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Hard Cases

An alternative high school offers its students an unfamiliar feeling: success.
русская версия
by Anita Komuves 6 August 2008 BUDAPEST | It’s hard to say whether the two young men near the entrance to the Belvarosi Tanoda high school are teachers or students. Wearing shorts and T-shirts, they stand chatting, happy that finals are over and summer has arrived.

It turns out one of them is a teacher, the other a student, but the ease of their conversation is no accident. Here, teachers are partners, not superiors, and that’s only one way that Belvarosi Tanoda, which means Downtown School and is commonly called BT, stands out from other public high schools.

“Teachers are different here. They’re extremely patient, pay attention to you and your problems, and give you as much time as you need if they see some potential in you,” says 23-year-old David Strausz, the student.

BT has been working in downtown Budapest for 18 years, helping 16- to 25-year-old high-school dropouts achieve something they had once thought impossible: passing the standardized test that caps the end of Hungarian secondary school studies. The school works with young people with serious problems like addiction or depression, and most of them graduate.

Although its method has often been praised by Hungarian and foreign education specialists, BT is constantly in financial trouble and badly needs a new building. Staff never know if its doors will open the following September.

INVISIBLE PEOPLE

BT is the brainchild of Edit Gyorik, who had worked with troubled kids at a Budapest community center in the late 1980s. Inspired by that experience, and a conference in Canada on drop-out schools, she started setting up BT in a youth center in 1990.

After a year of preparation BT opened and today it is a secondary and technical school that educates around 100 students. It also runs two separate programs, Megallo (“a place to stop”) for those with serious substance abuse problems, and Valtosav (“changing lanes”) for those incarcerated.

Often, the young people who attend BT have dropped out of not only high school, but the entire institutional care system, Gyorik says. “I can’t say, for example, how many of them are Roma or without parents. This isn’t important, and these categories are also useless: how do I categorize someone who officially lives with his parents but in fact has not seen them for years and lives alone?” she says. “There is a huge group of young people who are invisible and cannot be reached because all their institutional connections are broken when they drop out of the last school.”

The core of the BT method is its complex approach to the students. It seeks not only to teach them but also to help them grow stronger, form a realistic picture of themselves, and re-integrate into society. Teaching is done in small groups where students get individual attention. And unlike in mainstream state schools, where approximately 30 students form a class that studies every subject together for four, eight, or 12 years, BT students join the group that best fits their level of knowledge and education. Each student has a personalized learning program: someone might study ninth-grade math but attend 10th-grade history. Groups are reorganized every term according to personal needs and individual development.

“There were times when I was the only one in the class because the teacher was willing to work with me one-on-one. We covered one history book in a week, and I passed the final exam with good results,” says Tiziano Tubay, who graduated from BT in June.

Students learn not only the subject matter but also how to take an exam – how to concentrate for hours and write a good draft that helps them during the oral part of the exam. Thus there are exams at the end of every term, and by the time the BT students have to take the erettsegi, the Hungarian secondary-school graduation exam, they have a routine and are more confident.

“In BT teachers understood that I wasn’t stupid just because I thought differently. Slowly I was able to forget the years of humiliation in my previous schools,” says Hanna Cseto, a former BT student who attended two high schools before enrolling there. She is now a college student.

Strausz, the 23-year-old, says, “Once the math teacher explained the same thing six times to someone in the group. The whole class was tired of it, but the teacher was patient even the sixth time. At a normal school that student would have been told to go and take private classes in the afternoon and labeled as stupid.”

Tubay, the recent graduate, adds, “Tanoda teaches you that you have a place in this world. It doesn’t tell you where that place is, but helps you find it.” He has applied to Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary’s most prestigious, with plans to major in Hungarian language and literature.

“I only spent my senior year at Tanoda but it had a huge impact on me,” Tubay says.

In order to maximize personal attention, every student has a helper among the teachers, with pairs formed at the start of the school year. The student and the teacher meet once a week to discuss whatever concerns the student might have. But this relationship goes deeper than a weekly meeting. Teachers look out for their pairs all the time, and they find time to talk every day. “It should be a relationship based on trust. It might be called a friendship, but every pair has to define the boundaries of the connection. It is a helping situation, and the teacher-helper has to be prepared to accept and cope with the situation if the student starts to treat him or her as a parent or happens to fall in love with him or her,” Gyorik says.

