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Child Write-Offs

The Czech education system is knowingly turning out thousands of unemployable young people. From Respekt.

русская версия

by Michal Komarek 26 November 2009

The Czech Republic’s Roma cost the country at least 16 billion crowns [600 million euros] annually, according to recent World Bank estimates. Or rather, not the Roma per se, but rather their “inadaptability.” Experts say this is because most Romani children here get inferior educations and thereby permanently lose any prospect of securing a decent job. That in turn costs the state money because unemployed Roma do not contribute to the economy, do not pay taxes and live on social welfare. And the World Bank estimate does not even include in its final sum the “secondary costs” of the domestic system: the miserable quality of life of these socially marginalized Roma, the rise in social tensions, ethnic conflicts, criminality.

 

These conclusions are not only clear but also well known. International and domestic non-governmental organizations have been saying for almost 20 years that a disproportionate number of Roma are sent to special schools for children with learning disabilities. This was recently and definitively confirmed by the first sociological survey conducted for the Education Ministry, which found that 30 percent of each annual cohort of Romani children attended schools for the mentally disabled. The proportion of white Czech children who received this diagnosis was about 2 percent, which is in line with the global average. A large portion of the rest of the Romani children attend so-called “gypsy schools,” where their academic performance is not much better than that of those who sit in classrooms for the mentally disabled.

 

The Czech education system thus produces thousands of unemployable and “expensive” graduates every year. But while this drain on financial and human resources is widely known, all efforts to stop it have totally failed. That is because it is supported by two pillars. It is supported from below by the desire of white parents to place their children in problem-free schools, and from above by the authority of the state as official pedagogical-psychological counseling offices work with teachers to produce a steady stream of recommendations for the transfer of Romani students from standard to special schools.

Libcice nad VltavouA scene in the Czech town of Libcice nad Vltavou. Many Czech Roma live in substandard housing. Photo by Petru Zoltan.

 

WE DON’T WANT GYPSIES HERE

 

Two school buildings stand on opposite sides of Merhautova Street in downtown Brno. They are about 100 meters apart, but they might as well be in two different worlds. The street, which at first sight seems quiet and rather average, separates these two schools with a dramatically powerful force that is difficult to believe. Or rather a force that is difficult to accept. “It’s as if there was a gigantic barrier here and for many people it is difficult to even cross the street,” says Petra Faltynova, the principal of both schools.

 

One of them, the smaller one on the corner of Vranovska Street, is attended by Romani children. The larger one is attended almost exclusively by white children. Five years ago, these originally separate schools were amalgamated into one. “Vranovska was always a ‘gypsy’ school. I am well aware of that. After all I originally served as the principal over there. Merhautova was, on the contrary, a purely ‘white,’ prestigious school. I wanted the amalgamation and supported it, and I thought that we would be able to somehow mix the kids from both buildings together,” Faltynova says. “But some of the white parents gave us a clear sign from the very start – they didn’t wait for anything and transferred their children to other schools. There were about 100 of them.”

 

The experience of other schools in Brno that were created through the amalgamation of “gypsy” and “white” schools provided similar cause for concern: All the white students gradually left the amalgamated schools. “We realized that we had to proceed tactically and we came to the conclusion that the ideal would be to have three or four Romani children in each ‘white” classroom,’ Faltynova adds. “Even so, it is difficult. Some white parents are so racist that it’s just unbelievable.”

 

And so, every year during registration, Petra Faltynova engages in a diplomatic battle with parents to get the white ones to accept that their children will be in a classroom with three Romani fellow students, while most of the Romani ones have to come to terms with the fact that their children will stay in the Vranovska building. “I obviously cannot force anything on the parents, but I try to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each building to them and the rationale behind our approach,” she says. “There are fewer children in the classrooms at Vranovska and so the teachers can give them more individual attention. At Merhautova, a normal, natural environment is being created in which the barriers between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ are being broken down.”

 

Last year, the principal failed to persuade several Romani parents and they wanted their children, 14 in all, to attend class in the “white building.” The white parents of this future class of first-graders reacted with a petition. “We call on you to create two first-grade classes so that the Romani children will be together and the non-Romani children as well. We advise you that if there will be more than three Romani children in the classroom – you informed us of this integration aim over the telephone – we will transfer our children to Zemedelska Elementary School. While we know that it is a grey and gloomy school, and that it does not offer the same level of service as yours, it does have one advantage. It is widely known that the principal there does not admit Roma on principle. We are in an area where we have to live with them, and so we do not want our children to be with them right from the first grade of school.”

