Change Opportunities for Schools

INITIATIVE, implemented by Soros Foundation – Latvia (SFL), funded by the Emergency Funds of the Open Society Foundations (OSF)

The initiative consists of two phases: first „Development of small schools into community learning and culture centers” (2009 – 2011) and second „Schools as Community Development Resources” (2012 – 2013)

The main goal of the project started in 2009 during the deepest point of the crises was to deal with the issue of threatening social disintegration due to economic crisis by offering support (the second chance) for maintaining and revival of small schools in economically and socially depressed, rural areas, small towns and urban peripheries and to develop such schools into multifunctional community resource centers.

In the 1st project from 361 proposal 53 sites were selected where grants were financial support was combined with extensive training, consulting and mentoring from the core team of experts. Main issue for consideration was how school can extend its scope of activities and become multifunctional community center which addresses needs of the local community and acts as a meaningful, efficiently organized physical and intellectual resource for people of all generations.

Main directions of activities included
– Maintaining and expanding “ typical” functions of schools;
– Add diverse, user friendly and needs based adult education activities;
– Providing specific services for young children and their families;
– Increasing potential for employability and entrepreneurship.

In the 2nd stage of the initiative aim of the interventions is focused to supporting development of sustainable partnerships among schools, local communities and broader civil society in transforming schools into multifunctional community resource centers in rural areas of Latvia. Consolidating and strengthening the results and impact achieved since the beginning of the initiative in 2009, from 2012 main emphasis are put on three main tasks:
– improving access to formal and informal education for all generations including expanding and improving early childhood provisions,
– promoting civic participation and grassroots engagement in diverse activities,
– diversifying employment opportunities by raising entrepreneurial skills and building culture of inclusion and social cohesion in the communities.

In the 2nd project call for proposals was divided into two parts: for schools/community centers which participated in the 1st stage and for the new schools. It was decided that building capacity of the already participating sites and adding new municipalities/communities in the next stage of the initiative will allow
– to pilot experience of the first generation of transformed schools in the new sites,
– to spread best practices, and
– to build up the capacity of the first generation schools to be mentors and resource centres.

In total 41 site was selected for the 2nd project.

Following ways were chosen to achieve the goal:
– to provide funding for schools/communities committed to re-profiling into multifunctional learning community centers;
– to build capacity of local change agents: providing/offering know-how to support the re-profiling of schools.

Activities of the projects were/are based on holistic approach to education and development where activities are closely linked and support each other towards greater social cohesion, economic activity/employability, cultural diversity and sensitivity, environmental awareness, and wellbeing of individuals and communities in general. Significant attention was devoted to building synergies among different parts of interactions, e.g., by providing access to formal and informal learning opportunities for children in the local schools families also were supported un multiply ways, such as offering educational opportunities, social support, consultations for seeking jobs and establishing small businesses etc what leads to  revitalization of communities in general.

One of the important tasks also is to promote school-based community development models at the regional and national level and support changes at the policy level to assure scaling up and sustainability of the initiative.

Impact study was carried out in 2010-2011 by external experts and it revealed significance of the project in the specific situation in Latvia and its potential for long term results.

There has been very active dissemination of the information about the implementation and results of the projects through various channels, such as

–   publications (Collection of the best practices “Schools Opens the Door”, blogsite www.parmainuskolas.lv, methodological recommendations “Pašu skola pašu valdībā”, published and disseminated in cooperation with the UNESCO LNC, numerous articles in the national media etc);

–   presentations in the national and international conferences, such as UNESCO WCECCE (Moscow, September 2010), CofE workshop “Converging Competences in Action: How to promote the balanced learning subject specific and transversal attitudes, skills and competences” (Riga, October  2011), conference of the EU project “Grassroots Europe for Local Wellbeing” (Budapest, October 2011), International Forum „School Dropout: In Search for the right approach” (August 2012) etc.;

–   participation in the national Task forces and Work groups, such as Education Reform group under Min of Education, National Commission “Education for All”, Experts’ Forum initiated by the Latvian Rural Forum etc.

