While the majority of public schools in Estonia provide Estonian-language education, Russian remains the primary language of instruction at a substantial number of schools, particularly in cities and regions with significant Russian-speaking populations. As educators, experts and lawmakers continue to debate whether and how to transition to a fully Estonian-language model, one tiny school in a rural borough on the northern coast of Lake Peipus continues to operate bilingually — as it has for more than a century already.
Scaled up to U.S. sizes, the borough of Lohusuu might count as what is referred to as a "one-stoplight town." Here in Estonia, however, the place doesn't even have a single stoplight; what it does have is a single grocery store, an Aldar Market whose door is adorned with annual "Kliendid kiidavad" award stickers for good service dating back to at least 2015.
The borough, population 335, also boasts a cultural center, a library, an Orthodox church, a Lutheran church and a school — Lohusuu School, which, under one roof, operates a kindergarten and provides basic education, through 9th grade, in Estonian and Russian.
At such a small school, teachers have the advantage of getting to know not just their students, but all of the children who attend the school, and children in turn knowing all of the teachers as well as each other. During the ten-minute breaks between each of the eight 45-minute classes per day, children spill out of the classrooms to chat and play with one another, and the halls are filled with bilingual chatter. Some of the bigger kids occupy a couch outside of one classroom; others sit on the wide stairs between floors, pausing in their personal conversations to say hello to teachers as they pass: "Tere!" "Zdravstvuyte!"
Two schools under one roof
Lohusuu School is divided into two halves — an Estonian-language half and a Russian-language half. Nonetheless, many classes, such as art and gym, are held together, and students have plenty of opportunities to see one another at lunch and between classes as well.
Katariina*, a 9th grader, said that this has made her school experience much more enjoyable. Her family speaks Russian at home, but she was placed in an Estonian-language class at the school right from the start.
"This means that I will end up speaking both Russian and Estonian well; I am learning more of both every day," she explained at the end of English class. "It will make it easier for me to go on to upper secondary school in Estonian, and attend university after that. But I am still able to see my Russian-speaking friends and talk to them in Russian between classes. I can also ask for help in Russian if I am having trouble understanding something in Estonian. It makes me feel more confident."
This is an attitude that manifested in the comments of students and teachers alike over and over in the span of two days — that the school, its students and its teachers largely being bilingual is a boon, not a hindrance.
Popping into the third floor teachers' lounge between classes, gym teacher Roman Mitt, a part-timer who teaches gym class at several area schools in turn, explained that the kids would be playing field hockey next period, and he would provide instructions to them in Estonian, and if any of them needed any clarification, he would follow up in Russian — if one of the other kids didn't get to explaining first.
This same translating and code-switching between Estonian and Russian is apparent in children as young as kindergarten, who are seemingly entirely unhindered by any sort of linguistic barriers.
During a free period, school director Külli Oja, who also teaches history, spoke of the benefits of the school's dual-language instruction as well.
"When they go on to upper secondary school, you can tell our students are comfortable with both languages," Oja said. "Even if they formally learned in one language, they were still constantly exposed to the other. It breaks down the barrier of 'us' versus 'them.' The kids don't consider the other language to be anything unusual. They score better on exams too."
The integration in that regard goes beyond language, too. The director recalled that the recent Father's Day program put on by the kids included both Estonian and Russian songs and dances, which helps expose all of the children to different cultures and traditions while reaffirming that their own family's traditions are normal and worthy of celebration as well, naturally promoting inclusivity and tolerance among them. And all of this without any special extra programs needed.
"We practice integration for free," the director quipped.
Nothing new about it
While Russian-language education is a contentious topic in Estonia in large part due to the decades-long Soviet occupation that only just came to an end 28 years ago, Lohusuu School's history as a bilingual school dates all the way back to the 19th century. Even Lohusuu itself was traditionally divided by the Avijõgi River into "Russian-Lohusuu" on its eastern bank and "Estonian-Lohusuu" on its western, with the former home to Russian-speaking Old Believers that had spread along the western bank of Lake Peipus centuries ago already.
Several teachers, both Estonian- and Russian-speaking, are able to talk about the history of the school on a personal level, as they themselves had been born and raised in Lohusuu and attended the school themselves, as had their parents and even grandparents before them.
