Minority Schools in Georgia at Risk as Class Sizes Fall

Growing trend to opt for education in Georgian means future of Armenian schools in remote Marneuli region is uncertain.

Minority Schools in Georgia at Risk as Class Sizes Fall

Growing trend to opt for education in Georgian means future of Armenian schools in remote Marneuli region is uncertain.

Margarita is an ethnic Armenian in Georgia who was born and raised in the village of Shaumian in the Marneuli district of southern Georgia on the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The district is home to a large Azeri community who make up about 80 per cent of the 20,000 or so people who live in the actual town of Marneuli. She, however, does not speak Georgian, and is now a journalism student at a college in Yerevan, in Armenia.

Knowledge of the Georgian language among young Armenians in this remote district is poor, she says, which is why many, having finished school, continue their education in Armenia’s colleges.

But the language issue among the ethnic minorities in areas like Marneuli contains its own dilemmas.

Without a good knowledge of Georgian, youngsters cannot continue onto further education in the country in which they live. On the other hand, they don’t always want to lose their mother tongue, either.

Margarita takes great interest in the educational issues in her home district in southern Georgia and she writes about them for an Armenian Internet media outlet.

One article, Armenian schools shut down in Marneuli, recently caused a stir in the Armenian press. In it, she suggested schools were being closed in the district on an ethnically selective basis, to ensure that the new generation grew up speaking only Georgian.

“This is all being done to ‘Georgianise’ the area, assimilate ethnic Armenians, and turn them into Georgians,” Margarita told IWPR.

“It’s surprising that the Georgian authorities don’t know what is going on in Marneuli, or rather they do, but prefer to turn a blind eye to it all.”

Margarita does not wish to reveal her last name for fear of finding herself in trouble in Georgia, where she said she traveled frequently to visit her parents.

The local educational authorities in the Marneuli district contest the idea that Armenian schools are being closed on purpose, in line with some undeclared state policy.

“The Armenian-language schools function today just like they did ten or 15 years ago,” Kamandar Ismailov, head of the local educational resource centre in Marneuli, said. He should know, having worked in the field for many years.

According to him, there have only been a couple of mergers, involving schools with particularly small class sizes being joined with others in the vicinity.

“The school in the village of Khojormi has been amalgamated for example,” said Ismailov, referring to reports of schools closures. “Its main language of tuition is [still] Armenian, but it also has an Azeri sector.

“Schools have continued to function even in places where the entire contingent of pupils is no more than nine people.”

At present, 81 general schools function in the Marneuli district. The languages used in them reflect the variety of ethnic communities living in the area – and the strong Azeri presence. Eleven are Georgian, eight Russian, nine Armenian and 51 Azeri.

Many, catering to the smaller Armenian community, have only small classes. For instance, the Armenian school in the village of Gyulbakhi has 35 pupils.

Rima Garibian, headmistress of the Armenian school in Khojormi village, takes a pragmatic view of the prospect of closures and mergers, accepting that schools with only ten or 14 pupils are a financial burden.

“I don’t see anything bad about small-contingent schools merging into others located close to them,” she said. “This will allow children to receive a proper education. I only wish our children could study in two-storey, refurbished schools.”

Artur Urumian, the headmaster of the Armenian school in the village of Shaumian, dismisses the possibility of the government closing down schools like his without reason. “As long as there is a demand for a school… no one has a right to close the school,” he said.

But one reason why some ethnic minority schools in Georgia are losing pupils, and thus facing closure or merger, is because parents of all ethnicities are increasingly opting for a Georgian-medium education for their children.

Lia Tushuri, headmistress of the N2 Georgian secondary school in the town of Marneuli, has noted this phenomenon, which she says has recently become very conspicuous.

“Ethnic Azeris increasingly tend to send their children to Georgian schools,” she explained. “They want their kids to receive education in Georgian, believing that this is the only way they can learn the state language properly.

“This is the cause of the decrease in the numbers of pupils in ethnic minority schools.”

Her own school contains proof of the trend. This year, of the 21 children admitted to the first grade, no less than 19 are ethnic Azeris.

Armenia’s ministry of education, meanwhile, says it has no hard information about cases of Armenian schools being shut in Marneuli or the wider Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

But Nune Vardanian, from the ministry’s department for relations with the diaspora, said such closures could not be ruled out, given the decreasing numbers of pupils in Georgia opting to attend ethnic minority schools overall.

It wasn’t just Azeri children in Georgia who were choosing to go to Georgian schools, she said, “The Armenian youth cannot receive their education in Georgian universities because of their poor knowledge of the Georgian language. That is why parents have started sending their children to Georgian schools.

“If the pace of decline in the number of pupils [in ethnic schools] does not slow, the government of Georgia will one day stop financing them, which means they will stop functioning.”

Marika Tsikoridze is a correspondent of the newspaper Timer. Gita Yelibekian is a reporter of Armenia’s Public Radio.
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