ISET Economist Blog

Bringing Light to Georgia’s Darkest Corners
Friday, 19 December, 2014

Nodar Dumbadze has a reputation for bringing tears and laughs out of his readers. Yet, when watching his “Hellados” performed in the tiny municipal “Culture House” in Terjola, we were laughing and crying not only in appreciation of Dumbadze's rare ability to weave tragedy and comedy into a single narrative. We were certainly moved by Dumbadze’s story of teenagers growing up in the tough multiethnic environment of Sukhumi, the love-hate relationship between the Georgian Jemal and the Greek Ianguli, and their ultimate love for their homeland. But, perhaps even more moving was the transformation in the lives of young actors, teenagers from the village Dzevri, whose mesmerizing performance we’d been watching on Terjola’s scene.

With close to 300 households, Dzevri is a small and utterly unremarkable village in the Terjola municipality. A tiny spot on Georgia’s map, it would have remained utterly unremarkable, had it not been for the decision by an American couple, Roy Southworth and Cathy McLain, to settle in Dzevri and make it the center of their philanthropic enterprise in Georgia. While Roy (World Bank’s country director for Georgia in 2004-2010) was busy transforming Georgia’s economy, Cathy – an educational psychologist by vocation – created a private foundation, McLain Association for Children (MAC), to take care of special needs and vulnerable children in Georgia’s countryside.


As Cathy recalls, the idea of engaging with Dzevri’s struggling school started after the third wedding party to which the American couple had been invited by their new village neighbors. On all three occasions, the bride was in her early teens (15-16), about to drop out of school.

The phenomenon of early marriage that Cathy and Roy thus encountered is, in fact, quite common in the Georgian countryside. According to a 2013 survey by UNICEF, about 9% of all school dropout cases are related to marriage. For many young girls, early marriage and motherhood is a strategy of dealing with a hopeless situation in which they have neither the educational background to qualify for government scholarships nor the financial resources to cover the cost of further education.

Cathy and Roy decided to respond to the early marriage problem with scholarships covering the cost of a college education at a public institution. The program was launched in May 2012, a bit late for students to register for the mandatory national admissions test. As a result, only two scholarships were awarded that year, however, the program quickly gained momentum thereafter. Six students qualified for MAC Foundation’s scholarships in 2013 and 11 in 2014. This year, the School’s principal Manuchar Panchulidze expects 23 kids – the entire age cohort! – to graduate and continue to universities and professional colleges. 

What is particularly gratifying is the profound impact the promise of modest scholarships (about $1,500/year) had on students’ motivation. Being acutely aware of the opportunity, Dzevri kids are now doing quite well in the national student admissions tests, and many qualify for full or partial government grants, saving Cathy and Roy’s funds for other important causes.


Only 35, Manuchar Panchulidze earned his gray hair by trying to keep his school alive: keeping teachers on meager 170GEL/month salaries motivated, making sure students attend classes, and sustaining the ramshackle infrastructure (the school occupies Soviet-era cottages once housing construction workers).

Back in 2011, recalls Manuchar, the school was not able to perform its basic functions. While the Ministry of Education was busy rewriting “education standards” and “teaching manuals”, Dzevri’s 24 teachers mainly cared about earning money on the side to sustain their families. The majority were (and still remain) subsistence farmers preoccupied with agricultural work (particularly in high season) and housekeeping chores. Preparing for classes or perusing new “teaching manuals” was not a part of their daily routine.

Despite having the formal authority to do so, firing teachers is not an option for a village school director. First, there are no better teachers in sight lining up for jobs paying less than $100. Second, it is nigh on impossible to fire teachers in a tightly knit community where everybody is everybody’s relatives. Instead of firing, Manuchar’s only option was to send teachers to pedagogical trainings organized by the Ministry of Education. Trainings in which they had little interest to participate.



A big read heart graffiti with Cathy’s name as well as numerous Georgian and American flags welcoming visitors to Dzevri’s school speak volumes about what had happened here in the last three years. Ana Jikhvashvili, a recent graduate of Dzevri’s school and currently a first-year student at Tbilisi State University, recalls the sudden feeling that “someone is standing by and supporting you”.

The scholarships provided by the MAC Foundation were but the first step in a process of transformation culminating on Terjola’s stage. Cathy’s second initiative was to start teaching English at a level giving students a chance to compete for admission to the best Georgian universities. The Ministry of Education agreed to the introduction of English classes at the elementary level. However, older kids had to do without, since, according to Georgia’s national education bureaucracy, the teaching of foreign languages must start at an early age, or not at all. 

The creative solution found by Manuchar and MAC Foundation’s director Rezo Chinchaladze was to organize extra-curricular English classes taught by the best professionals they could find in Terjola. Sixty kids from grades 7-12 are attending these after-school classes in 2014. Groups are small, 10-12 kids each, as appropriate for language instruction. Students are clustered not by age but by the level of proficiency.

The next big idea was to offer Dzevri kids a choice of extra-curricular activities suiting their temperament and talents – Kung Fu, basketball and baseball, theater, dancing, and piano. Alison Swanson, who came to work in Dzevri’s school as an American Peace Corps volunteer in July 2014, reports being surprised by the need to “work around students’ after-class schedules”. Summer camps, bringing Dzevri kids together with young American students, started in 2012, and have since become a huge success as well.


Dzevri’s school is a very special case of a radical culture makeover. While the school’s hardware is still the same post-Soviet hardware, the software is entirely new. Aleko Chankvetatze, a Dzevri alumnus whose studies at the Tbilisi Art Academy are financed by a full government scholarship, says it all:

“Our school is no longer a place where you come, attend a class, chat with your friends and go home. Learning has become much more fun. Students have to deserve their scholarships by assisting teachers in lower grades, making presentations, doing some administrative work, or serving as leaders in summer and winter camps. Personally, I feel like the school gave me a ticket to life.” 

Despite recent improvements, Dzevri’s school is still oceans apart from Georgia’s private schools which, according to available statistics, cater to about 9% of Georgian youth – children of the country’s urban elite. Many of these are great institutions, offering superior infrastructure, excellent instruction in foreign languages, math, natural sciences, humanities, arts, and music. In short, anything a happy Georgian family can only wish for its children. 

The time has now come for the Georgian government, civil society, and the business community to do something out-of-the-bureaucratic-box for the other 91% of Georgia’s population. Cathy, Roy, and Rezo Chinchaladze have recently created a new foundation to save ‘near-extinct schools’ in Svaneti and other mountainous regions of Georgia. Yet, Cathy, Roy, and Rezo cannot reform Georgia’s entire schooling sector. Likewise, Alison Swanson and other American Peace Corps volunteers make a fantastic contribution to Georgia’s education and development. Yet, there are less than 50 of them to serve thousands of Georgia’s schools.

But then one should ask what prevents Georgia from developing its own version of Peace Corps? What prevents it from instituting a mandatory civil service for the best university graduates whose studies have been covered by full government scholarships? Would it not be wonderful to engage the children of Vake and Saburtalo families in giving back to society, teaching and providing leadership in Georgia’s darkest corners? Would this not be a great exercise in civic education, nation-building, and modernization fully conforming to the spirit of Ilya Chavchavadze’s “Society for the Advancement of Literacy Among Georgians” (“ქართველთა შორის წერა-კითხვის გამავრცელებელი საზოგადოება”)?

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Dzevri’s inspiring example proves that change is possible. Yet, instead of ineffective bureaucratic meddling and “quality assurance” measures, it requires the political will for bold policy innovations and experiments allowing for a hundred flowers to blossom in rural Georgia. 

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.