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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ringing In the New School Year

BERYOZOVKA, Western Siberia — As bells rang in the new school year on Friday for nearly 20 million children across Russia, the 370 students at Beryozovka Secondary School No. 12 hurried to their two-story concrete alma mater, laden with flowers and dressed in their best clothes.

Amid the town’s dilapidated houses, deserted farms and geese swimming in large dirty puddles, the school was a bustle of color and activity. Teachers made last-minute preparations for the first lessons, as students ranging from 6 to 17 years old lined up in the school courtyard to get ready for the festive kick-off ceremony for the new school year. Finally, first-grader Yulia Pivovar, 6, was hoisted aloft by 16-year-old Andrei Bedrin, an 11th-grader, for the traditional first ringing of the school bell.

The 17 first-graders received the bulk of the attention. Confused but happy, they seemed awestruck by the adventure ahead of them.

"It’s important to study because then you can get whatever job you want," said 7-year-old Yevgeny Kozodoyev with a serious look on his face, adding he wanted to be a lawyer. The future legal specialist was so nervous, however, he couldn’t remember his last name without being prompted by his teacher.

Many of the parents were just as nervous at seeing their children heading off to school for the first time. With work mainly available only during the summer months in this small Siberian village, many parents worry about how to find enough money to raise their children properly.

"Everything is the same when you send a child to school," said Valentina Pershayeva, 52, who was accompanying her granddaughter, a first-grader. "Only it’s more expensive."

The school’s 28 teachers likewise struggle to make ends meet. In Russia, where the average salary for teachers in 1999 was just $34, many schools depend on the enthusiasm of their staff in order to stay afloat.

Teachers in the Beryozovka school, which has received almost no new textbooks in years, prepare nearly all their own study material, drawing large alphabet letters for the younger children and writing literary quotes on cardboard for the older students.

"This is about devotion to your profession," said Natalya Kulikova, the school’s principal since 1992. "If you are a teacher, you work without thinking if you are being paid well or not."

The 11th-graders watching their last opening ceremony before their graduation next summer looked less enthusiastic than their teachers about the year ahead. Most of them were not certain about their plans after graduation. Although Novosibirsk, home to a number of science institutes and universities, is just 40 kilometers away, most of the teenagers weren’t sure if their parents would be able to afford to send them to college.

"Vanya won’t study," said 17-year-old Maria Startseva, teasing her classmate Ivan Cherukhin, who was sitting next to her. "He’ll just get married."