Documentary film “Second Bell” was created in 2011 (available also in English) which is widely disseminated and used as a methodological tool for promoting policy discussions and practical planning.

More information:
Aija Tūna
Director of the initiative
aija.tuna@sfl.lv; +371-29416341

 

 

 

 

53 Sprouts of Changes to Better Life
Aija Tūna, coordinator of the SFL initiative „Change opportunities for schools”

While Latvia still was in the very middle of the crisis, 29 November, 2009 brought new opportunities to 53 schools in Latvia to show what they can do, to justify the meaning and significance of their existence, to open the doors to every member of communities transforming the life-long learning notion into a lucid reality.  Implementation of the projects within the SFL initiative „Change Opportunities for Schools” started where schools worked together with municipalities to improve life in their neighborhood. After a year, looking back we can see that the sprouts of change are thriving bravely, assuring and pleasing the project teams and participants, providing experience and encouraging others to act.
A little history and some figures at first. Following a number of varied information sources the economic crisis, the administrative territorial reform, downsizing of the school network and changes in the funding model for schools had significant impact on Latvian education system on all its levels. Small rural schools were concerned the most severely. Although in most cases they continue providing formal education interest education availability which has hitherto been an integral part of educational programs implemented at schools of Latvia – and a part of school culture in Latvia – has been substantially diminished. Besides, for all that local culture houses have been retained their resources have been significantly decreased; wherewith possibilities of providing interest education to all generations have noticeably diminished. The situation referring to availability of early childhood education, social and culture services has become especially problematic. Adult education events have ceased in recent years, they have mostly been implemented within various short term projects and most frequently been confined to sports and amateur performances for those who are real enthusiasts of these activities. All in all it means that alongside with the worsening of the economic and social situation in the country Latvia rural population has been dramatically denied of any lifelong learning, meaningful leisure time or to employment promotion directed opportunities of education in their vicinity.In the summer of 2009, a reaction to what was happening in the country and taking the opportunity the SFL submitted a Project application to the Soros Emergency Fund for the support of education and social needs of Latvian small schools and local community members. The Emergency Fund was set up to help diminish the impact of the crisis in Eastern European and Middle Asia countries; the situation in Latvia was very difficult; the application was prepared clearly and with certainty.

  • As a result 1 250 000 Euros were granted to the SFL, most part of which was granted to Latvian municipalities for supporting small schools in form of separate grants of  up to 25 000 Euros.
  • A call for projects was announced and 323 schools applied for the first stage.
  • A team of experts selected 151 applicants for the second stage.
  •  53 most potent projects were selected for implementation. Unfortunately due to limited financing a lot of other good projects were set aside and – what is even worse – they were not just projects, but schools and communities in Latvia which really needed help. Therefore one of the main tasks of the initiative during this year was not only to promote changes in the 53 municipalities and communities involved in the projects but also learn and build patterns which can later serve as a source of inspiration and experience to every school, municipality and community in Latvia.

