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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paying Heed to Kids Who Can't

The seventh-graders at the Yakimanka School started their school year Monday with a physics lesson. The energetic teacher asked the eight students to draw what they imagined to be heat, light and electricity. Excitedly, they rushed to open their notebooks and draw burning candles, an AA battery, the sun. It took them a few minutes. Many were just as concentrated on what they were drawing as on deciding which hand to use, shifting their pens from right to left and then back again.


Eighty-five percent of the students at Yakimanka are ambidextrous -- a common trait among those who have Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. Yakimanka is the first private school in Moscow to specialize in educating kids with ADD and other learning disabilities.


"Not being able to chose a hand to write with is just one of the symptoms people have when they have ADD," said the school's director, Nina Ivashchenko, who herself has been diagnosed with the disorder. ADD interferes with a person's ability to focus on a task and, in some cases, control impulsive behavior.


"Many teachers and parents don't know what it is," said longtime teacher Ivashchenko. "They react by being impatient with the child and unfortunately, sometimes beating him."


Yakimanka, at 12 Krymsky Tupik, was designed as a small private school for ordinary students when it opened seven years ago. But as child psychologists and teachers in Moscow learned of the school's small classroom sizes and extra attention given to students, they started recommending it for children with learning disabilities.


"This school is so much better than the others I've been to," said a tall, lanky Andrei Sherbak, 15, who is in his last year. "It will be hard to choose a subject for university. Every subject is interesting to me now, because the teachers can give me much more attention."


With monthly expenses totaling about $8,000, Ivashchenko said, the school is in constant debt. They get no help from the government, and are even harassed by education officials, because, Ivashchenko explained, "They think we are not rich enough to be a private school. They think we should have new furniture, uniforms and a tennis court." In Moscow, only one state school has a specialized curriculum, and it is only for students ages 12 to 16.


Yakimanka offers modest accommodations. In the small, fenced-in schoolyard, kids play basketball between lessons, using an old tire bolted to a backboard as a hoop. In the narrow hallway, a rope hangs for kids to swing monkey-like as they pass by.


ADD affects 3 to 5 percent of all children in the United States, according to the U.S.-based National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Psychologists in Russia said country statistics have not been gathered on the disorder, which can be linked to environmental factors. Psychologist and speech specialist Stella Bondarenko said she guessed it was higher "just from what I've seen."


Yakimanka's students, ages 6 to 15, are encouraged to participate in class, shouting out answers to the teachers' questions or adding their own thoughts. There is no special method used by the school's 35 teachers, Ivashchenko said, just a lot of attention paid to each of the 100 students.


"One student, who had been so antagonized in his old school because he had trouble understanding things as other students did, couldn't even sit in a classroom," Ivashchenko said, tugging excitedly at the bottom fringe of her miniskirt. "So we taught him alone at first, then with one other student, then in a small group, and then, finally, in a classroom."


Another student, 13-year-old Sonya, was especially excited on her first day, running through the hallway and hugging teachers. Her father, Alexander Tsetlin, enrolled her a few years ago after seeing that her confidence was falling at other schools.


"Now, she doesn't notice that people think she is different, and because of that she has grown and learned. It is wonderful," he said. To pay the monthly tuition of $300, Tsetlin, a biology professor, works on the side. "Her education is worth it.