A Romanian village school affected by “white flight” tries to adjust.
by Sinziana Demian 24 November 2008
NAMAESTI, Romania | The school bus pulls in a few minutes before 8 a.m., disgorging several dozen children who make their way toward the newly renovated building at the back of a long yard. They have traveled here on a largely unpaved road from their village, Gura Pravat
, some three kilometers away, to attend middle school in this southeastern village of 700.
All 160 or so fifth- to eighth-graders at the school are Roma, yet none lives in the village. As Romani parents from the surrounding area began sending more and more children here to continue their schooling, village residents virtually shunned the school, instead sending their children to school in other villages and towns.
Low birth rates in Namaesti and the emigration of many young people, added to the self-imposed boycott, led to the closure of the village primary school a decade ago and the gradual exodus of children from the middle school, replaced by youngsters who come here after completing the first four grades in the Romani village of Gura Pravat.
“It’s painful to watch my little girl having to wake up at 6 a.m. to go to school far away. But I just couldn’t let her study in Namaesti anymore, with all these changes,” complained one mother, Niculina Chiculescu, who lives across the street from the middle school. Her five older children all finished eighth grade in the village, but that was over a decade ago, when only about half the pupils were Roma.
Local authorities have made no travel arrangements for Namaesti’s children who attend school elsewhere. Chiculescu walks her 10-year-old daughter, Cristina, both ways every day to the next village, Valea Mare, more than three kilometers away down a busy road. She comments ironically that the Roma children have a free bus service at their disposal to get to Namaesti – the service was introduced a year ago. Other village parents drive their children to school or send them on a regular bus.
Romanian children. Creative Commons photo.
‘WE LEARN HOW TO BE DIFFERENT’
Petrica Boncoi, principal of the schools in Namaesti, Gura Pravat, and Valea Mare, admits there are “huge adaptation problems” for all parties involved but applauds the much-needed “de-isolationism” of younger Roma.
“This is a learning process for all of us. The transition is sometimes painful, but it’s the only way forward. The Romani children needed this chance, and we’re trying to give them the best possible start for a more meaningful life,” Boncoi said.
While it isn’t uncommon to hear parents in Namaesti lament the passing of the good old days and the education tradition they were familiar with, their Romani counterparts can’t stop counting their blessings. Dinu Rafira remarks on all the opportunities that have come to his three boys so suddenly in the last few years.
“They have this amazing chance to study in a different environment. By grade five, they’re already more knowledgeable than I am now,” said Rafira, who cannot read or write. This summer, through a program sponsored in part by the local municipality, he also purchased a secondhand desktop computer for his sons, so that they can keep up with the Romanian children in their age group, even if only from a distance.
Rafira’s youngest boy, Florin, began middle school this fall and is still adjusting. He finds it fascinating that he has to travel on a tight schedule to study elsewhere and vows he will not skip (too many) classes. “My brothers kept telling me how great school here is. I want to be a straight-A student and get my high school diploma some day,” he said.
Today Florin is riding the bus with his 13-year-old brother, Ionut, who is clueing him in to all the “cool things” in Namaesti: the best sandwich at the deli across the street, the best hiding place in the school yard.
“He’ll need to learn how to make it on his own now,” Ionut said. “He can’t just run home anymore the minute he gets in trouble. It’s much tougher here, but it’s good, because we learn how to be different, too.”
Some pupils may thrive in a new location, but overall, school results are not particularly satisfying among the Romani students, according to Tiberiu Ciolan, who teaches Romanian and French in Namaesti. The biggest problems in his view are truancy and the environment back home, where children receive little support and encouragement. School authorities are not strict about enforcing a rule that allows them to make a child who misses more than 40 class sessions in a school year repeat the year.
“Some have real potential, but it’s hard to build on that just during the few hours they spend in school,” Ciolan said. He said students almost never complete their homework because either they do not have the physical space at home, where they live in overcrowded rooms, or they do not know how, and the adults are not able to help them. He also believes that with a few notable exceptions Romani parents push their children to go to school mainly in order to receive the monthly state allocation of 25 lei (6.5 euros).
Other teachers and local officials interviewed for this article concurred with the common belief that lack of motivation holds Romani children back in school. Some Romani parents readily admit that their role in their children’s education extends only as far as enrolling them in school and collecting the monthly subsidy.
Romani parents “do not really get involved. They hardly, if ever, show up at meetings with parents,” Ciolan said. “Sometimes they just stop me and my colleagues in the street to ask how their children are doing.”
The changing face of the school’s students has also meant that teachers have had to adjust, rethinking their syllabi and instruction methods. Before the exodus of village children, they used standard textbooks and paced the class according to the results of the better students on the principle, “the rest will follow.” Now expectations are lower and results are poorer.
“We simply have to take it much more slowly and demand less in class. These children no longer have role-model classmates, so they’re not as ambitious. We try to use a lot of hands-on learning here, to help them develop a more practical side,” Ciolan said.
According to school records, fewer than one in 20 of the Romani students who graduate from Namaesti pursues further evening classes or vocational training elsewhere. None has yet gone to an academic high school or obtained a high school diploma. Girls not uncommonly drop out to get married before finishing eighth grade.
PUSHING AGAINST THE TIDE
Recently, though, a few families from Gura Pravat, concerned for their children’s progress, have started sending their children to middle schools farther away than Namaesti so they have a chance to interact with classmates from the majority population in what they hope will be a change for the better.
“The transition is tough for them. They keep asking why they can’t just be in Namaesti, with their old friends. Here they get bullied because of their background and often fall behind in class. But I think that in the long run this is just better for them,” said Cristian Brumaru, who sent his two older children to the same school in Valea Mare attended by Niculina Chiculescu’s daughter.
School principal Boncoi hopes that the transition here will not be as abrupt as in Namaesti and that children and parents alike will be able to appreciate the school’s growing diversity rather than point to the problems.
“We’re not lobbying for this change, but simply present the Romani parents with the possibility of sending their children here. Currently we have an average of 10 to 15 percent Romani students in each class, and we’re not in a hurry to boost numbers at a faster pace than necessary,” the principal said.
Rafira thinks he might also transfer his two middle-school sons out of Namaesti, but for now he is wary of investing time and money in such a big change. He says he realizes that this is the trend they will all have to follow sooner or later.
“Wherever Romanians go we will also go, eventually,” he said.