When you first arrive at Sagarejo #4 Public School, the first thing you notice is the emphasis on students. The lobby is welcoming and displays the many awards received by the school over the past years. The hallways are lined with displays of student artwork, poetry, research projects and handicrafts. It is a welcoming learning environment, which was exactly what Principal Neli Balakhashvili wanted.
Neli was a mathematics teacher at Sagarejo for more than 35 years before becoming principal in 2007. Her focus is always student and teacher success. She misses being a teacher in the classroom so she tries to greet as many of her 518 students every morning and send them off every afternoon. Her school now has the best CAT exam scores in the region and almost all graduates go on to university or trade school. She has high expectations of the students – urging them to study hard, challenge themselves and be self-disciplined. “I expect a lot of myself and I work hard to always be better,” said Neli. “Students see that I don’t expect more of them than of myself and I think that it shows them how important it is to work hard and be fair.”
Neli invites teachers to think creatively, express their ideas, ask for suggestions, and do all they can to help children learn. Teachers are welcome to stop by her office to talk through an idea or problem, and Neli is often visiting classrooms to watch and encourage. She solicits teacher input on her ideas and school budgets. She also urges teachers to attend trainings to strengthen their skills and collaborate with each other. During RDFG’s visit to the school, teachers praised Neli’s leadership and collaborative style, and said that students respond very well to her positive approach and openness.
As principal, she sought funds to renovate bathrooms, classrooms, hallways, and a medical office, and even has an on-site “museum” of local artifacts. She hung curtains in every window to create nicer environment and reduce glare, and plants are throughout the hallways, offices, and classrooms. Next year she is planning to renovate the gymnasium with new floors, repaired walls, bathrooms, and student locker rooms. Neli knows that children are always learning – whether at their desk, in the gym or museum, or reading the student projects in the hallways – and she is dedicated to giving them every possible opportunity.
Neli has been a strong supporter of the Sagarejo Young Farmers Center, and has set aside a plot of land on school property for a demonstration plot. She believes in education through doing and is happy that her students have new ways to learn and collaborate.
On this International Women’s Day, RDFG salutes Neli Balakhashvili and women like her who work tirelessly to build a better future for all.