• March 18, 2016
  • 398

V. Benkunskas: We are fighting for good quality and better teaching conditions!

For a year already the issues concerning education of the Vilnius City have been held in Deputy Mayor Valdas Benkunskas’s hands. Coming from Šilutė, this ambitious, almost 32-year-old representative of the Conservatives-Christian Democrats has been a Vilnius man for twelve years, and for five  – a councillor of our city. Does he embody the local version of the American Dream – “Lietuvio svajonė”? Or rather “sapnas”? In the memory of Poles living in Vilnius for sure he’ll be remembered as “the one who strengthened Polish schools out,” fulfilling dreams of several generations of his natives in the majesty of law. We’ve already undergone the first stage of this “reorganisation;” there are still the remaining to be carried out. After the Konarski School and Lazdynai cases, the ones of the Lelewel and Syrokomla Schools (the last two secondary schools in Vilnius!) haven’t been solved yet, but there are already some ideas for primary schools in Liepkalnis and Pavilnys (if I’m to limit myself to mentioning just the Polish schools).

Will we regret one day that the education issues haven’t been included in Marek Adam Harold’s area of responsibility for example – the first British man in the Local Government of Vilnius? Perhaps; but the Lithuania’s capital city is changed by youth that haven’t even graduated from a Vilnius school – after all, it could be an obstruction when making decisions, especially the unpopular and controversial ones, which indeed are what’s really necessary in Vilnius – according to the Deputy Mayor – for the good of the very students and better learning conditions!

Valdas Benkunskas gained his political savvy as an adviser to the Saudargas family (the MEP and former Chef of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Algirdas and his son Paulius) and we can see that it was a good training, since it wasn’t any of his older party colleagues, like Vidas Urbonavičius, who’s become famed for his honesty when he didn’t accept a bribe (he comes from the Šiauliai environs), or Mykolas Majauskas, who was Andrius Kubilius’s protege and candidate of the Homeland Union for the Vilnius mayoralty (at least he was born in Vilnius, though he spent a considerable part of his life abroad), but Benkunsas indeed who stood on the right hand of the new mayor-liberal to help him make not always liberal decisions.

The Deputy Mayor himself points out that the situation which his predecessors had left the Vilnius education in required immediate action. The nationality of a student, according to him, doesn’t mean much. The education reform lay fallow, some schools were overcrowded, some were filled with emptiness, so he got down to work. Schools with Polish as a language of instruction were at the crossroads – some part divided itself into “gimnazjums” and primary schools accordingly to the spirit of the reform, another part more and more frequently defended the position that such a division would just inflict harm to national minorities’ schools and that they should keep the 12-year learning cycle, which would allow to maintain the existing network of Polish schools; especially because an option of a so-called “long gimnazjum” has emerged (so together with the primary school, not 9-12, but 5-12 or 1-12).

Unlike Polish activists who claimed that any Polish school could be closed down just by its natural death after the last student had graduated, the new coalition didn’t have any doubts where to put a comma in the defend-or-reform decision. For their own good, of course, the senior-class students had to leave their Sz. Konarski School and the School in Lazdynai. The latter accepted its fate (the John Paul II Secondary School being near), but the Konarski School, driven into the hands of the Adam Mickiewicz Secondary School, is still not sure whether it’ll manage to survive when it gives up its senior classes and doesn’t get the junior ones. In the meantime, the Mickiewicz School strives to save its classes from the 5th to 8th grade (the so-called pure gimnazjum comprises just classes from the 9th to 12th grade), because otherwise the emptiness will start to fill not just the school itself, but also the purse…

But it was the city authorities’ decision on the J. Lelewel Secondary School that turned out to be a slap in the face of the school and pride of the Vilnius Poles. The above mentioned institution is the oldest functioning Polish school in Vilnius, which was once somewhat disturbed by the combination with Russian classes, but you cannot destroy a legend! The new authorities proposed a “fair deal,” which was a move from Antakalnis to the other side of the Neris River, as they weren’t going to maintain the school branch (until recently – the Antoni Wiwulski Primary School) and its main seat while both were half empty. What’s more, a considerable part of the main building is already occupied by the Lithuanian Progimnazjum in Antakalnis, which has its rooms… in three different buildings and finds it too little already!

Poles would agree with the statistical argument if they could, for example, come back from both sides of the Neris River to the historic building of the school located close by, which was built at the time of the Second Polish Republic (1930) and was the birthplace of the school’s legend in the 50s and 60s of the 20th century. Perhaps under the rule of the previous coalition it would have been possible to organise the Lelewel School in such a way that the Lithuanian Progimnazjum would be moved out to the other side of the river (since it’s so close, as Benkunskas argues, moreover the old Wiwulski School shares its building with the Lithuanian school as well!), but which of the Polish politicians in Lithuania would decide for “finishing the Wiwulski School off” with their own hands?

