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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Schools of Thought for Latvia Russians

RIGA, Latvia -- At first glance, the 20 teenagers who fidget at their desks waiting for 10th grade biology class to begin are typical high school students.

Dressed in T-shirts and baggy jeans, the guys crack jokes while the girls titter and giggle. Everyone erupts into raucous laughter when the short, animated boy in the front row -- obviously the class clown -- shouts out something especially amusing.

But when the teacher comes in, it's down to business. Since this is one of the many minority schools for native Russian-speakers in Riga, their teacher launches into the day's lecture in Russian. But open before the students are notebooks full of vocabulary words -- in Latvian.

At night, they take home Latvian-language textbooks to help them do their homework. But the next day, they may ask questions about difficult concepts -- and receive answers -- in Russian.

What's going on here is part of an experiment being conducted across Latvia to introduce bilingual education for the nation's tens of thousands of children who attend Russian-language schools.

The goal is to dismantle the two-tiered system of Latvian-language and Russian-language schools that has endured since Soviet days, by making Latvian the sole language of instruction for grades 10-12 and establishing a permanent system of bilingual education in Russian grade schools.

"It can be hard, but it's not impossible," said Vitaly, 16, the class clown of 10th grade biology. "Learning everything in Russian would be easier, yes, but I need to speak Latvian to get a good job someday."

The bilingual atmosphere of the school is noticeable everywhere. In the vestibule, a couplet from revered Latvian poet Aleksandrs Caks -- in Latvian -- is displayed prominently on the wall near the maroon-and-white Latvian flag. But between classes, the hallways throb with students speaking Russian.

After winning independence from Moscow in 1991, the parliament enshrined Latvian as the sole official language for this nation of 2.4 million. The aim was to rehabilitate the language after half a century of Soviet rule, when Russian dominated all spheres of life and, linguists say, Latvian was relegated to the brink of extinction.

The change put a severe strain on the country's Russian-speaking minority, which comprises some 35 percent of the population. Many moved to Latvia after World War II, and by 1991, most spoke no Latvian or spoke it badly.

It has also strained ties with Moscow, which accuses Riga of discriminating against ethnic Russians.

Today, the best jobs require Latvian proficiency, and public higher education is offered only in Latvian.

"For years, one could live in this country and get along without knowing a word of Latvian," said Evija Papule, coordinator of the Education Ministry's school integration policy. "Our objective is, eventually, to reverse that."

Officials see education as crucial to realizing their goal. A law passed in 1995 proscribed a gradual shift toward Latvian by requiring schools to introduce more bilingual courses each year. It also set up a special training program funded by the government, the United Nations Development Program and several donor countries that trains Russian-language teachers in Latvian and then teaches them how to train their colleagues. Since 1996, it has received some 4 million lats ($6.5 million).

By 2004, all Russian-language high schools must offer full Latvian instruction for compulsory subjects such as history, math and biology. Russian literature and grammar courses will remain in Russian.

At Riga's public school No. 13, where Vitaly goes, grades 1-4 receive Russian-language instruction. Bilingualism starts in grade 5, and by grade 9, some subjects are taught in Latvian and others are mixed.

Karina Shneiderova, a 16-year-old sophomore, says the system makes sense. "Not everyone likes it, that's true, but I can say that everyone in my classes can keep up and can speak Latvian," she says in confident English, her foreign language requirement.

"For the younger generation, it's really no problem. Languages come easy to them, and they don't have grudges from the past," said school director Ludmila Krutikova. "It's usually parents who have problems."

Many parents fear it weakens Russian students' grasp of their own language and culture by effecting a kind of Soviet-style indoctrination in reverse -- combating the decades-long policy of "Russification" with "Latvianization."

Igor Pimenov, chairman of Support for Russian Schools, a parents' union fighting to retain access to education for Russians in their mother tongue, said few people dispute the wisdom of learning Latvian.

Indeed, Latvia's 2000 census figures show that some 59 percent of Russian speakers claim knowledge of Latvian, up from just 22 percent at the beginning of the 1990s.

"What they object to is enforced assimilation of students. That's what this is, and it's been planned by politicians for many years," Pimenov said.

Russian parents worry that mixing languages daily in the classroom will leave their children with poor Russian skills.

"Nobody knows what the results of this experiment will be, but we are conducting it on the whole nation," said Tatyana Liguta, a Russian professor at Latvia University in Riga. "Parents don't have time to teach their kids Russian grammar. That is the job of the school."

Russian speakers also criticize the state's schedule, saying the overhaul has been rushed without giving Russian teachers enough time to train properly.

Alexander Zamuruyev, a 38-year-old interpreter who sends his two children to a Russian-language school in Riga, said he cringes when he reads the Latvian comments scrawled across his 13-year-old daughter's homework.

"The teachers make terrible grammar mistakes. They're not Latvian, and they haven't learned it properly. How are they going to teach my kids?"

Nearby Estonia, which like Latvia endured an influx of Russian-speaking immigrants during Soviet rule, recently admitted it had been too ambitious with its education reform plans when it pushed back a deadline for teaching all subjects in Estonian from 2007 to 2010.

Pimenov is asking for a similar delay to discuss alternative plans. He has enlisted the help of opposition lawmakers in Latvia's parliament, who have made changing the education law a priority.

"I doubt the majority of people would object to allowing some form of Russian-language education to continue," said opposition leader Boris Tsilevich, a Russian-speaking deputy. "The state has been stubborn toward minorities, but we want to convince people that this is a multicultural country and it should respect our identity."