Stronger partnerships with the community

Before joining the Schools for Democracy Programme Bilozirya secondary school did not experience close cooperation with parents and other members of the local community. The school followed its own routines without involving outsiders. Most decisions were made by the administration.

Students at Bilozirya secondary school in Ukraine

“We wanted to change the situation at our school. Joining Schools for Democracy was such an possibility for us. After mobilizing a group of likeminded people eager to introduce changes, we applied for the programme. We were convinced that it would help us find the right way to change”, says Svitlana Petrenko, school head.

The very first meeting with the programme’s trainers helped to identify the school’s weak points. Experienced trainers provided the school team with specific recommendations for how to make democratic changes. The school working group wanted to focus on development of partnerships with the local community as they saw potential for improvement in this particular area.

“We did not cooperate before, and no one really listened to what children had to say. Students had no clue of things happening in the rural community, and the community showed little interest in challenges young people faced”, Olga Pertsova, deputy head comments.

Tetyana Meleshchenko and Andriy Krupyak, the trainers supporting the school, also shared their observations:

“It was when we just started working with the school when we realized that in Bilozirya the school has always been a meeting point for the community. Yet this cooperation was unfortunately decoration-like rather than a real collaboration, as none of the counterparts thought about ways it could be useful for the other. Students did not understand the issues that local governance bodies were dealing with or how they operated, and how they could be a part of the community life as such. Therefore, cooperation with the local community was selected as one of the pillars of our common work on democratic school development”.

The student council endorsed the idea of establishing partnerships with the community. On the other hand, it was also supported by the head of the newly amalgamated community (OTG, united community – an administrative territorial unit in Ukraine, formed as a result of a voluntary association of neighboring territorial communities, villages, towns, cities in accordance to the Law of Ukraine “On voluntary association of territorial communities” providing thus more responsibilities and power to local authority). All counterparts joined forces for improved relations and more democratic environment.

During the meetings of the student council a common action plan was developed, and a number of projects were initiated. Representatives from the hromada were also present at these meetings and discussed various issues with children.

The president of the student council Oleksiy Luytyi and the settlement head Volodymyr Mitsuk signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation between the community and students.

Some students’ ideas were supported by the local authorities. Since then children are invited to visit sessions of the village council, the community chairman is keen to join meetings at the school and address issues important for both the school and community.

In addition to regular meetings with the local community, the students took part in the days of local self-government and had the opportunity to get acquainted with the work of the village council and work as head and secretary of the community.

“It was very useful to see the work of local government from the inside”, commented Oleksiy Lyutyi, president of student council.

“We did not show any initiative. The school administration had a plan and implemented it. Children did not have an opportunity to express themselves, they did not dare to say that they were unhappy with the way the things were, as they were afraid to be criticized. Teachers were perceived as supervisors/inspectors”.Anastasia Shepel, a student of 11 grade, described what was the situation at school before:

“Now the school is changing in front of our eyes – new methods are used in the classroom, so lessons become much more interesting and students get to come up with their own initiatives. For instance, we suggested to paint the walls in the corridors according to our vision. The school head and teachers supported us, and parents provided all necessary materials, hence everyone has contributed for the good cause”, Diana Zenkova, student of 10 grade said.

Bilozirya secondary school plans to conduct joint trainings for students, teachers and community representatives in order to develop a common vision of future democratic changes. The school wishes to continue focusing on partnership with the local community, as both parties mutually benefit from the collaboration.