But it’s a different matter when the “hostile hand” wants to leave without a Polish school actually the whole left-bank side of Vilnius from Nemenčinė and Naujoji Vilnia to the Mickiewicz Secondary School and Primary School in Liepkalnis. I don’t know whether the reorganisation will do good to the Lelewel School, but for sure the Polish and Lithuanian unity will benefit from it: when Vilnius Poles claimed their rights by the local government building yesterday, , in the fastness of the tower block the Deputy Mayor, supported by the communities of the Lithuanian Progimnazjum in Antakalnis, explained to the journalists whose children suffered when the Polish-Russian school with half empty classrooms didn’t let the overcrowded Lithuanian one develop.

It reminded me of a certain situation in 2004 when Poles opposed the relocation of the original Divine Mercy image from the Church of the Holy Spirit and an elderly Lithuanian woman, who probably looked into a “Polish” church for the first time due to the conflict, examined the rich interiors as a museum exhibition nodding and saying: “Such Christians… you have so many beautiful pictures here, from whole Vilnius after all, and you don’t want to give us just one to our new church…”

Just like the curia has been relentless once, so is the local government now – a decision concerning the Lelewel School was reached last year (I don’t think it happened during a council meeting in the summer actually, but in the spring, at the time of the election) and there’s no way back. Benkunskas’s stance can be paraphrased as follows: “It’s said that you can’t get water out of a stone, and we give two million euro from the indebted Vilnius budget so that the renovated “former Wiwulski – new Lelewel” can become the first Polish engineering gimnazjum, with the luxury of grades ranging from the 1st to 12th, which Mickiewicz for example could only dream of, and you Poles are still unsatisfied??? Don’t you have a bridge over the river?”

So it seems that a quarter of Vilnius will be left without a Polish school and in the city centre there will be two “long gimnazjums” three kilometres from one another: the Catholics (“Syrokomla”) – on the left, the engineers (“Lelewel”) – on the right! But how can we know when sending a child to school what will be good for them after several years of attending it? Actually, we’re not still sure about those “Catholic elements” either; it’s a dispute just like the one with the Constitutional Tribunal in Macierz [the Association of Polish School Teachers in Lithuania; translator’s note]: the local government claims that a (formally) new school cannot be formed without an ecclesiastical partner, and the W. Syrokomla School community along with AWPL activists state that such an obligation almost doesn’t exist anymore and that the metropolitan bishop’s blessing is just welcome.

Why wasn’t a new public limited company established when the AWPL was in the ruling coalition? Because local government members didn’t have enough time, as the possibility of a “conceptual (specialised) long gimnazjum” appeared only in 2014, less than a year before the election, when Lithuanian politicians understood  that chopping twelve-grade secondary schools up would not be beneficial for the Lithuanian education always and in all aspects. Currently, both sides stubbornly defend their views – officially it’s fashionably called a “Polish-Lithuanian dialogue in a Vilnian way,” but ordinary Vilnius men tend to call it simpler – “a blind gut.”

“Syrokomlówka” can function as a secondary school until 1st September 2017. The parliamentary election will be carried out on 9th October 2016. Into whose hands does the time play?

In the throes of the fight for the secondary schools and gimnazjums, the not numerous primary schools in Vilnius stayed in the background. A lot of parents still prefer the system they remember from their youth – “from the 1st grade to the Matura exam in one school” – hence there is less regard for the 8- or even 10-grade schools. However, it’s them actually that are very important and are to ensure greater availability to a Polish school, as – obviously – when somebody doesn’t have such “in the backyard” or somewhere by the way to a parent’s work, they often send their children to the nearest school, regardless of its language and learning ambience.

Not long ago, quietly enough, Polish classes of the Primary School in Jeruzalė have gone down in history. The school was founded in 1923 and has been functioning to this day in a building from 1937, when it was given the name of Stanisław Jachowicz (yeah, he’s the author of the “The Sick Kitten” poem). In 2013 there were still 62 children attending the Polish classes and 611 learning in the Lithuanian ones, but since September the number of students in the latter has amounted only to 596… A decade was enough for the new headmaster to “strengthen the school out” and the belief that there aren’t enough students who would attend Polish classes of this school on such a huge extent of northern Vilnius from Riešė and Nemenčinė, through Turniškės, Ožkiniai, Žalieji ežerai, Verkiai, Santariškės, to Baltupiai, Jeruzalė, Fabijoniškės is totally wrong…

Now new prospects are opening up for the School in Liepkalnis – one of the most modern schools in the Second Polish Republic, whose wall, having been decorated with a beautiful huge map of Poland just before the war, was tightly and solidly covered with stone by Lithuanian authorities after 1939. So, due to the lack of students, it’s to be connected with the Russian Senamiesčio School. We don’t know yet which school is going to be moved to the other; however, the Senamiesčio one is located just behind the Gate of Dawn, and half of the building is already occupied by a private school, probably instructing in English but run by Turks (our portal would be already admonished in Germany because of this fact, as nationality can’t be treated as a differentiating category).

