Ukraine’s ability to maintain a degree of business-as-usual normality despite Russia’s ongoing invasion has been one of the most striking features of the past eighteen months. In a further sign of routine everyday life returning to the country, Pechersk School International welcomed students to the school’s campus in the Ukrainian capital for the new academic year in mid-August after a year of operations in Warsaw.

The return of PSI Kyiv to Ukraine marks the latest chapter in the school’s almost three decades of development. Founded in 1995, PSI Kyiv is the only school in Ukraine authorized to teach all three International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, while also offering a general education program recognized by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education. The school occupies a 2600 square meter state-of-the-art campus in the leafy Holosiyivskiy neighbourhood of the Ukrainian capital, with facilities including an indoor swimming pool and large gymnasium as well as two theaters.

Along with many other international organizations, PSI Kyiv management made the decision in early 2022 to temporarily relocate outside Ukraine. The school established a new presence in neighboring Poland, embedding with an existing international school in Warsaw while maintaining its distinct PSI Kyiv identity. With the security situation in Kyiv growing increasingly stable, it was decided to reopen the Ukrainian campus in time for the new academic year in August 2023.

The school begins the current term with over 80 enrolled students, which is far below the full school capacity of more than 500, but applications continue to come in amid growing interest. More than 40 of the school’s students are still in Warsaw but remain very much part of the PSI Kyiv family and may return to the Ukrainian capital when circumstances allow. The school’s board of directors also anticipates additional enrollments during the coming months and has plans in place to integrate new students during the course of the academic year.

This year’s students will be guided by a teaching staff of 28 teachers including thirteen foreign nationals, representing by far the largest number of international teachers at any school in Ukraine at present. Some of PSI Kyiv’s overseas teaching staff are returning to Ukraine after a year away, while others are new recruits. They are drawn from a number of countries including the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal.

This international team of teachers will be led by new PSI Kyiv Director Trae Holland, an American national who was appointed in late 2022 and arrived in Kyiv to take up his new post in the summer of 2023. A native of Georgia who spent much of his early life and began his teaching career in Florida, Trae Holland is a veteran of the international education industry, having previously worked in Venezuela, Brazil, Malaysia and Turkey as a teacher and administrator.

Prior to taking on the role of PSI Kyiv director, Holland was running a school in Guatemala City which focused on providing educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He says that as soon as he became aware of the opportunity in Ukraine, he instinctively felt drawn to the role and was convinced it would fit well with his own professional focuses. “I feel that having worked in challenging environments and having addressed the impact of trauma and anxiety in the classroom, my particular skill set is a good match for what the school may require at this point in its development,” says Holland.

The PSI Kyiv director’s background as a history teacher also played a role in persuading him to come to Kyiv. “I believe what is happening right now in Ukraine is going to define world history,” he says. “Putin is engaging in an attempt to rewrite the world order and take us all back to an earlier era of great power politics, so Ukraine is fighting for the entire world right now and our collective hopes for the future of democracy. What Ukrainians are doing as a nation really drew me to the country.”

Holland argues that this historical context creates additional responsibilities for those entrusted with educating young Ukrainians. “I believe that when this war ends and peace comes, the current generation of Ukrainian children are going to emerge as leaders,” he says. “We have the chance to inculcate in them empathy, love, caring, forgiveness, and global citizenship. This school is perfectly placed to do that. We can make a meaningful contribution and help create a generation that can lead Ukraine forward.”

Security considerations were paramount when the decision was taken to reopen the PSI Kyiv campus for the current academic year, with safety issues set to remain at the top of the agenda going forward. The entire campus features signposts indicating the route to the nearest bomb shelter entrance, with teachers undergoing training and children conducting air raid alarm drills on the first day of the new term. All students and members of staff must be able to enter bomb shelters within five minutes of an alarm, with security protocols subject to regular review.

Meanwhile, extensive construction and interior design work has been undertaken to transform existing basement areas into secure bomb shelter spaces certified by the relevant Ukrainian authorities and fully equipped to serve as functioning classrooms. The result is a spacious and comfortable area that does not differ radically from the conventional classrooms above ground. “When we were finalizing the plans for the school’s bomb shelter facilities, it was important to visualize them as learning spaces. Safety comes first, naturally, but we were also very conscious of the need to create a welcoming place that would aid the learning process,” says Holland.

In addition to prioritizing physical safety, the PSI Kyiv team will also be focusing on safeguarding the psychological well-being of students. This will involve additional training for teaching staff as they assess the impact of the ongoing war on mental health. “Trauma can take many forms and manifest in different ways,” explains Holland. “It is really important for all colleagues at PSI to develop their awareness and become as well-informed as possible. This will be an ongoing process as the academic year unfolds.”

About the interviewee: Trae Holland is the Director of Pechersk School International Kyiv.

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