The general task of the initiative was to promote changes in thinking and attitude of people, and activities of institutions. „Sustainable development can be achieved and provided only in a society where people are not victims of their destiny but they actively create their own future. The projects submitted to the SFL open call to participate in the initiative “Change opportunities for schools” show that in a lot of places in Latvia people are disposed not only to survive, but to live well and undertake active role in reaching this goal. We are particularly happy about the fact that several local governments have joined in with their co-funding thus proving that education is a priority in the society even during crisis,” these were the words Andris Aukmanis, the Executive Director of the Soros Foundation – Latvia dedicated to the project teams.
The great role of municipalities was emphasized also by Silvija Šimfa, the Advisor on Health and Social Matters in Latvian Association of Local and Regional Governments: „Any local territory has to be a community with its own heart and common activities. We must not let people fall into decay and get used to reduced life quality. If it happens, it will be difficult to change when new job opportunities arise.”
It was very essential that the Ministry of Education and Science as a partner of the initiative supported the idea of extending the school functions and teachers’ capacity and were interested in results. Latvian Rural Forum, in its turn throughout the year helped to investigate the rural reality in Latvia and form a synergic link with other successful initiatives and active people.
There we were: the team of the Project experts, ready to share our experience, ask questions, support and encourage; and all the Project teams, each of them with a granted money bag and the Project application in hand. How to join everything and everybody together? Some of us had faced just one of many projects in our lives, some – the very first one, during the implementation of which it had to be learned how to transform the ideas into reality, now and then coming to a conclusion that to write a project application can be far and away more difficult than implement the project itself.
It was clear that we could not afford implementing expensive, ineffective and boring programs in educational system with no sustainable impact. If doing things “as always”, one cannot expect that the results and achievement will suddenly be different and better. Furthermore, changes cannot be brought in from somewhere outside; they have to come from the community itself. However, we also understood that some support from outside as for example this Soros Foundation – Latvia new initiative, could be of vital help in the process of change.
Fifty-three different projects where local community needs are in the center of each of them. Just because of these needs the school must become a multi-functional center doing not what „we can; we like and we are good at it” (at all events, not only that) but doing what is necessary for local people and the community as a whole. It was a new challenge, but that is why the satisfaction and gain are even greater – because of new skills, of people who came out of their homes, straightened their backs and joined others to look for ways of improvement in their lives. This is the biggest hope for the Project sustainability – people who have met each other and found a second wind in this very difficult moment of their lives.
Apart from versatile activities every local community first of all was looking for new ways of keeping the existing resources and not losing them – school premises in physical and schools themselves in intellectual meaning, teachers’ knowledge and skills – and the ways of adding new, previously unnoticed or not used to full extent resources and opportunities. One of the biggest surprises discovered by Project teams and also heads of municipalities is local people’s talents, responsiveness, willingness and readiness to come together, learn and engage in activities despite the rather gloomy descriptions of the existing situation in the Project applications. It means the existing resources are more considerable than it was expected and much more can be done.
It turns out that if addressed correctly, people respond to and join in. Even more, addressing the right people who the solution can refer to, understanding their situation and needs in detail, making out what they have and what assistance is necessary responsiveness is even bigger. Certainly it cannot be overlooked that the courses and classes were offered free of charge, but, on the other hand they allowed summoning courage and „tasting” life which is different. In many places people with very limited financial means have already showed their commitment to find ways of maintaining and expanding opportunities of coming together, doing things and learning after the end of the Project. After all – it has turned out that this is not so expensive; especially if the municipality provides that the school is heated and the light is on. And if a small remuneration to the Center coordinator is added than everything may go on.
So, what did those bringing changes to schools do? The aim of the Initiative was to strengthen the idea of entirety: we consider the person, the community as a whole, not dividing responsibilities of separate offices, lines in the budget or demographic indicators. Therefore a lot of activities have been carried out within almost every Project – the activities people needed. However, the general directions of activities have been described in the chapters of this book:

  • supporting children from the moment of their birth to the beginning of the official schooling, supporting parents, families, encouraging everybody to learn, develop and not to lose the so important first years of in a child’s life;
  • supporting versatile personality development – at any age! They are interest education for children, leisure time activities for adults, and then it turns out – why cannot they act together? They can, and everybody is the winner!
  • – supporting and encouraging coming together – to speak out what has been built up on the heart, to make plans and improve one’s environment, to set up p a union and get to doing even bigger things:
  • supporting developing the employment potential and skills. Everything from getting a tractor driver’s license to mastering origami, and everything in between – and it turns out that it all increases opportunities for work and earning money, improves the quality of life. And one more thing to be done – learn to meet those people who need these newly acquired skills, who are interested in these services:
  • supporting those who need the support most of all. It does not matter if they are children or adults with special needs, somebody who does not have hot water at home and therefore cannot wash his or her clothes, somebody who feels lonely and forgotten by everybody – the Project implementers learned to see needs and rush to help.