The Deputy Mayor claims that in the Old Town there’s also a shortage of Lithuanian kindergartens, so probably it’ll be Russians who will migrate uphill, to Liepkalnis… There, in a Polish school actually, there are still some Russian classes, but after the two have united, Poles will be a minority there presumably. Who bothers? Afterwards it’ll be possible to blab even louder that Poles in Lithuania are Russophiles and Kremlin agents, all you need to do is to slightly push the Slavs towards each other… There’s no longer a threat of Polonisation – Warsaw has been once turned from east to west already and that’s how it’s stayed.

A nicely located school in Pavilnys is also a titbit – tradition of a hundred years constitutes an unassailable argument, so any reorganisation isn’t intended there. A nearby Lithuanian school “Vilnies” bursts at the seams as well, while the Polish-Russian one becomes more and more deserted. It’s necessary then to take care of the children providently, and because the Lithuanian school’s extension will probably take some time due to the lack of the needed money – couldn’t neighbours take for instance the little kids under their roof? Such a temporary solution. Tested: “Lelewel” once has also “temporarily” let into the newly renovated school the younger class grades of the Lithuanian Progimnazjum in Antakalnis  – accepted until maybe one day Poles – as it was at the end of the 80s – will start to storm schools with the native language of instruction, being able to afford living in Antakalnis.

The Poles sound the alarm, as the new Vilnius authorities don’t listen to their arguments – the new coalition doesn’t complain about their hearing, it’s just the opposite – it’s willing to talk to any community (provided that there will be no sign of the AWPL at the meeting, such an allergy it has), but I haven’t yet met anybody who would be able to persuade the mayor or his deputy to change their minds and do something just as the Vilnius Poles would like it to be done. If anybody knows such cases, I would really like them to contact me; I will admit with pleasure that I’ve been wrong, because I remember only that Mayor Remigijus Šimašius as the deputy minister wasn’t against the spelling of Polish last names and perhaps also local names, and as a candidate for the mayoralty he mumbled something about the Polish mass in the Vilnius cathedral. However, the new coalition in the Vilnius local government has probably destroyed the remains of a Pole in him, which supposedly lie dormant in every Lithuanian man…

The decrease in the number of students in Polish schools is a compelling argument, even though for years the Polish “Macierz Szkolna” [trans. Educatioonal Society] has announced yearly that a thousand first-graders are going to Polish schools and that there’s no drop. Is it the Vilnians who send their children to the Polish schools of the Vilnius region, or maybe we make up for the fall noticeable in Vilnius in the Šalčininkai region? Where do then all those Polish-sounding names and surnames in Lithuanian and even Russian schools come from? Is it in search for “better quality of teaching”?

So it’s great, and will only get better! We’ll get specialised gimnazjums, which will take our Polish children out of non-Polish schools, at last there will be a Catholic school and a technical one; if only artistic (after all we have so many ensembles!) and sports (KS Polonia has been suggesting it for a long time, but who would listen) schools could be formed as well. We’ll make the agricultural and business school in Vaidotai reach the highest academic levels! Teachers won’t be able to imagine a lesson without an interactive whiteboard and tablets, the most talented youths not only from the whole Vilnius region but also from the Suwałki one will commute to Vilnius (they’ll be admitted to the University in Białystok easier than back there!), Poland will help of course! We’ll even open new classes for the youth from mixed families in the Mickiewicz and John Paul II Schools, so that after Lithuanian and Russian primary ones they’ll be able to study for free in Poland! We’ll build a hall of residence for students of limited means or we’ll buy school buses so as to transport pupils to schools! A bypass will enable its users to get anywhere quickly and efficiently, the Church will eventually fight contraception off, the AWPL will add €120 (500+.lt) for each child – briefly speaking, prospects bright as a rainbow (no subtext!) for New Europe; if only someone wanted to grasp it all somehow…

Apropos the support on the part of Poland: the Vilnius authorities are still open to collaboration with the Association “Polish Community” within the co-financing of Polish schools’ modernisation and renovation! Admittedly, they don’t have money for it this year, as everything has been gobbled up by European projects, but if in the new financial prospect there aren’t so many EU funds – welcome! Pecunia (Latin: money) for the good of children – whether they are from Brussels, Warsaw, or even Moscow – non olet (does not smell)!

By the way, it’s very interesting whether the right wing in Poland will give the right wing in Lithuania some money for Polish schools in Vilnius…

Translated by Karolina Katarzyńska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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