On September 1, the start of the school year across Russia, the Skolkovo International Gymnasium is welcoming students to its new premises under a new director. With the school’s permanent future campus at the Skolkovo innovation centre still under construction, the one-year-old gymnasium has moved from its former site in the village of Zaitsevo to an existing building at Skolkovo, where work was still in full swing last week to get the building ready to greet pupils on September 1: a process strangely familiar to the school’s new director, Oksana Demianenko, whose seven-year-old daughter is one of the pupils entering the first grade this week.

The gymnasium's new director Oksana Demianenko is determined to help her new pupils make the most of the opportunities offered by the Skolkovo innovation centre. Photo: Sk.ru.

“It’s an emotional moment for me,” Demianenko told Sk.ru in a recent interview. “Once upon a time, my own father opened a new school [as head], and I went there, in Pskov. And now my relatives are saying: ‘It’s karma!’" she laughs.

“I joined for the 10th grade [the penultimate year] in the new school that my father opened,” she recalled. “I remember when we arrived the school wasn’t quite ready, and we, the older students, washed the windows on September 1. We spent the first week putting the finishing touches to everything together with the teachers.”

On September 1, celebrated as the Day of Knowledge in Russia, the gymnasium has other things in mind for its 133 pupils – aged three to 17 – than washing windows. There will be excursions around Skolkovo – 10,000 square meters of whose parkland has been set aside for the use of the gymnasium’s pupils – for the older children, with tours adapted for each age group, said Demianenko.

“There’ll be a lesson on biology and chemistry for the older classes at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), and the seventh and eighth-grade pupils are going to have a physics lesson in the Boeing education centre [part of a state-of-the-art training and research centre opened at Skolkovo by the U.S. aerospace giant earlier this year],” while the fifth and sixth grades will be visited by a team of robotics experts, she said.

On-site advantages

Last-minute work being carried out in the school's corridors last week. Photo: Sk.ru.

The school’s new director, whose career has included a stint at the Education Ministry, is determined to make the most of the resources offered by the Skolkovo innovation centre.

“There are a lot of people here at the innovation centre – partners, startups – who are focused on education and motivated by it, people who have a good education themselves, who are open-minded, with knowledge of what is going on in the world in terms of science and technology, and it would be a crime not to make use of that,” said Demianenko.

“We have to work out the best format for transferring the areas of expertise of our startups to the children, to get them interested in them – not just obvious things like lectures and masterclasses, but arranging internships for our older students,” she said, adding that the school’s pupils are already taught by master’s students of Skoltech, a graduate research university.

Skolkovo expertise has already been integrated into the school’s curriculum. Children at the gymnasium study robotics from the first grade, and Demianenko hopes that this year her pupils will take part in Eurobot, an international amateur robotics contest for children and students.

The school’s director also hopes that studying in an innovation city devoted to fostering a culture of entrepreneurship will inspire the children.

“The requirements for people working at a startup are special: they have to be prepared to take risks, to take responsibility, to work hard and with enthusiasm: without that a startup cannot succeed. And I hope the gymnasium team will harness this atmosphere,” she said.

International aspirations

The school is currently in the process of getting certified to prepare students for the International Baccalaureate (IB), a qualification recognized at universities across the world. As soon as construction work on the school’s purpose-built premises at Skolkovo is complete, the school can submit its final application, and hopes to start offering an IB programme – which must be taught in English, French or Spanish – in a year’s time.

“Our task for this year is for all our teachers who teach those subjects [on the IB curriculum] to be able to do so in English, and the chances are good,” says Demianenko, who herself has experience as the IB programme coordinator at a Moscow school.

“We have a very young team of 39 teachers. They are all focused on working according to international standards, and are all already familiar with the IB system,” she said.

For now, all subjects in the primary school section of the gymnasium are taught to some extent in English, while older students have the option of studying several subjects completely in English: theory of knowledge – a core requirement of the IB programme – as well as world history and biology.

There are currently two American teachers at the kindergarten, and the gymnasium is currently waiting for two more Americans – teachers of English and history – to join its ranks, along with a biology teacher from Malaysia.

Oksana Demianenko pictured outside the new gymnasium. Photo: Sk.ru

“The way we plan to develop the gymnasium, the number of native speakers will increase,” says Demianenko. Once the new gymnasium premises and “family campus” are built, the number of pupils at the gymnasium is planned to be about 2,000 children. This year’s 20 first graders will include a little boy from Israel, and Demianenko said she expects more foreign students to appear at the school, which has from the beginning been planned as an international institution.

In addition to English, the pupils have the options of studying German, Spanish and Chinese.

“Chinese is very popular: we are getting another teacher because there was more demand than one teacher could fulfil,” said Demianenko, a qualified teacher of English and German.

Plans for expansion

For now, the school is only open to the children of people working at Skolkovo resident startups, Skoltech, the foundation’s partner organisations or at the Skolkovo Foundation itself. If the school grows according to plan, it might be opened to other pupils on a selective basis, said Demianenko.

It costs about 18,000 rubles ($277) per month to send children to the kindergarten and school, and an additional 550 rubles per day for four daily school meals. Included in the cost are extra-curricular activities such as music and choral groups, sports clubs, a drama studio, a robotics club and a debating club for older students.

Currently, the biggest demand is for the gymnasium’s kindergarten, which this year has five groups, said Demianenko.

“Kindergartens are generally seen simply as a place for parents to leave their children, and no more. At the gymnasium, it’s an educational process from the very beginning, and this is a global trend,” said Demianenko, explaining that the age period from three to six can play a crucial role in a child’s development and future education.

Surveying the work being done last week to get the new gymnasium ready for its students, and simultaneously preparing her daughter for her first day at school, Demianenko was inevitably reminded of last-minute preparations for her father’s school in Pskov.

“I’m experiencing a sense of deja-vu right now, and it’s a very important moment in my life,” she said.