Nina Rabtseva can’t wait for Saturday. It’s the one day of the week she has an opportunity to stand in front of a classroom again.
The former teacher from Slavgorod in Russia spends four hours each Saturday taking 30 students at a North Highlands elementary school through classes in Russian language, history and culture, as well as courses in ethics and natural science.
“I think it’s important for our children to retain the culture and our language,” Rabtseva, now a bookkeeper, said through a translator. “It’s our duty to continue to keep up the language.”
The Russian-Ukrainian Saturday School started in 1995 at Encina High School with a five-year federal grant after parents began clamoring for the classes. Their American-born children had started to lose the ability to speak Russian or Ukrainian, said Elena Morrow, a school administrator.
“The tight-knit connection in the family was lost,” she said. “Generations couldn’t understand each other.”
The North Highlands program opened in 2006 at the behest of parents there with the same concerns. It gets by with a $40 per student fee, donations and volunteer staff. Twin Rivers Unified provides space at the Creative Connections Academy free of charge, as well as an annual donation of supplies. District officials consider the school an asset.
The program provides Russian-based education that the district cannot offer, said Graciela Garcia-Torres, educational services director at Twin Rivers Unified. “It’s great to give them support for that.”
About 8,000 residents within the boundaries of Twin Rivers Unified consider Russian or Ukrainian as their first ancestry – about 5 percent of the district's population, census figures show. Statewide, about 1 percent of Californians consider Russian or Ukrainian their first ancestry.
Students don’t seem to mind spending an extra day in class each week. Like most kids, they said they like some of the coursework, but not all. They cited recess and visiting with friends as favorite pastimes.
Milana Zaplava, a third-grader, ate lunch with a group of girls at a picnic table between classes – Lunchables, chips and sandwiches rather than traditional Russian food. Milana said she teaches Russian to her friends at Orchard Elementary School in Rio Linda, who in turn teach her Spanish.
“There are a lot of studies that say it improves their brain function,” Morrow said of learning multiple languages. “Their brain is more flexible and multitasks better when they know another language.”
Teachers at the Saturday school often go over the same lessons in Russian that students are learning in English on Monday through Friday – reinforcing their public school lessons, Morrow said.
Parent Nadia Bgatov said the Russian classes have helped her children – all honor roll students – excel in public school.
“To know the language, to know the culture is to know themselves,” Bgatov said. She serves as a volunteer and has three children, three nieces and a nephew at the school.
The program keeps students “on their toes,” Morrow said, adding that teachers assign a lot of homework. “They have to be disciplined at how they manage their week.”
Saturday, the seven students in Rabtseva’s second- and third-grade class jumped to their feet to greet a group of adults in Russian. This display of respect is part of the ethics training the kids receive at the school.
The two schools take students of any age, although they must join classes at their level of language proficiency. The students are allowed to move up grades as they progress in their studies.
Students who graduate from the eighth-grade level of study can bypass required high school language classes. The program fulfills the language requirement for entry into California Community Colleges, as well as schools in the University of California and California State University systems, Morrow said.
A lot has changed since the Russian-Ukrainian school started nearly 20 years ago. The economy and growing competition from Russian-language charter schools and churches have greatly diminished attendance numbers.
The Sacramento site that started at Encina is now located at Community Collaborative Charter School and serves just under 100 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade. It once enrolled 350 students. The North Highlands site started with 150 students, but now has about 30 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Despite the smaller numbers, Morrow – the manager of medical interpreting services at UC Davis Health Services – and the 15 volunteer teachers at the two sites continue to be “passionate” and “committed” to their work, she said.
“For many years I have known I will not have a Saturday, only a Sunday,” Morrow said, of her weekends.