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Bulgaria Dreams of Diplomas Survive

January 5, 1999

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) _ The paint on the walls is peeling, textbooks are tattered, and the school is so poor it suspended classes for a week last winter because it couldn’t afford to replace broken windows.

But classrooms are full and morale is high at Sofia’s High School No. 66, reflecting a resurgence of interest in education in post-communist Bulgaria despite a steep falloff in state funds for schools.

``If we want to achieve the living standards of the West, we need to be educated,″ says 18-year-old Ivan Behchiiski, who plans to join in Bulgaria’s college enrollment boom next year after graduating from School 66.

Schools across eastern Europe have fallen on hard times in the 1990s, deprived of much of their support by governments reeling from economic woes in the transition to free markets.

Few countries have been hit harder than Bulgaria, which was singled out by a UNICEF report on 27 countries for its 75 percent drop in public spending on education since 1989.

Yet the dream of a diploma is stronger than ever. Braving sharply rising education costs for families in one of Europe’s weakest economies, Bulgarians are investing in their future at a higher rate than many of their neighbors.

Schooling is only obligatory until age 16, but high schools and universities are full. Most young Bulgarians are optimistic because of their country’s gradual economic turnaround and the belief that a good education will lead them to opportunities only dreamed of in communist times.

The number of college students has grown by two-thirds over the past five years. Sixty percent of Bulgaria’s high school graduates continue on to higher education, compared with 52 percent in Hungary, 44 percent in Romania and 36 percent in the Czech Republic.

The quality of education at state universities is still considered strong despite the funding crunch and is superior to that of fledgling private schools.

A university education was virtually free for Bulgarians who passed entrance exams. But with new fees beginning this year, a semester of college will cost 30,000-60,000 leva, or about $17-$34 _ not exorbitant, but not cheap in a country where the average worker makes the equivalent of about $100 a month.

Education Minister Veselin Metodiev compares the rush to study in his country to a similar phenomenon in Western Europe after World War II.

``In times of hardship, people invest in human capital, which pays off over the longer term,″ he says.

Also, he adds, studies delay entering the labor market while it’s tough. An unemployment rate of 11 percent and limited job opportunities for college graduates limit young Bulgarians’ options for working now.

But Bulgaria also has a historical tradition in education. ``Bulgarians had schools before they had established their modern state,″ Metodiev says.

This Slavic people kept its culture intact through five centuries of Turkish rule that ended in 1878 largely with a system of community-sponsored schools. Since then, education has remained a way to keep abreast with the modern world in spite of the turns of history and Bulgarians’ isolated location in the southeastern corner of Europe.

Many young Bulgarians believe education opens a door to escape from their country’s poverty by studying in the West. Foreign languages, particularly English, and business studies are especially popular.

Angelina Todorova, 18, a student at Sofia’s elite First English Language School, spends more than 12 hours a day on her studies. She wants to study in Britain and then return to find a position to ``change things in Bulgaria.″

Under the pro-Western government that took power in 1997 and is now pursuing reforms, the trend of wanting to go abroad for good is lessening.

``Of course I dream of world stages,″ but I wouldn’t be unhappy with a career in my country, says Mihaela Mitova, 18, a budding opera singer who hopes to study at a Sofia conservatory after finishing School 66. She says Bulgaria is finally ``on the right path.″

Although the new government doubled state subsidies for the country’s 4,000 schools, that barely covers the basics _ utility bills, repairs and paltry teachers’ wages that average under $70 a month. Fearful of being unemployed during tough times, most teachers have kept their jobs but give private lessons or find other work to get by.

Some schools rely on private companies for additional aid, but parents are shouldering an increasing load for their children’s education.

Buying a year’s school supplies for a first-grader costs about a month’s pay. At School 66, many students can’t afford to buy textbooks, so they must do their homework in the school library.

None of that has been enough to dim the interest in education.

``I’ll give all I can to secure my children a proper education,″ says Stefan Aleksandrov, 45, a government employee. ``That’s all that I can leave them.″

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