 

Faltynova did not back down, and so the white parents really did transfer their children elsewhere and Merhautova was left with one entirely Romani grade. “This is not a good solution. But what can we do, when some schools really base their reputations on the fact that they have no Romani children. And if that is deemed suitable by the white parents?” the principal asks. “If all schools accepted that there will be three to five Roma in each classroom, we wouldn’t have this problem. The special schools and segregated, pure ‘gypsy’ schools could be closed. But for now that is an absolute pipe dream.”

 

The principal of the school in Zemedelska Street, Milos Hruza, rejects any suggestion that he does not accept Romani children. That is logical enough; if he conceded it, he would be admitting to breaking the law. “It is not that we strictly refuse to admit Romani children, rather it’s that they simply do not register. They know that almost no Roma attend our school and they tend to be drawn toward ‘their own,’ ” Hruza explains, admitting that on the contrary “white” parents push for registration at his school when they realize that their children would have to be in a classroom with Roma in another school. The school in Zemedelska Street has 22 classes and more than 400 students, but the principal is not able to say how many of them are Roma. “But there are only a few, up to five, maybe four,” he says, trying to remember.

 

It is widely known among the residents of Brno that segregation is happening in their schools, but the institution that is entrusted with responsibility for the schools – Brno City Hall – knows nothing about it. City Hall spokesman Pavel Zara says no such separation into “Roma” and “white” classrooms exists. The children simply attend schools according to where they live and the city does not examine the situation further because asking questions about the ethnicity of the children is, after all, unacceptable.

 

THE SOMBER IMAGE OF THE DARK SCHOOLS

 

The situation in Brno is in no way exceptional: according to a survey commissioned by the Education Ministry last year, more than a quarter of Romani children attend “gypsy” schools, or in other words schools in which Roma are in the majority. Along with them, slightly less than half a percent of other children also attend such schools. The pressure toward segregation is steadily increasing: white parents from Brno as well as other communities across the republic are concerned that Romani children are, simply put, dumber, less disciplined, and have violent tendencies. And so, as the authors of the aforementioned petition put it, “since we already have to live with them, we at least would rather not run into them at school.”

 

The survey also found the chances that a graduate of a “gypsy” school will get into a vocational secondary school are about a third as high as those of graduates from other schools. And they can only dream of advancement to a program culminating in a secondary school diploma, or entry into an academic secondary school.

 

It is one of those vicious circles and our education system has no idea how to break it. The majority of Romani children come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, which simply means that they live in families that are on the margins of society and in an environment focused on day-to-day existence, and that both parents are unemployed, have at best an elementary-school education, have no reason to believe that they have a shot at succeeding among the majority ethnic group of this society, and are dealing with debts, depression, and resignation – and some of them also with alcoholism and criminality.

 

Four out of five of such Romani children do not attend kindergarten and, by the time they have registered for the first grade, have difficulties with the Czech language and have never been exposed to many of the things that are standard in other families. They do not know books, their parents do not read to them, they often do not even know how to hold a pencil, they’ve never drawn a picture. The chances of them breaking through these limits are significantly lower in a school where they will meet children with similar experiences than they would be in a mixed environment where they could encounter other stories, other ambitions, a different idea about the possibilities of success.

 

This in itself does not mean that a “gypsy” school must necessarily be a bad school. “These children are at a disadvantage because of their family environment,” Petra Faltynova says. “But it’s not an irresolvable problem to lift them up to the same level as the others. It requires the teacher to devote time to them on an individual basis, and above all, not to give up on the idea that these children can and should have exactly the same education as anyone else. At Vranovska, we have managed with the help of grants to ensure that classroom sizes do not exceed 12 students and to have four assistants in the building.”

 

Nevertheless, as she herself acknowledges, the situation at Vranovska is definitely not a typical one for “gypsy” schools. Many of them do not have smaller classroom sizes, or assistants or anything like an above-standard approach.

