A Disobedient Pioneer

Courtesy of Sergei Bebchuk
Sergei Bebchuk no longer remembers the exact circumstances when he claimed to know how to make a perfect school.

   "I think it was at the annual computer science conference in Abrau-Durso," he said.

That slip of tongue redirected him from a career in computer science to creating a unique public school for only 60 students with no gradebooks, its own constitution and month-long studies in Crimean caves.

Graduating from Moscow State University's Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics, Bebchuk, along with other classmates, was sent to work on the hotel and airline reservation system for the 1980 Olympic games. This jump-started his career in computer science and formed one of the country's best programming teams at the time.

While working on building the informational system for Pravda newspaper from scratch, Bebchuk met the academic Andrei Ershov, who was concerned that the promising new field of computer science was totally ignored by Soviet schools. Bebchuk became one of the co-authors of the Soviet Union's first textbook on the subject, which came out in 1986, and volunteered to field-test it as a teacher.

After a few years of part-time teaching, Bebchuk was invited to help open a school with an emphasis on mathematics. The new school opened right after the 1991 putsch.

"We were put into in a preschool building that had stood open and empty for four years," he said. "There was no heat, no linoleum, no windows or doors, and remodeling was not completed by September. The hallways were finished, but there was only room in there for two grades."


Courtesy of Sergei Bebchuk
Every September, Sergei Bebchuk takes pupils on a camping trip to the Crimean Peninsula, where they live in a cave, bond and study history, astronomy and botany.
Bebchuk took most of the pupils on a camping trip to the Crimean Peninsula, packing all the pasta and grains that the parents could gather during a time when buying food was a problem.

In 1994, Bebchuk became the head of a new public school, No. 1199 -- also called Liga, or "a league of schools" by its students -- in the southern Moscow district of Yasenevo, incorporating many of his new ideas of what a school should be. The Crimean trip became the initiation for all newly admitted seventh graders: Every September they live in a cave, bond, and study history among the ancient ruins of Khersones, astronomy in the Crimean observatory and botany in the Nikitsky Botanical Garden.

Making lemonade out of life's lemons and finding unconventional solutions to unexpected problems are abilities that Bebchuk seeks to cultivate in all students. "Bringing up disobedient pioneers" who take risks, go against the norms and use their intuition, is one of the school's principles listed on its web site.

"This school is for kids with an inner drive who want to be a plug for every hole, as the expression goes," Bebchuk said.

Children join the school in seventh grade, after passing a two-tier examination and memorizing the school's constitution. After graduating, most go on to study in Moscow universities.

Bebchuk's idea of teaching is quite different from the approach of other institutions. Most teachers in the school don't have degrees in education and come to the school part time from careers in research and professorships at Moscow's leading universities. Some teachers come because they enjoy each other's company, and others want to attract young minds into their field.

"To teach kids in this school, the person has to be an inspired expert in their field, and have a boundless pool of energy," Bebchuk said. "Working here is hard, but no one has quit in the past five years."


Courtesy of Sergei Bebchuk
The trip is an initiation for 7th graders.
Last year, this smallest school in Moscow was ranked among the top 30 out of 1,654 public schools, according to an evaluation in Izvestia newspaper.

Mikhail Berezin, who graduated from the school in 2005, praised its approach.

"I dislike bureaucracy and school in general had a hostile atmosphere for me until I came to Liga, where I was always comfortable," Berezin said. "Students communicated as equals with Bebchuk and other teachers. It's hard to overestimate his role in the school's existence," he added.

Bebchuk, who is 50, admitted that the ability to travel four months out of a year was one of the reasons why he enjoyed working at the school. He said he was preparing to ride across northern Greece on a tandem triple cycle with his wife and daughter. Bebchuk designed the bike himself and had it custom made in Nizhny Novgorod.

"As long as the school has freedom that I originally asked for, the school will live," Bebchuk said, referring to Article 15 of the Law on Education. "But as soon as they change that, we will close."