A Mad Rush to Get Into Kindergarten

MTAlyosha Grechishnikov, front, playing with other children at a Moscow kindergarten. He lives in the Moscow region, but the kindergartens there are full.
Andrei Grechishnikov spends about two to three hours every day driving his two preschool-aged children from their home in the Moscow region town of Nakhabino to their kindergarten in the city's Tushino district.

He considers himself lucky.

There is a severe shortage of places in preschools, with the waiting lists at most public kindergartens stretching to thousands of names and many parents now adding those of their children as soon as they are born. Some children never make it, staying at home until their first year at school, when they are 6 or 7.

"By law each child has a right to be placed in a public kindergarten, regardless of his parents' status or background," said Maria Tsapenko, who oversees the preschool education branch in Moscow's education department.

But the department's own figures reveal that there are 23,300 children under 6 on waiting lists for spots in one of the capital's 1,916 public kindergartens.

The situation has become so bad that the City Duma's Education Committee has proposed giving 4,500 rubles ($180) per month to families who have been waiting longer than 18 months for an opening. The sum is about what the government pays per month to provide one kindergarten spot, and the annual cost of the measure to the city budget would be 1.9 billion rubles ($77.6 million).

Grechishnikov drives to the kindergarten in the city because there was little hope of getting his two children enrolled somewhere in Nakhabino.

"They just wrote their names in a big log book by hand, told me that my number was 2,345 and that I should come back to check again in half a year," he said.

When he returned as requested, they told him that there were still no places for his children and that there were 2,000 names ahead of theirs.

Because he and his wife, Svetlana, have three children, and Svetlana is still studying at university, the children should have been able to jump ahead in the line. But they were told that a large number of families are entitled to special consideration.

"When they opened the book, I saw the name of another person freshly written between the lines," Grechishnikov said. "So I gave up."

Having grown up in Tushino, he decided to give it a shot there and finally managed to get the children in, just a year before the oldest was to begin school.

Part of the crowding problem is the result of a rising birth rate. There were 97,000 babies born in Moscow in 2006, up from 67,000 in 2001, according to the city health department. The same period has also seen an influx of families from other regions and countries, who also need to provide for their children while they are at work.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the number of public kindergartens has itself shrunk over the past 15 years, largely the result of the privatization process, said Yevgeny Bunimovich, one of the sponsors of the City Duma's bill to compensate waiting parents.

In the Soviet era, every enterprise or public organization ran its own kindergarten for the children of its employees. When the plants and factories were sold to private owners, those owners sold the kindergartens, with 400 being converted to office space in central Moscow alone, Bunimovich said.

The case is much the same throughout the country. Where there were 78,000 kindergartens in 1993, today there are just 46,000, according to the State Statistics Service. Only 57 percent of all children get some sort of preschool education, which is not required by law.

Most of the public kindergartens that remain have changed little from Soviet times, when they were built following a standard plan and were usually located in two-story buildings with a small yard.

They have not changed much inside either, with children's artwork and photos on the walls, pint-sized wooden furniture and different rooms for changing, napping and music. It's a complete program, running from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The children are given three meals a day, and breakfast includes the ubiquitous kasha, or porridge, and even a cup of ersatz coffee with a large spoon of sugar.

Children take part in a large variety of activities, like sports, language lessons, arts, music and drama. Performances are also an integral part of the system, and practicing for them is taken very seriously. The children dance, sing and recite poetry for audiences of their parents, with the New Year's pageant being the biggest event of the year.

Although private kindergartens have opened, there are still only 89 in Moscow, most of which are attached to private schools. They are particularly popular with expatriates, but some foreigners prefer the public option.

Len Readle, who is from Britain, sent his 4-year-old son, Luke, to a public kindergarten a year ago.

"Both my wife and I are satisfied," he said. "I know that state control is pretty strict on these schools and, in general, I can say that the program is fairly good."

Fortunately, they did not have to wait as long to find a spot for Luke. Readle said their name had been on the list for about a month before his wife, Svetlana, went to the principal of the kindergarten and asked for help.

Until last year, it had been up to the principal of any kindergarten to decide who would be admitted. Not surprisingly, the shortage of openings led to bribes of up to $1,000. Special committees were created in August to end these practices and establish a unified waiting list for each city district.

"I just told the principal that we were already in line and asked her to keep us in mind if a spot came open," Svetlana Readle said. "Maybe she called the committee, but we soon received an invitation for the kindergarten."

The official enrollment costs at public kindergarten are within the reach of most Muscovites, said Tsapenko, from the education department. Although they were raised from 400 rubles per month recently, they are still just 1,000 rubles. But as is the case with many public services, there are numerous "incidental" charges. Chris, who is from the United States and asked that his last name not be used, said his child's kindergarten regularly comes to him for extra money to pay for things like security guards and cleaning services.

"It's not that it's a large amount of money, but it's a strange thing," he said.

Most current funding seems to be going toward building new facilities, and Bunimovich said about 100 new kindergartens were being built every year.

There have been suggestions to return some of the space that was privatized back to its original usage.

"We need to look at the details to determine whether the sales of children's establishments were done according to the law," First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a meeting with governors on Nov. 16.

Bunimovich said such a return was unlikely, as most of the sales were done in accordance with the laws in effect at the time and it is easier to build a new building than to renovate old ones.

As for the payments to waiting parents, Bunimovich says it is just a stopgap.

"It is just a scared reaction to angry parents and a stimulant for city authorities to solve the problem."