 

The segregation pressures are also related to another significant phenomenon: another survey commissioned last year by the Education Ministry found that about one-third of Romani children in each year’s cohort have no chance of making it into the “gypsy” elementary schools and end up in “special” schools with a diagnosis of mental disability. This phenomenon is uniquely Czech – we have four times as many children in special schools as neighboring Austria and 100 times more than Sweden. The percentage of “disabled” Czech Roma exceeds the statistics for the frequency of this diagnosis in society as a whole by a factor of 10. [TOL editor’s note: The practice of transferring disproportional numbers of Romani children to “special” schools is also common in Slovakia, Hungary, and other countries.]

 

There are two possible logical explanations for this: either Czech Roma are indeed slower than the rest or our society is racist and systematically ascribes an inferior status to Roma from childhood.

 

SCHOOL FOR THOSE WITH HEART

 

“The idea that Roma cannot get an education has been created by the media. It’s not true – they don’t want one,” says Iveta Krzakova, the principal of a special school in Bilina. “And their mental level is a result of heredity; that’s why so many of them have to go to special schools.”

 

Krzakova has been teaching at this school for 19 years and she considers herself an expert on the “Roma question.” She has taught hundreds of Romani children, who have been in the majority among local pupils for all that time. She also lives in Bilina, a town in northern Bohemia with one of the most renowned Roma ghettos on the list of socially marginalized localities in the country – in other words, extremely poor areas where local residents have a minimal chance of becoming integrated with the majority society. The principal views life in her town as a constant conflict between the decent white majority and the dangerous people from the ghetto. “Look, I can’t be a complete racist if I’m doing this work. I’m not bothered by a Rom for being a Rom; there are decent people among them as well. What I do mind is that a Rom attacks me on the street, robs me, that he threatens me,” the principal explains. While she does not have any personal experience with being assaulted or robbed, she does point out that her children are afraid to take a walk in the local neighborhood at night.

 

As Principal Krzakova sees it, education is not important for most Roma. “Three-quarters of them just don’t want to; unfortunately, that’s the way it is,” she says. She is convinced that her students would not be able to handle the demands of a standard elementary school. “Maybe they would let them slip through with 4s [on a scale of 1 (best) to 5], but they wouldn’t even learn what little they pick up in our school,” she says. “And we even have classrooms with fewer students here and teachers who would go to the wall for them. Only a true enthusiast could do this work.” 

 

The graduates of special schools learn to read, write, add, subtract, and superficially a bit of division and general information on Czech history; for instance, that a person named Charles IV was a part of it. “You can’t teach them more than that,” Principal Krzakova says. “No details, no world history, there’s just not a chance that they can delve into that, after all, they have no conception of a 100-year time span, it means nothing to them.” This kind of education is then reflected in their further career as students: at most, one or two students from the graduating class move on to secondary school, the others go directly on the job market from ninth grade. And the vicious circle is complete, as even Krzakova confirms: “The Roma are always whining about having no work. But what could they possibly do when they don’t know how to do anything?”

 

THE FIGHT HAS BEGUN

 

Petr Klima, a psychologist, has tested some 900 Romani children. Klima has been working for more than 30 years in a pedagogical-psychological counseling office in the Prague neighborhood of Zizkov, which he now runs as director. Counseling offices like his issue recommendations for the transfer of children to “special” schools. At this point, a brief terminological digression is necessary: officially, for four years now, special schools have not existed in this country. They were drawing too much negative attention at home and abroad and a new education law eliminated them. In their place – in the same buildings, with the same teachers and students – “practical elementary schools” were abruptly created. While these have the formal status of a standard elementary school, they teach according to special teaching curricula that are adapted for children with slight mental disabilities. Educational experts, teachers and even officials from the ministry agree that in practice nothing has changed: the special schools were simply renamed and continue to function on the same basis.

 

“Romani children are failing tests en masse. I am not dreaming this up, that’s the way it is; 80 percent of them are on the border of mental disability,” Petr Klima says, explaining his experience. “It’s logical: When Maria Teresa established mandatory schooling here, they were living like nomads. Forty years ago, many of them were absolutely illiterate. Some improvement is evident, but it is slow. Now they are able to get through a special school. Maybe in some 150 years the problem will be solved. But I don’t know – we are not all the same, even though a lot of idealists don’t like to hear it.”

