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The Art of Learning

Professional Schools for Gifted Children Are Under Threat By Inessa Petrova Special to Russia Profile 03/18/2011

With a new education bill presently in the works, many wonder what will happen to so-called schools for gifted children under the new legislation. Russia has 29 public schools where children can start professional education in ballet, music, choir, fine arts or the circus at an early age. For ballet it usually starts at ten years old, and for music—seven, or even earlier. About 6,000 students are currently enrolled in these schools, and this number has always been relatively small.

Art education is a priority here, but nevertheless children also study a traditional curriculum similar to the one taught at regular public schools. This integrated education system has prevailed for decades at the Central Music School operated by the Moscow State Conservatory, and schools adjacent to the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, the Moscow Academy of Choral Singing and the Serov Children Art School, to name a few. Although these names are heavyweights in the professional world, they’re not even mentioned in the federal law on education passed in 1992. According to this law, one can start professional education at colleges and vocational schools after completing nine years of school. Nothing is specified about art education in the act, let alone art schools for gifted children. But in reality, there are exceptions: the 29 schools have been virtually allowed to follow their decade-long traditions and accept children at an earlier age. Therefore, they have existed outside the legal framework set forth by law.

The proposed new education legislation, which is still being scrutinized, contains a separate article dedicated to art education for the first time since 1992. However, to sooner fill the legislation gap, officials have prepared an amendment to the current act that would eventually legalize the integrated education system and traditions that special schools have always been proud of. According to Oleg Neretin, the director of the Education Department at the Ministry of Culture, “This amendment is expected to be approved by the State Duma in spring of 2011.”

Adults know better

In the meantime, there are reasons to worry about the future of such special schools. Even if the amendments are enforced, the current act will sooner or later be replaced by a new law, which is currently under scrutiny. One of the main differences is that the draft of the new law contains a special article dedicated to art education that at least recognizes some nuances of art education.

Some of the propositions from the Ministry of Education may endanger the very existence of the 29 schools for gifted children. The one most widely discussed suggests that all children should start professional ballet and music education at the age of 15, after completing nine years of general education. Ironically, this suggestion is as old as the working act, which does not allow students to enroll in these schools before they obtain general education diplomas. And though the 29 schools have been given a green light to circumvent this requirement for almost 20 years, this practice may end if the proposition becomes part of a new law where art education is examined in more detail. If this were to happen, the schools that have preserved their unique systems of education will eventually fall into the same category as other vocational schools.

A number of recognized artists have already expressed their discontent with the proposal. Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a premier dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet, wrote a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev describing all the peculiarities of art education. Tsiskaridze, who himself is a graduate of the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (at the time Moscow Academic Art School), would like to see schools for gifted children obtain the status of national heritage establishments.

“Starting ballet education at the age of 15 is absolute nonsense,” said Anastasia Sokolova, a dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet who graduated from the academy in 2010. “People who suggest this know nothing about ballet. Of course, there might be students who will succeed while starting ballet at this age, but I doubt it will be common practice.” This opinion is shared by the majority of ballet dancers, professors and students.

Teachers from the Central Music School also disagree with the proposal. “Those children who leave a mark in art don’t usually start at the age of 15. Any professor would tell you that muscles used in singing and playing are shaped at an early age, and little kids are more receptive to music,” argued Irina Monastyrskaya, a teacher of chamber music at the Central Music School. “An early start has always turned into an advantage. As a rule, our stars have started playing music quite early,” added Marina Karaseva, an adviser to the rector of the Moscow State Conservatory.

Supporters of the proposal claim that a seven-year-old child can’t make a career choice, and it is usually the parents who force him or her into art. This implies that at the age of 15, kids know better what they want to do for a living. Monastyrskaya argues that the number of children who chose the wrong career track is very small: “In the first place, we don’t accept everyone to our school. We can usually see whether a child is capable and enjoys the process at the entrance exams. Then not everyone makes it to the 5th and the 9th grades, as there is strong competition and some drop out and go to a different school or a college.”

Valeria Korchagina, who graduated from Moscow State Academy of Choreography, thinks that it is impossible to become a ballet dancer without any desire: “Even if kids seem indifferent in the very beginning, tough competition among peers draws them into the process.” Korchagina feels more open to the idea of reforming the education system in special schools. “There are elements that need to be addressed: I remember there was extremely wild competition among kids, a system of oppression that fostered stage fright.” Korchagina doesn’t think that starting ballet at an older age is a very odd idea. “Of course it implies that students have some background, this may encourage the creation of centers that would offer pre-school education to children who foresee a career in ballet,” Korchagina said. “It may also promote healthier competition among students.”

Oleg Neretin believes that a new amendment will bring no radical change; it will only legalize what has been a reality for decades, and in some cases even centuries. “Once this amendment is enforced, regulation will become stricter,” Neretin said. But even if the amendment to the current law doesn’t have significant effects on the system, there are no guarantees that the status quo will remain if the new law is approved.

A bright future?

Special schools for gifted children may also face another challenge. Their curriculum is often criticized for being overly focused on professional subjects at the expense of general education. This may become a serious problem for those students who realize that they don’t want to become professional artists. If they suddenly decide to study a different subject at a university, enrolling may require tremendous effort.

As the majority of ballet dancers retire rather early, some may find it extremely difficult to reengage with society with no extra skills and knowledge to prove themselves in a different field. “Their grades don’t usually reflect their real capabilities,” said Korchagina. “If a girl does the fouette very well, she will probably have an A grade in chemistry.” Nikolai Skachkov, a graduate of the Central Music School, also admits that his professors indulged the kids who didn’t do well in subjects not related to music education. “However, Russian language and literature are never neglected,” Skachkov added.

Though general education at professional schools may lag behind comprehensive schools, many agree that children from special schools learn to work very hard at a very early age and may catch up very quickly if necessary. “A kid is learning to work as an adult, it is the earlier development of personality that sets these schools apart from the others,” said Karaseva. “But I’m sure there are ways to improve the quality of general education without hurting a professional field, all we need is to invest in creating an efficient methodology for these schools and attract high-class teachers who know the specifics and may implement non-traditional methods.”

What’s broken?

It still remains unclear what kind of reform is needed for special schools, and whether any is needed at all. Some suggest that the government should leave everything as it is, as any reform is likely to destroy the system that is famous for preserving strong traditions and nurturing world class artists. Looking westward has also proven useless. If other areas of education try to adjust to European standards, art schools haven’t found out how the Western experience could benefit them. “Our schools are very unique for many reasons: they offer a variety of music subjects; music for kids is a way to spiritual development rather than a consumer product. The authority of teachers is very important,” said Karaseva. “I know that Americans have been trying to copy us, but I’m not really sure whether they succeeded in doing so.”

Maria Sitkovskaya, who has been teaching at the Central Music School since 1979, knows how to tell her graduates in the crowd. “If you ask somebody from a foreign orchestra to perform a solo part, rarely do they do as well as together with the orchestra if they don’t come from our school,” she said.

She claims that a lot has already changed for the worse. According to Sitkovskaya, there used to be fewer subjects, free days before exams that allowed the students to concentrate and better quality education. “Our school has always been famous for training solo performers, and now it has turned into a college, but as our country doesn’t seem to need any solo performers, our graduates have joined foreign orchestras, and if this trend continues, we’ll lose everything we have managed to preserve.”

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