Helle Vaher, an Estonian language and math teacher, has traced her roots in Lohusuu back for centuries, and attended Lohusuu School herself as a young girl.
"The concept of introducing bilingual education is foreign here; the school was Russian-language when first founded here in the 19th century, but has been bilingual for generations already," she said. "I don't remember it any other way, and neither did my parents before me."
"My granddaughter attends kindergarten here," said Russian language and literature teacher Svetlana Šarina, looking out the window just as the kindergarteners were out for a walk. "My kids went to school here. I went to school here. So did my parents, and my grandparents. That's at least five generations here in Lohusuu, and at this school. And it has always been bilingual. It has never been a problem."
Small schools expensive for local governments
What is problematic? The looming threat of the school being shut down.
"I understand that running a small school will always be more expensive than running a bigger school; regardless of whether a teacher is teaching 30 kids to a class or two kids, you are still paying them at least the same minimum teachers' wage," Oja said. "But it's not true that you can't get a quality education at a small, rural school, and there are so many other advantages to a smaller school that can't be put into numbers. Shouldn't we prioritize the education and well-being of the children over numbers?"
Prior to the nationwide administrative reform in 2017, Lohusuu, along with the nearby Avinurme, belonged to Ida-Viru County; both are now part of Mustvee Municipality in Jõgeva County. Avinurme is still home to an upper secondary school, where some Lohusuu graduates go on to study from 10th-12th grade, but more and more, it is clear that Mustvee is becoming the regional center, and not just in terms of schools.
"Mustvee has a music school, a sports school, a health center, several stores, an upper secondary school," Oja listed. "My own child attended music school there. It's great that Mustvee is growing. But something needs to stay here, or no one will want to move to Lohusuu."
Young families in particular do not want to move to a rural village if it means having to drive their children to the next town over for kindergarten and school every day, she added; at that point, they will simply choose to move to that next town over instead.
According to the director, however, the municipality is showing signs of moving in the direction of consolidating its schools.
"We would become the Lohusuu branch of the Mustvee Education Centre, or something like that," she said the day after attending a meeting of the Mustvee Municipal Education Committee, noting that the schools to be combined would Peipsi Upper Secondary School, Avinurme Upper Secondary School, Lohusuu School, Mustvee School and Voore Basic School, as well as several kindergartens. "But how do you develop a sense of pride in that? As opposed to saying you teach at or attend Lohusuu School."
Fewer students, more personal attention
Touted as benefits of consolidation, or a shutdown altogether of the smaller school and sending local children to a bigger school in Mustvee, a 15-minute drive down the coast, are better resources, including the latest tech for use in classrooms, and higher wages for teachers.
For at least some at the Lohusuu school, however, the prospect of fancier gadgets and higher wages isn't as attractive as officials might hope.
"If this school shuts down, then I am done teaching," Šarina said firmly. "There's no question. I'm not going to Mustvee, not even for higher pay. Some things in life are more important than that difference in money. This school is a family; we are one big family here. I don't just turn off as a teacher at the end of the school day; I worry and think about my students all the time. But my heart can only take so much. Here I can manage worrying about my small class; how could I possibly handle worrying about 30 different children?"
Asked what she would do for work instead, given the lack of job options in Lohusuu, Šarina explained that her husband runs a small business selling fish from one of the many iconic roadside smoked fish stands along the highway that runs parallel to the Lake Peipus coast, and their son is a fisherman who sells them the fish he catches. "I would get more involved in that," she said. "But I hope it doesn't come to that."
Music teacher Liivi Kangur has what the others in the teachers' lounge refer to as "big city school" experience in Tartu, making it easy for her to draw comparisons between the two. Like the others, she also brought up the same small school advantage in having the opportunity to get to know all of your students, which in turn allows you as a teacher to take into account what might be going on in their personal lives that could affect how they're doing in school.