Cseto says, “It was very important that I had a partner. If someone hurt me or something bad happened, I could tell her and she helped me with everything. Having a partner does contribute to helping a young person who is, let’s say, injured.”

In this process the “crew,” or staff, helps the teacher-helpers. The teachers gather once a week for an exhausting three- to eight-hour meeting to discuss the students’ progress and problems, and ask for help if needed. The crew helps teachers find solutions and acts as a kind of checkup for those who are overwhelmed with work or becoming too closely involved with their students.

“I don’t think I could work in a state high school now. I would consider that a step back because I’ve seen here how the crew works and what kind of relationship teachers can have with the students. I also work in a children’s home, and I really miss discussing the cases and helping each other,” says Gabor Molnar, who has taught Hungarian language and literature at BT for more than three years.

According to reports filed with the Education Ministry, 149 students attended the school and its Megallo and Valtosav programs in the 2006-2007 academic year. That fall, 31 students sat for the erettsegi, or part of it, and another 60 in the spring. Altogether, 37 students graduated.

That figure might seem low, but it is only slightly smaller than the typical size of an “entering class” each September. It’s worth remembering, too, that many of those students stood little chance of graduating at their previous schools.

But BT takes on difficult cases, and not everyone succeeds. In 2007, according to the reports, 15 students dropped out of the school, with another six dropping out of Megallo and Valtosav. “There are usually at least 40 students who don’t come to class regularly or simply disappear,” Molnar says. “To tell the truth, there are very few of them who completely drop out. But we wait for all those kids because there comes a time in their life, too, when they come back and realize they want to graduate.”

STARVED FOR CASH

The BT method is famous, and it is taught in the pedagogy departments of Hungarian universities. Foreign groups often come to study how the school works. Gyorik received the Education Ministry’s and the Soros Foundation’s Ottilia Solt Prize last year for outstanding achievement in minority education. Yet Belvarosi Tanoda, run by its own foundation, is constantly in financial trouble. Students do not pay tuition. As the school provides public services, it is eligible for state funds that cover approximately 30 percent of its costs. Public schools get the remaining 70 percent from their municipality, but BT doesn’t. Instead, it gets the free use of its building. To cover the rest of its costs, the school must apply to charities and other donors each year. “We’re never sure whether we’ll be able to start working the coming September,” Gyorik says.

But the money BT needs annually is not much. “We could run the school on 20 million forints (approximately 85,000 euros) a year, but we would be comfortable and happy with twice that amount,” she says. The situation has become worse in the past year, as the school was simply not able to secure as much money as before from donations and charities.

Molnar says, “This is a place where you come to work smiling, though that smile would be wider if our work was rewarded financially. It’s harder and harder to make ends meet, and that has an effect on the mood of the crew.”

BT’s most pressing need is a new, larger space. It sits in downtown Budapest, in a busy and dirty street not far from posh, touristy Vaci Street, on the ground floor of an old apartment building. It was badly damaged by fire in February, so its walls are freshly painted and its furniture is brand new. “All the works of the students that decorated the walls are gone,” Gyorik says sadly. “We had just started to feel comfortable,” she adds with a bitter laugh.

Although BT has been frequently observed and praised in the past 18 years, no other schools have adopted its method. “It’s a question of money, but only to a certain extent. Half of it is something else: approach, determination, people. But I’m happy if someone just comes here and then applies one element of the BT method in his own school,” Gyorik says. “Imagine how many kids there are in the countryside in the same situation. There could be a school like this in every county, together with a dormitory to help them with accommodation.”

Each year more than 100 people apply to enroll at BT, but the school can accept only 30 to 40. “The hardest thing to learn was to say no,” Gyorik says.

BT is a school for those who need one last chance. Strausz, who has started to do some office work part time at BT while still a student, says, “There are other ‘alternative’ high schools in the country, but you have to pay tuition there. This is the only place where kids with no money, family, or connections can come.”

There are no clear-cut criteria for the admission process, but usually those in the worst situations are accepted, Gyorik says. “Sometimes a big guy, like a politician, makes a call. He has a child in trouble, wants him to finish high school, and heard about BT. I never take those kids because if they still have somebody to make a call for them, an adult to lean on, they’re in a much better position than most of our students.”
Anita Komuves is a journalist based in Budapest.
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