 

In Klima’s opinion, Roma should be grateful for the special schools: after all, it was thanks to those schools that they learned basic literacy. “I’m not trying to resolve whether there is some kind underlying racism to it or not. I’m just standing up for the interests of my clients and I know that they will be better off in a special school than they would be in a normal school, where they would not be able to keep up with the curriculum and would be stressed, and in the end where they would learn a lot less than in a special school,” he says. “Besides, I am a little racist. Everyone is, we’re just afraid to talk about it out loud. If, for example, my daughter brought home a Romani boyfriend, I would have a big problem with it.”

 

Dozens of counseling offices across the republic operate in the same way as Klima’s. “In the interests of their clients,” they issue mass amounts of recommendations for Romani children to attend special schools. And like Principal Krzakova, they see these schools as an environment which is not only the most appropriate for them, but also the most pleasant, friendly, and helpful. “I really think that the absolute majority of my colleagues do it in good faith. And so, in the best belief that we are helping, we in fact discriminate,” says Jana Zapletalova, a psychologist and director of the Institute of Pedagogical-Psychological Counseling. “We have to change it. But it won’t be easy. I estimate, and maybe I’m being optimistic, that some 70 percent of the people from counseling offices and the special school system oppose change.”

 

Zapletalova is, like many other experts in this field, convinced that no testing method is so sophisticated that it would be capable of revealing what is actually causing this slight handicap in children who have just started attending school. “It is evident that we are sending children to special schools who don’t belong there, for whom it would be enough, given the handicap they have with respect to their upbringing, to offer them greater attention in first and second grade. This is not something that will take 150 years. We have to try to do it differently than we’ve been doing it and then we’ll see,” she says.

 

Klima, however, rejects any change in approach. “I know that new tests and methods are being prepared. But I’ve had my test in use for almost 40 years. I know how to work with it and I don’t intend to start working with something untested. I’d rather quit.”

 

TOGETHER TO SCHOOL

 

Zapletalova is convinced that we have to reduce the number of  “special schools” and reserve special education for the needs of children who have serious handicaps. She calls on the counseling offices to ensure that their psychologists do not rely only on tests of intelligence but also monitor the child over the long term, and above all, that they seek a means for the child to overcome the handicap in a standard school. This must be, in Zapletalova’s opinion, accompanied by a transformation of the elementary school system as such: Above all, it is necessary to boost the financing of the system to establish smaller class sizes, provide extra professional training for teachers, hire teaching assistants, and devote individual attention to students.

 

In this regard, Zapletalova is in full agreement with former Education Minister Ondrej Liska and his deputy minister, Klara Laurencikova, who formed a department for equal opportunities at the ministry and launched preparations for a plan to ensure that as many children as possible attend standard schools together. Part of the plan in fact also includes proposed legislative amendments that would strengthen the financing of elementary schools as well as training for teachers and psychologists from the counseling offices. “At the ministry, we came up against the strong opposition or aversion of people who are convinced that the special school system is working just fine,” says Laurencikova, who has remained at the ministry even after Liska’s departure. “But now we can lean on the decision from [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg, which ruled in favor of 18 former students of special schools that the Czech education system had discriminated against them, and also on the fact that the previous government accepted the decision and on that basis accepted the preparations for the common education plan.”

 

But the problem lies above all in the fact that the path of plans, concepts, and legislative changes is a long one and that it depends on political will, on whether the new minister will be willing to continue the work of predecessors. This path could be interrupted or lost in the bureaucratic and tactical tangles of ministerial departments and political deals.

 

“What Principal Zapletalova or Deputy Minister Laurencikova are trying to do is doubtless a noticeable change for the better and we support it. We think, though, that the whole ministry should move faster and more decisively,” says Jan Stejskal of the organization Z&vule prava [the Arbitrariness of Law], which coordinates the coalition Together to School, made up in turn of 13 non-governmental organizations that promote equal opportunities in the Czech school system. This is why the coalition is recommending three basic steps. First, “prepare and launch without delay a massive state campaign that would eliminate racially prejudiced thinking among the majority group in society.” The second step would be an immediate moratorium on transferring Roma children to practical elementary schools. And finally, from the 2010-2011 school year, the total elimination of practical elementary schools.

