Belgrade’s Matematicka gimnazija (Mathematical High School) is a rare Serbian institution, along with athletes and cuisine, which receives nearly unanimous national acclaim and the school is protected from the usual mud slinging of Serbia’s public arena for good reasons.
Year after year, the school churns out positive news: alumni routinely achieve great success at the world’s best universities- one alumnus is a former mayor of Belgrade, and Silicon Valley is awash with them- and there is a constant stream of successes at international maths and science Olympiads.
Amazingly, all this achievement and recognition comes from the woefully underfunded Serbian state education and science system.
In 2016, the school celebrated its 50th birthday and, as an alum, I am still in awe of the school’s achievements.
Its unique ethos makes it a great case study of how excellence can be achieved with the right attitude and enough grit. The achievements are remarkable, whether considered in a Serbian or a global context.
A state school, with an annual enrolment of 100 science-loving 14-year-olds from across Serbia, manages to consistently get around 5% of its students into Cambridge and other top global universities.
Matematicka gimnazija students routinely win coveted medals in international maths, physics and other science competitions. The school achieves this without the extensive extracurricular and university prep programmes offered at many private schools in the UK and the US.
These feats are accomplished because of a guiding principle that has permeated the school from the beginning: a firm belief that developing bright minds needs a different, almost individualised approach, and that all the required effort to provide that education is worth it.
From its founding in 1966, based on the model of a similar maths-focused school in Moscow (Kolmogorov school), the teaching staff has fought hard for its experimental, maths and small-group-tuition-model of education to be recognised by state authorities, and, more pressingly, be kept financially afloat.
The passionate math and science teachers have fought for their school for decades instead of resigning themselves to relying solely on the meagre support of the beleaguered Serbian state.
Since the 1990s, a period of sanctions and hyper-inflation, they relentlessly fundraised to allow students to attend to international competitions. The school even opened an additional, highly selective fee-paying class to cover the school’s relatively high expenses (this was abolished in 2008).
Throughout the school’s existence, they’ve maintained close relationships with the alumni network, an uncommon practice in Serbia. This network is an invaluable resource: they help current students with career advice, often return to school to teach and occasionally assist with funding.
The belief in intellectual excellence and difference as an asset permeates the school.
Although my ego has yet to recover from being surrounded by truly brilliant people better than me in the things I considered my greatest strengths, it was soothing to be surrounded by 14-year-olds who believed that enjoying doing maths and science was great, and even competed in these notoriously nerdy activities.
Needless to say, many of my classmates’ preferred activities and mannerisms- introversion, odd conversation topics, lack of fashion sense, disinterest in sports- were not exactly celebrated by average hormone-crazy Belgrade teenagers.
Most impressively, our teachers, as a rule, were friendly, respectful, and constantly tried to meet our intellectual needs.
They provided ever more advanced science and maths education. In their spare time, they helped us set up various school clubs and magazines. They routinely went out of their ways to fuel our ambitions, suggesting alumni to contact for help in getting into our preferred schools, drafting recommendation letters and, most importantly, celebrating our successes and cheering us up if we failed.
Although by no means unique to “Matematicka”, their attitude was markedly different from the mix of boredom, helplessness and resentment that I occasionally experienced and heard about from friends at other schools (to illustrate, one of my primary school teachers had a habit of reminding my class of how little she was paid per student, and she was not an exception).
Although “Matematicka” has room to improve in supporting non-science interests, shifting youngster’s focus away from winning competitions and developing softer skills, the utter dedication of its staff and their willingness to protect what they hold valuable, should and does serve as an inspiration to many in Serbia and the region.
In a country where things were falling apart less than 20 years ago- one student tragically died in the NATO bombing- and where even now many of us espouse a very defeatist attitude, the example set by Matematicka gimnazija reminds us that grit and ambition can and do make a huge difference, even if only to a group of nerdy youngsters.