December 12, 1997


by Irena Danysh

Nestled in the hills of the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast lies the small but proud town of Rohatyn. And Rohatyn has some things to be proud of: 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 the sultan Suliman II, yet rose to become his cherished advisor. Before the sultanís 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 St. Volodymyr the Great Gymnasium. Like Roxalana, it has been fought over and appropriated for periods by various groups in its colorful past. (My own greatgrandfather, Judge Petro Kohut, was its main champion and benefactor in the 1920ís.)

With the advent of Ukraine's independence, Rohatyn's elite teachers and parents realized that in order to instill patriotism and high 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: enter into our story a tall, blonde non-Ukrainian of good Norwegian Wisconsinite stock. Rebecca Schneider of the Sabre Foundation, a non-profit in Cambridge, Mass, and the largest donor in the U.S. of educational materials to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, visited Rohaytn in May to conduct a needs assessment of the Gymnasiumís computer facilities, library collection and curriculum support materials.

Ms. Schneider embarked on her mission applying her usual zeal, efficiency and expertise. With the partnership of Sabre, the Gymnasium, and the Trustees, a project of goodwill and aspiration toward fulfilling childrenís educational dreams was begun.

The St. Volodymyr the Great Gymnasium has both flourished and struggled in its time. 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 '20s and '30s, acquiring a substantial new wing to extend its capacity. During this time it produced many graduates renowned for cultural and political achhievements both at home and abroad. However, politics and impending war closed the Gymnasium down in 1939 when the library was burnt and professors and students were sent into exile.

The Gymnasium reopened in 1991 and now boasts approximately 360 students aged 7 to 17, 60 of whom are part of the primary school affiliate. Prospective students must pass entrance exams at 12 years of age 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 which is shared with an agricultural and technical school, the Gymnasium's lack of space necessitates a continual shifting of students to available classrooms. History 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 which 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% 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, which cost is estimated at US$55 per student -- far more than many peopleís 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 which is well deserved. "These are teachers who care and students who want to learn," says Ms. Schneider.

Despite the lack of resources, there have been some successes: the Gymnasium placed fourth of 16 schools in the academic competitions recently in the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. More impressively, Gymnasium students captured two positions among the twelve students chosen from 400 contestants to study in the U.S. under the auspices of the Peace Act Support Project.

It is this positive spirit that Ms. Schneider recalls from her stay in Rohatyn. With her mission completed, Becky returned to her homeland carrying fond memories of her kind and gracious hostess, Daria Horodestska -- "a true town matriarch," an appreciation for the friendliness that can easily overcome language barriers, and a sense of Rohatyn's citizens' pride in their past and their institutions.

Ms. Schneider produced a detailed report assessing the Gymnasium's current state and its critical needs. Her evaluations included an itemized list of each departmentís basic and optimum financial and material needs, as well as the modest wishlists 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 trustees, and Gymansium 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 ten 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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