The Initiative has been largely directed to implementing principles of life-long learning and emphasizing the role of a school in the local community life. It is important to remember that education is not a panacea which can solve every possible problem, but it has an essential role in long-term development of the community and in all its realms and manifestations every day. In its turn, school, although it is not the only place where a person learns, is a resource and an opportunity which has to be taken advantage of. School  symbolizes education and remembering that education is much more than just formal learning during academic lessons, it is possible not only to maintain and save the schools in Latvia, but also transform them into very important, vital and very necessary local community units. Letting life-long learning into the school premises – local people of all the ages and all the interest groups – can be a key to maintaining and not losing schools. Moreover it can help the community to develop and consolidate as a place which will be considered by young families, burnt by the city rush and anonymity and ready for changes and actions. Yes, families are the „insurance policies”, today’s resources and future opportunities of local community. The SFL Initiative „Change opportunities for schools give possibilities to local communities to look for the ways how to address local people, how to make use of the existing resources and develop them. It encourages people to look for ways from a hobby to employment, from a need to opportunities, from waiting to doing.
And now again a few figures:

  • More than 10 000 people of different ages participated in various activities.
  • Approximately 500 participants of life-long learning events have received certificates which can help them find or change employment opportunities.
  • Within 51 projects material and technical base of schools – multi-functional centers has been improved, computers, household appliances, sports inventory, musical instruments wood and metal processing machines and a lot of other useful equipment has been purchased which will be made use of long after the Project is finished.
  • Repairs and improvement of surroundings have been done in 40 places; in several cases it has been both, acquiring new skills and gaining practical benefit for the surroundings.
  • Within the Projects a lot of charity activities, jumble sales, concerts and other events have taken place which have united the community members and promoted mutual assistance and solidarity.
  • Activities of 30 Projects have directly involved pre-school children, thus promoting so topical children’s early development.
  • Participants in 45 Projects have involved the unemployed; this has been their possibility to acquire new skills, psychological and practical support in promoting their employment.
  •  School children’s parents have participated in activities within 46 projects breaking down stereotypes about unwillingness of parents to communicate and cooperate with schools.

This list could be continued. More precise information on the results of the Initiative and all the Projects will be found in the study which will be presented in spring, 2011. But we can say already now that the results achieved by school projects can be evaluated as one of the first steps in the process of transforming small schools into multi-functional community centers.
Within the framework of the SFL Initiative schools and municipalities have gone new ways, searched for new forms of work, asked questions and found answers how to make their lives more colorful and bring prosperity to communities. It means also stop, think, doubt, think twice, search for answers and support, and continue their way. What we find can be the truth of the day, the situation or the community – solution and response to people’s needs and this is exactly what we need in this dynamic time, full of challenges and opportunities.

