted above.
Karolina, 12, was born in Spain and has been attending the leveling class in Jovarai school since the past autumn.
“Though in Spain I’d speak Lithuanian with my parents, my native language skills were speedily deteriorating, a result of the new linguistic and cultural environment,” she explained in enviously good Lithuanian. “My peers here are friendlier than those in Alicante,” the girl confessed.
“Karolina is one of my brightest pupils. She is almost proficient in Lithuanian now,” Galkauskiene, the teacher, interjected.
Smilte, who spent five years in Ireland before returning back to Taurage, nodded at Karolina in agreement: “Some of the children I was hanging out with in the Irish school were bullies. They would mock me sometimes, too. Just because I was Lithuanian. I like being back home.”
“We teach children that being Lithuanian is a wonderful thing,” the teacher chimed in.
Meanwhile, Vilte, Smilte’s twin sister, has problems with some Lithuanian words. "The diacritics seem a weird thing to me," she snickered.
“The vocabulary of many kids in the class needs to be better. For example, some of them have struggled to grasp the meaning of the Lithuanian words ‘blizzard,’ ‘grains,’ or ‘wheat.’ There are many gaps in their vocabulary but the children are advancing very well. They are earnest learners,” says Galkauskiene.
Brothers Janis, 10, and Danielius, 11, were born in Kyrgyzstan, where they spent 10 years before their parents made up their mind to continue the boys’ education in Lithuania, their father’s home country.
“The only thing I miss about Kyrgyzstan is the high, sharp-ridged mountains and this one ferocious river,” one of the boys confided. “Besides, the schedule would depend on the availability of teachers. I didn’t like that.”
In the classroom, the boys shied away from demonstrating their Lithuanian skills, but the teacher, whom the children visibly adore, also praised them for the great progess that they had made during their first school year in Lithuania.
The situation in Taurage may sound idealic – in numerous discussions with those involved, no one offered any negative feedback or mentioned educational failings – but that isn’t always the case in leveling classes.
The Lithuanian House in Vilnius is similar to a boarding school, mainly for foreigners wanting to study Lithuanian and, temporarily, for children of emigrant Lithuanians who don't have a place to stay upon returning to the country. Presently 32 pupils are taking part in two separate leveling classes this year, says Vilma Balciuniene, the deputy director.
"The experience we have had with these kinds of classes is varied,” she says. “The pupils' accomplishments primarily depend on their level of socialization and adaptation in Lithuania, as well as on the families' approach and values. Those who do not love Lithuania and who are reluctant to stay in school usually fail. We've had such pupils, to be frank with you."
Rasa Gedvilaite, a teacher at the Adult Education Center in Kretinga in western Lithuania, warns that leveling classes cannot solve all problems that might arise from integrating into new communities. "These efforts to help those pupils who have fallen behind their peers for some reason are commendable,” she said. “But such schoolchildren are more likely than those from ordinary classes to deal with psychological issues, including bullying."
The First of Many?
Despite those challenges, Kaminskas, the Jovarai school principal, suggests that more parents have started to believe that their children are better-served attending schools back home.
“Many emigrant parents insist that our education level is higher than in emigration,” he said. “We nurture children in an environment familiar to them, through the ubiquitous use of the mother tongue and the cultural background. We offer an impressive variety of extracurricular activities, which, the emigrant children claim, were not available at the foreign schools.”
At this stage, it is too early to say whether this kind of class will continue to be offered at the school and in Taurage, but Steimantas, from the municipality, is convinced that such classes will be “inevitable.”
“Judging from the surge of requests to provide places in our kindergartens – many of the applications have come from Tauragians living in the UK, Scandinavia, and elsewhere – the municipality anticipates that it will be necessary to add extra kindergarten groups and, thereafter, additional secondary school classes to satisfy the need,” he said.
If so, the “Lithuania-for-Lithuanians-first,” LVZS-led government seems among the biggest supporters of introducing “catch-up” classes throughout the country.
Linas Jegelevicius is a freelance journalist based in Klaipeda, Lithuania.