April 07, 2017

Veronika Zonabend: Dilijan educational cluster will be an open ecosystem

Тhe idea of an educational cluster is to create a platform, which allows all of its participants to invest in education in Armenia.

In the last few months, several sessions of the interdepartmental commission on the creation of the Dilijan Educational Cluster have been held, headed by the Armenian Minister of Education. The initiative for the cluster came from IDeA Foundation and Scholae Mundi. Mediamax spoke with co-founder of both of those agencies and Chair of the Board of Governors of UWC Dilijan College Veronika Zonabend, to find out the initiative in detail.

– It was announced this week that the Government of Armenia and Initiatives for Development of Armenia (IDeA) Foundation signed a memorandum of cooperation on establishing the Dilijan Educational Cluster. It’s fair to say that the first practical steps have now been taken towards making the idea happen. Can you tell us, what is the Dilijan Educational Cluster?

– Essentially, the idea of an educational cluster is to create a platform, which allows all of its participants – both private and international organizations – to invest in education in Armenia. It facilitates the creation of a favorable environment and the necessary infrastructure to implement various ideas with a clear set of uniform rules.

It’s very important that the cluster will be a private-state partnership and that the Government of Armenia supports the initiative, recognizing its significance for the country: the initiative will make it possible to raise the next generation with all the qualities and skills needed to prosper in the XXI century.

So, on the one hand it’s about creating an education environment that facilitates the development of the skills that children will need to succeed in a post-industrial society, and on the other, raises the level of professionalism within the educational sphere, attracting the best teachers into the profession. For instance, Finland has such a successful education system because teaching is considered one of the most prestigious and respected occupations in society, so the requirements for future teachers are very high. We want to make it so that Armenia also gets the choice of the best candidates. It’s important for us to involve people who think out of the box, are open to new ideas, can get on the right side of “Generation Z” and talk their language without pandering to them.

We’ve already taken some measures in this regard. Scholae Mundi supports the Teach For Armenia initiative, part of the global Teach For All project. Teach For Armenia’s selection system is designed to attract graduates of non-pedagogical universities into teaching. Potential teachers should have excellent knowledge of their subject and be ready to spend two years teaching children in rural schools, in rather difficult conditions for people used to the comforts of life in the city. They are devotees, people with fire in their eyes, who not only teach children but also change their point of view of the world.

One aspect of the educational cluster is to create a teacher training center in Dilijan, which will train teachers for a school of the future, where teachers themselves get involved in the creative process. Training in the center will include an online component too. The teachers will spend part of their time in Dilijan, perfecting their skills in practical lessons within the education process in the existing schools, including public ones. Finland has the same system, where future teachers spend 30% of their time in schools, interacting with children. The schools in the cluster will have a new, different model of relationships between the pupils, teachers, parents and school administration, which will help to create a motivating ecosystem for both the pupils and the teachers.

– Who took part in the commission’s activity, apart from the Government of Armenia and IDeA and Scholae Mundi Foundations?

– The Central Bank and the Dilijan Development Foundation are actively involved in the project. We hope to also engage Teach For Armenia, TUMO, Ayb Foundation, Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), and other organizations working for the future of Armenia.

– When will the idea of the cluster become a reality? 

– We all have lots of work do to. According to the memorandum, we have to jointly develop the concept of the cluster by next March. I can reveal now that it’ll be a two-part system. The first part is about putting in place a foundation that attracts education financing and creates an endowment for the participants. The second part involves the education institutes, which, upon joining the cluster, will be managed by the Boards of Trustees independently, while coordinating the education process together and using the common infrastructure of the cluster.

We need to work with the Armenian Government to create a legal structure with private-state financing and a governance system with a Board of Trustees that will include state representatives and private investors, as well as a reporting system, a clear division of functions, and special requirements for school directors and teachers.

One of the main principles is that the cluster will work as an open platform and acquire new participants, if they comply with the rules and are ready to intellectually and financially invest in the project.

We need to define all the rules and requirements, understand how they fit into the current legal field in Armenia and what changes will be necessary in the legislation and regulations. We hope we’ll get all the papers ready by September-October this year. To do this, we’ll be holding open hearings and discussions with all parties concerned.

– Are international companies showing any interest in the cluster project?

– We are negotiating with a number of international organizations, both financial and educational institutes. Having the state actively involved in supporting the cluster is very important, something which our potential foreign partners pay attention to. 

– Is it more about the integration of existing education institutes in Dilijan or the creation of new ones at this point?

– It’s about both creating new education institutes and involving the existing ones. A very important issue is coordinating the activities of those that are already working in Dilijan. Forming a strong core will make the cluster attractive for foreign partners and allow for the creation of a complete education ecosystem, which will include an international school, an arts school, a musical school, a middle and high school, kindergarten, university programs, and the foundation of a professional technical education.

– Don’t you have misgivings that the ecosystem will turn into an “elitist club”?

– In fact, it's the other way round. A key component of the cluster idea is that it doesn’t become a closed system, living separately from its city, but instead integrates into the local environment. This applies to the language as well – lessons will be taught mostly in Armenian in the cluster’s education institutes. The Dilijan Community Center will also be a part of the cluster. Integration and development takes time, so don’t expect everything to happen at once – these are plans for the next 10-15 years.

Another important point is the mix of the children and teenagers in all the education bodies I’ve mentioned. One of the cluster’s components will be a school for children not only from Dilijan, but also other cities and remote villages around Armenia. Those children will get grants and come to Dilijan for week-long courses. It’s important to create an environment of equal opportunities, where everyone knows they can get the best education regardless of where they were born and where they live. We adopt the principle of United World Colleges and our UWC Dilijan College in particular, which teaches children of different social backgrounds. It provides a guarantee of social stability in the future.

If everything goes according to the plan, we intend to open the first private-state school of the cluster in September of 2018, on the UWC Dilijan College campus. Local and international teachers will interact, so will the students, and that is going to have a huge positive impact. 

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