Feature | Ukrainian school in Tallinn: We're like a normal school

A sign pointing to the Ukrainian School at Lilleküla School.
A sign pointing to the Ukrainian School at Lilleküla School. Source: Helen Wright / ERR

Two weeks ago, Estonia's first Ukrainian school opened in Tallinn for refugee children who have fled from the war. ERR News went to find out about the school, its teachers, and how the new students are settling in.

At 10 a.m. on Friday morning, it's break time and the shrieks and shouts in the long, sunny corridor at Lilleküla High School are deafening.

Blue and yellow bunting, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, is strung across the top on a nearby notice board hanging above paintings of flowers and ladybirds. A blue and yellow allow heart on the wall up a flight of stairs is the only sign this school isn't exactly like every other in Estonia.

Natalja Mjalitsina, project leader of the Ukrainian school at Lilleküla High School, sits in her office, one-half of which is overflowing with donations, including half a dozen beanbags still in their plastic wrapping.

"They are like children, I think they are happy here. They feel very comfortable. When I ask how they are in Estonian — Kuidas käsi käib? — they say they feel normal or very good, of course," she tells ERR News, when asked how they are settling in.

Lilleküla High School is a leader in terms of learning by language immersion which is why the school and Mjalitsina have been tasked with running the Ukrainian school.

Politicians are split on language learning for refugees. Many believe immersion in the Estonian language on arrival is the best way, while others are pushing for a slower, phased approach. Tallinn City Government has opened the school, initially until the end of the academic year.

When Tallinn announced the school would open it said children would be accessed before starting to make sure they could manage.

Currently, 85 children have been registered between the ages of six and 14. The majority are over 10 and they have been split into five groups, each with a class leader who is a teacher from Ukraine.

Lilleküla High School. Source: ERR/ Helen Wright

Children have Estonian lessons every day and maths, English, art, sport, robotics and other classes throughout the week. There is also time to participate in distance learning for students who can still take classes with their teachers from Ukraine.

"They very much like sport because the teacher is a young and handsome man (laughs). They like Estonian. Of course, this group [pointing to the teenagers] they are like normal people, they don't like anything "Just leave me alone, I'm 14"," she laughs. "But they do everything. They paint, but they can't show us that they like it. It's not cool to say that. I think these younger children like everything in school."

There are also times to see a psychologist if children want to, but outwardly at least, they seem to be little affected.

"But I have to say we don't see that the children are very depressed or something. As you can hear and see, they are running around like normal children in every Estonian school," Mjalitsina says.

Speaking about immersion as a technique, which she has been working with since 2000, Mjalitsina said it is very effective as long as "you know the rules".

"You have to speak only in Estonian you cannot translate. I think it is very successful in Estonia and it is one of the good things in our education [system]," she says.

Natalja Mjalitsina Source: Terevisioon

"I am a teacher in a Russian school also, and I see the difference between the children who come from immersion class and those who don't. Those children who come from immersion class, we can speak about everything, about literature, all the subjects, but these children who come from normal classes have more difficulties."

The method is popular in schools across Estonia, she says, but is hampered by a lack of teachers who know Estonian well enough to teach it.  

So far, two weeks in, children have learned how to introduce themselves, basic phrases and colors.

It is not yet known how long the school will be open and Mjalitsina believes things will become clearer in June. The government has said it hopes children will be able to join Estonian schools in September. However, it is not known how many more refugees will arrive and how many will stay and Mjalitsina knows some families have already returned to Ukraine.

But not everyone will be able to go home soon.

"All our children are from cities that are in the news every day: Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kryvyi Rih, some people are from Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Odesa," she says. "They don't have a place to go /.../ But they are very optimistic and more than half of them want to go back very soon, in the first moment that they can."

While the children have seemingly settled easily into life in Estonia, their parents are having a harder time.

"It is harder for the adults, but it's good for the parents that they have someplace here for the children, the children are here from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.," she says. "They can go to the police, to get this document, they have time to do things or work."

A timetable at Lilleküla School. Source: Helen Wright / ERR

One of these parents is Daria, an English teacher from Donbas who is now working in the school. Her seven-year-old son is also a pupil. The family came to Estonia over a month ago as they have a relative here but the journey through Hungary, Austria and Poland to the Baltics was "extremely difficult".

"I like Estonia very much, I like this school but on the other hand I would like to go home," she tells ERR News. She said her son is getting on well and likes his class.

Darya agrees the school provides relief for parents. "They can be calm about their children, they do not have to worry," she says.

While the school's future is unknown, Mjalitsina thinks some of the stereotypes should be dispelled.

"We are like a normal school now, children are like normal children, many times when somebody comes here to visit us they say: "How are your children?" They think they are sitting somewhere in the corner and crying — but no. The children are like normal children, they are laughing, they are running around, so it's like a normal school."


The number of war refugee children studying in schools in Estonia as of April 25, 2022. Source: Ministry of Education and Research.

Since Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine began on February 24, a total of 3,729 refugee children have started attending kindergarten or school. This is approximately a third of children under 19 years old.

So far, 70 percent are enrolled in Estonian language, 20 percent in Russian language, 10 percent in language immersion and just 1 percent in English-language educational institutions.

Many schools have also hired employees from Ukraine. Data from a Ministry of Education and Research survey show 101 refugees from Ukraine are currently working in 76 schools in Estonia.

The majority are working as teachers or assistant teachers, but others have also been hired as school psychologists, speech therapists, support persons, study coordinators as well as cooks and janitors.

In total, 33,576 refugees have arrived in Estonia and of these 11,887 are minors.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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