Sabre Foundation and Rohatyn restore educational dreams

by Irena Danysh

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Nestled in the hills of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast lies the small but proud town of Rohatyn. Rohatyn has several things of which to be proud: for starters, it is the birthplace of the famous Roxalana, who in 1520, at the age of 15, was kidnapped by the Turks and found herself in the harem of Sultan Suliman II, yet rose to become his cherished advisor. Before the sultan's death, Roxalana managed to ensure that her own son would become sultan, and thereafter she continued her powerful advisory role. Today the silhouette of a mosque consecrated to her enlivens the picturesque skyline of Istanbul.

But this is a story of legend and extraordinary luck from ancient days. Today Rohatyn has another source of pride, which dominates its own skyline.

Atop Rohatyn's higher hills sits the handsome and historic gymnasium (secondary school academy) of St. Volodymyr the Great. Like Roxalana, it has been fought over, and appropriated by, various groups for periods in its colorful past. (My own great-grandfather, Judge Petro Kohut, was its main champion and benefactor in the 1920s.)

With the advent of Ukraine's independence, Rohatyn's teachers and parents realized that in order to instill patriotism and moral values in their youth, they would need to "resurrect" their gymnasium. However, lack of proper facilities and dire economic conditions in the country made the survival of the fledgling school even more challenging.

Fortunately, through the donation of a substantial sum of money, the dream of a former "native son" to enable his alma mater to experience a renaissance that would benefit the young people of Rohatyn for years to come is becoming a reality. For his gift to be wisely administered, helping hands were required.

Former Rohatynites - the late Oleh Kudryk, Iwan Oleksyn, Ostap Shenkiryk and Ireney Prokopovych - volunteered to become trustees of the generous benefactor's gymnasium fund.

In turn, the board of trustees sought out further assistance: Rebecca Schneider of the Sabre Foundation, a non-profit organization in Cambridge, Mass., and the largest donor in the U.S. of educational materials to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Ms. Schneider visited Rohaytn in May 1997 to conduct a needs assessment of the gymnasium's computer facilities, library collection and curriculum support materials.

With the partnership of Sabre, the gymnasium and the board of trustees, a project of goodwill and aspiration toward fulfilling children's educational dreams was begun.

The St. Volodymyr the Great Gymnasium has both flourished and struggled throughout its history. Founded in 1906 by a priest who was determined to save the local young scholars from the long trek to Lviv for their examinations, it flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, acquiring a substantial new wing to extend its capacity. During this time it produced many graduates renowned for cultural and political achievements both at home and abroad. However, politics and impending war forced the gymnasium to close in 1939 when the library was burned down and professors and students were sent into exile.

The gymnasium reopened in 1991 and now boasts approximately 360 students age 7 to 17, 60 of whom are part of the primary school affiliate. Prospective students must pass entrance exams at the age of 12 in order to attend the gymnasium proper.

Hope in renewal notwithstanding, the school has a number of dire needs. Recently housed in temporary quarters near the city square, as well as in a portion of the original building that is shared with an agricultural and technical school, the gymnasium's lack of space necessitates a continual shifting of students to available classrooms. History, for example, is taught in the chemistry room.

Space is but one problem for the gymnasium. Though quite dedicated, the gymnasium's teachers have had to go without pay, at times for several months. In addition, many subjects lack basic instructional materials: physics students have no workbooks or equipment to do any experiments. The chemistry section is so ill-equipped that even the few experiments that are carried out violate safety rules, endangering the health of students and teachers. The cramped library, made up largely of donated books, has not begun to meet actual needs.

Book needs are the most pressing. Last year 20 percent of the textbooks were obtained through the old Soviet distribution system, and in the coming year even this will be eliminated. The gymnasium has had to rent books from other schools in order to meet demands. Students will now have to purchase their books, whose cost is estimated at $55 (U.S. dollars) per student - far more than many people's monthly salary.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Schneider concluded that even a small infusion of money and materials could improve the students' situations and raise morale among faculty and staff, giving support that is well deserved. "These are teachers who care, and students who want to learn," said Ms. Schneider.

Despite the lack of resources, there have been some successes: the gymnasium placed fourth of 16 schools in the academic competitions recently held in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. More impressively, gymnasium students captured two positions among the 12 students chosen from 400 contestants to study in the U.S.

Ms. Schneider produced a detailed report assessing the gymnasium's current state and its critical needs. Her evaluations included an itemized list of each department's basic and optimum financial and material needs, as well as a modest wish lists of teachers of each subject.

The donor foundation was very enthusiastic about Sabre's report and agreed to immediately respond to recommendations. Sabre, the fund's board of trustees and gymnasium principals have been in frequent contact to implement the agreements reached. The board of trustees covered all costs of the needs assessment; a wide range of English-language materials obtained from Sabre's partner in Ukraine, Sabre-Svitlo; and 10 reconditioned computers with appropriate educational software procured by Sabre.

Lastly, on August 1, 1997, Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers decreed that the original gymnasium campus is to be vacated by present occupants and returned to the gymnasium's use by July 1, 1998.

With these initial developments, the first steps have been taken on the road toward restoring Rohatyn's prized institution to the place of honor in educational excellence that its original founders had dreamt for it - to the benefit of Ukrainian children for generations to come.

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The Sabre Foundation Inc., founded in 1969, works to build free institutions and to examine the ideals that sustain them. Its largest current project makes millions of dollars' worth of donated new books available to needy individuals in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and other developing regions through non-governmental partner organizations, libraries, universities, schools, research organizations and other similar institutions. In its newest initiative, Library and Information Technology Services, Sabre helps organizations in these regions take advantage of rapidly evolving Internet and related information technologies. Sabre also sponsors domestic and international symposia and philosophical publications exploring the nature and accountability of free institutions.

For more information, see Sabre's World Wide Web site:

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 25, 1998, No. 4, Vol. LXVI

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