"We had one child lose a parent this year," Kangur recalled, talking to other teachers during break. "Mother's Day was difficult for him this spring, and last weekend, the Father's Day program included a song about parents being around for a long time, and I could see as we were learning it that it was difficult for the child. I offered that he could pick another song to learn and come to me with it in private, but he eventually decided for himself to still sing the song with everyone else at the event. Still, we were at least aware of what the child was struggling with, and able to offer him an alternative. It's a lot harder to do that when you have large class sizes like you do in big city schools."
Oja did admit that one aspect that is more difficult for teachers at the school is that those who teach combined classes due to the lack of many students at certain grade levels essentially have to come up with and teach two different lesson plans per class each day, to take into account the different needs and abilities of children of different ages. In the Russian half of the school, for example, the biggest gap is a combined 1st and 4th grade class.
"When a teacher comes up with a lesson plan, from a planning perspective it makes no difference whether they are teaching five or 15 students," she explained. "But when you are teaching two class levels at once, you are doing twice the work, and they are not getting paid extra for it."
Benefits for children
Nonetheless, Oja noted that the small school, and the unique aspect of it being bilingual, also provides a crucial alternative for children who could benefit from a smaller class size and the increase in personal attention that in turn provides — and regardless of whether they speak Estonian or Russian.
She said that there have been cases in which a child who is not thriving in a larger school environment is recommended for transfer to Lohusuu School, after which they show marked improvement in grades and behavior. "Having this option is important for parents, for the children's sake," she added.
Šarina echoed these sentiments, citing the case of Natalya*, a girl from a Russian-speaking family who was transferred to Lohusuu from a bigger, fully Estonian-language school.
"They said she had behavioral problems," she recalled. "She'd sit in the back of the class, not talk, head down, hood pulled over her head. She earned poor grades. She struggled in class. And she grew to hate and resent the Estonian language. But when she came here? All I saw was a normal girl. We didn't need to use any special approach with her, no interventions or anything; we just treated her with the same care and attention we give all our other students. And when she graduated from 9th grade here, she left with her head held high. It was like two completely different people."
Being able to learn mostly in Russian surely helped improve her self-confidence as well, the teacher added, and her years at the bilingual school helped break down the ill will she had developed toward the Estonian language as well, as she was constantly surrounded by it at the school. This constant exposure to another language helps the speakers of each normalize the other's existence.
Science, tech, support
While Lohusuu School may not have the funds or be first in line for the latest in classroom and educational technology compared to bigger schools, that hardly means that it has been left behind in the last century.
Geography and civics teacher and IT chief Ingmar Jaska noted that the desktop computers in the school's tiny computer lab were new, paid for with funding from a special project, and more and more of the school's classrooms are being outfitted with interactive electronic chalkboards, among other things. The school even has its own Facebook and Instagram pages.
Science teacher Kristiina Akulitš, herself also an alumna of the school, also showed off glasses, hearts and other shapes students had recently drawn with 3D printing pens in her class, and she runs a weekly Robotics Club where children of all ages can experiment with building robots — or, despite the specific name of the club, whatever else scientific may strike their fancy.
Her best trick for keeping the chaos in her classroom in check? She started using a wheeled bookshelf as a divider between two sets of desks, and filled the shelves with science magazines that the kids were free to read during any spare time in class. "It keeps them quiet, and they're reading and learning," she added.
Ultimately, one of the biggest advantages the teachers have at the small, independently run school manifests itself in the teachers' lounge, during breaks between classes. According to Oja, the average age of the school's teachers falls below 50, and the faculty includes several very young teachers, but also several teachers with decades of experience under their belts. This means that the older and younger teachers are able mutually benefit from asking questions, exchanging ideas and sharing experiences among themselves, and any tips and tricks will take into account what woks at this specific school and with these specific students. Like the magazines trick.
English teacher Kadri Jaska agreed, saying she is always able to find support from her fellow teachers whenever needed, which is easier to seek when you know the whole staff and they all know you.
She highlighted that, more importantly, she feels here as though she, personally, is really needed here; that she is not just some faceless teacher who can be replaced the next day if needed. This, she added, boosts her morale and motivates her even further to be the best teacher she can possibly be for her students.
Now it is just a question of whether the school will be around long enough for her two children, both currently in kindergarten, to attend.
*Names of minors changed
Editor: Aili Vahtla