The Project implementers found inspiration also in words said by the Chairman of the Board at „SilJa”, Ltd. Silva Jeromanova-Maura: “If you feel the wind of change rising in the air, do not build a wall where to hide behind. Build a windmill!” It seems this is exactly what many of the Project implementers did – they made use of the situation to create new possibilities, to find new cooperation partners (and what a surprise! – they are often there, beside – seen but not noticed for so long), to try out new forms of activities, etc. Therefore the next cognition we wrote on our web page www.parmainuskolas.lv was the saying of the futurologist Gary Marx on choices which we are given – to defend what we have, or create what we need. Such an activity asks for awareness of what we really want, what is really necessary and – who „we” are, whose interests we represent, whose viewpoints we listen to and take into consideration.
Throughout the year good experience stories were flowing from 53 places in Latvia. It is important that they are heard as widely as possible. They can still be read on www.parmaiņuskolas.lv; they can be found in this book together with descriptions of difficulties discovered and obstacles overcome. Possibly, one can learn from these even more.
We hope that the experience of the Project implementers will inspire and encourage to action people of other regions and parishes, will help not to be afraid of potential difficulties, but find solutions and believe in change opportunities and results. Creating changes is our task to overcome real or imaginary obstacles, created by ourselves or somebody else; they rob our energy and power which are so necessary in doing real and constructive work.
Thinking of the Project and even more of the future of small schools in Latvia we would like to urge everybody to be open to new ways of thinking and doing, continue clarifying where meaningful and necessary actions are hampered by our inertness, habits, lack of experience, but where – by bigger or smaller bureaucratic impediments or imperfection of legislation; look for ways how we can – each of us separately or all of us together – do away with these obstacles.
Let us draw inspiration and initiatives from the experience stories in this book. They depict success of the Project implementers, contemplations and difficulties they have experienced. They can advise so much to a wise reader. They are not ready recipes which must be adhered exactly, but tools arsenal and everybody can Choose the most appropriate from it.
On an individual level we can draw experience how to influence what is going on in our surroundings or working place. On the school level we can make sure that the school – and teachers – can give more than we have traditionally thought of, and their contribution is necessary for the others and brings joy to the teachers themselves. On the municipality level we can get satisfaction that by studying, re-planning and effectively applying the existing resources we can do a lot, anyway attract and manage new resources more effectively. On the State level it is all summed up, as the state, just like the community is made of us, our lives, challenges and successes.
Fifty-three schools of change were looking for new ways how to improve their vicinity, community and people’s lives better.
A lot of activities seemed strange at first – „How can that be? Will everybody be coming to school whenever he or she wishes? What will happen at schools?”Now many of us have been convinced that nothing bad happens; just the opposite – it is more interesting and more useful for everybody. A lot of Latvian schools and municipalities have the trial of changes still ahead – and we hope we manage to inspire and encourage them.
But I would like to remind a recently read thought which really made me think to our schools of changes: every new and innovative idea eventually becomes an endemic dogma. Or vice versa – every dogma has once been a revolutionary innovation.
What does it teach to us? Let us keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to feel the changes, needs and possibilities. Let us become ourselves changes which we want to see and experience – for ourselves, our near and dear ones, our peers. People collaboration, support and good deeds are the best refreshment for the sprouts of changes! Good luck!

Why the Initiative “Change Opportunities for Schools” is Important

“The crisis lighted up the weakest spots in the education system in Latvia. In order to exist small schools have to change and it must be taken into consideration that education is the whole society’s need. The Soros Foundation – Latvia in this situation mostly acts as a catalytic agent which offers some help in the form of expertise and a little financial support to creates circumstances for the communities to find their own ways and models of development, to help themselves and put in place cooperation networks.” Guntars Catlaks, Chairman, Soros Foundation – Latvia

„Sustainable development can be achieved and provided only in a society where people are not victims of their destiny but they actively create their own future. The projects submitted to the SFL open call to participate in the initiative “Change opportunities for schools” show that in a lot of places in Latvia people are disposed not only to survive, but to live well and undertake active role in reaching this goal. We are particularly happy about the fact that several local governments have joined in with their co-funding thus proving that education is a priority in the society even during crisis.” Andris Aukmanis, Executive Director, Soros Foundation – Latvia

„We cannot afford implementing expensive, ineffective and boring programs in educational system with no sustainable impact. If doing things “as always”, one cannot expect that the results and achievement will suddenly be different and better. Furthermore, such changes cannot be brought in from somewhere outside; they have to come from the community itself. However some support from outside as in case with the Soros Foundation – Latvia new initiative can be of vital help in the process of change.” Aija Tūna, SFL Initiative Coordinator

„Any local territory has to be a community with its own heart and common activities. We must not let people fall into decay and get used to reduced life quality. If it happens, it will be difficult to change when new job opportunities arise. The initiative of the Soros Foundation – Latvia “Change opportunities for schools” is a great way to support such activities.” Silvija Šimfa, Advisor on Health and Social Matters, Latvian Association of Local and Regional Governments
„Real numbers and figures are the best arguments to show the value of small schools and try to preclude efforts to close them when talking to representatives of the government or media. Our financial projections in Britain testify that maintenance of small schools is not expensive if we take into account the resources the society can save up on combining services or preventing problems. By presenting tangible gains, especially the high quality of education we have managed to save several schools in Scotland and other places in Britain.” Barbara Taylor, General Secretary and Mervyn Benford, Information Officer, National Association for Small Schools, UK