The first study of students in Estonian-Russian combined high schools reveals that the drop-out rate in these schools is low, high learning motivation helps to overcome difficulties concerning languages and cultural differences, and the cultural identity of the students entrenches rather than blurs. The research was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Research and carried out by University of Tartu Narva College.
The researchers focused on 11th grade students in Estonia’s first combined high schools. These are schools where some of the students learn only in Estonian, while for others the curriculum is taught 60% in Estonian and 40% in Russian. Officially there are nine such schools among the 168 high schools in Estonia. The study used personal and focus group interviews with students, teachers, and school principals. The main conclusions include:
These schools emerged more in response to circumstances rather than through careful planning. Mostly, the schools were formed because there were not enough students for purely Estonian or Russian-language schools in the area.
The drop-out rate at these schools is low compared to other public high schools—less than 5%. Students who are not able to cope with the changes in cultural environment, learning requirements, and language of instruction tend to leave during the first academic year.
Support measures and motivation to learn help to overcome difficulties and cultural differences. Problems arising from cultural differences are addressed through various measures, including thoughtful and regular explanations for both students and parents.
Estonian students find the multicultural environment more difficult than Russians, as they may be in close contact with a Russian-speaking cultural space for the first time (while the reverse is less likely). They feel added tension due to higher expectations for learning in their native tongue. Estonian-Russian bilingual students who are familiar with both cultural spaces, and have situational identity, adapt best in these combined schools. The cultural identity of students in these schools entrenches rather than blurs. The proximity of another cultural environment more likely increases the students’ sense of their own culture.
The study concludes that these combined high schools can be a success for both Estonians and Russians. Actions should be taken with care and take into account the specifics of each community and its historical background. The authors recommend first developing early language immersion, which is not yet common in Estonia.
- J. Rootamm-Valter, K. Kallas, H. Lahi, A. Šuvalov
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