 

“The transformation of these schools would certainly not happen without difficulties. But the fundamental thing is to reach a state that would be in line with the law and would mean the elimination of discriminatory practices without delay,” Stejskal emphasizes. As far as “gypsy ghetto schools” are concerned, the experts are not under any illusion that it will be possible to prevent such schools from being created any time soon. The prejudices, and the resultant segregation pressures from “below,” are too strong. He sees the way to break this vicious circle in turning the “gypsy schools” into normal, standard, quality schools. The idea is that if Romani children have an opportunity to get a standard education along with the possibility of advancing to secondary school, they will then increasingly and naturally get into classrooms with “white” children, and there should then also be a gradual weakening of opinions among “white” parents that the Romani students are inferior and that they represent a threat to their children.

 

Such reforms, including the elimination of “special schools” and an improvement in the quality of elementary schools in general, would even be immune to the standard criticism that we cannot afford them. Let’s recall: the cold calculations of economists show that every year we lose 16 billion crowns because our school system is producing thousands of unemployable people. In this light, investing billions into a better and more accommodating school system looks like a good investment with a clear return.

 

Even now there are some schools that are not waiting for the plans and bureaucratic documents to be approved.

 

NORMAL SCHOOL

 

The school is impossible to miss. It stands out from the other buildings in Lacnov, a suburban hamlet of the eastern Bohemian town of Svitavy, thanks to a richly blue façade featuring paintings of fairy tale characters. It is also impossible to overlook what is going on inside.

 

In a large room here, about 35 children sit on the carpet along with six adults. The morning ritual has begun. They all touch the person sitting next to them, address them by their first name and wish them a nice day. Next is the “theme of the day,” after which the children will divide up into groups for independent work. Today’s theme is the postwar expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. Principal Radoslava Renzova first reminds the children what they already know about the war: that the Germans started it, that they occupied us, that they put people in concentration camps and that we then took the Germans who lived here and expelled them. “Was it right?” she asks. “What would you do with them?” A flood of answers pours out in response: kill them, execute them, expel them. In the second round, the principal tells the children a story recounted in an article published by a Czech magazine about the brutal murders of several Germans near the town of Jihlava shortly after the end of the war.

 

The third round follows: The principal asks the children if they know who those Germans living here in our country were, and whether all of them were guilty of starting the war. “After all, they could have been entirely normal families that had children,” a 10-year-old girl says. “We should have punished those who fought, not all of them,” adds another student. “But a court should decide on the punishment,” says his neighbor.

 

The intensity of the discussion, in which almost all the kids got involved, is reflected in their flushed faces and in the principal’s concluding words: “Thank you very much. It was a tough theme, but we managed it wonderfully. I don’t know what else to say. Wow.”

 

Children in grades one through four attend the Lacnov school, 37 children in all, a third of them Roma. “When I took over the school four years ago, it was on the verge of closing. There were 10 fewer children and a few more families deregistered their children because I had said we would be an open multicultural school, which they interpreted as meaning that we would be a ‘bad gypsy school,’ ” Renzova recalls. “We didn’t give up. We took inspiration from the alternative programs of the Waldorf and Montessori schools, which are based above all on open communication, ethical upbringing, and an individual approach. We received two grants from European funds, and so some degree of certainty that we would survive in future years. And now children come to us from the other side of Svitavy, or even from other towns.”

 

According to Renzova, the Romani students have no problems in school. “They react wonderfully, they are direct and they learn quickly,” she says. “Naturally, there can be some differences compared to what we might consider standard, which is a result of their family lives – for instance, they can have trouble with the Czech language, at the beginning perhaps with abstract concepts in mathematics, but that can be fixed.”

 

Helena Kallaiova is a “white” Czech married to a Rom. Two of her children attend the Lacnov school. “Here they see kids as kids, not as white or gypsy,” she says. “In Svitavy, they wanted to send my youngest to a special school. I disagreed, but without the possibility of sending him to Lacnov, he probably would have ended up there. There was a lot of pressure from the school. He’s happy here, he has a good time and he has no problem.”

 

Alan Lyer travels 20 kilometers to bring his “white” son to the school. “I was intrigued by the methods used at this school, and when I found out that so many Romani children come here, I took it as a bonus. It’s wonderful that children are in a normal, non-segregated environment,” he says.

 

The Lacnov school has apparently won the first round of its struggle for survival and for its new program. The school’s continued success will depend on how open the second-level elementary schools [grades five through nine] will be to “Lacnov’s” children. No school with a similarly open program exists at the second level in this area. “That is a huge shame and a big problem. It’s not true that the large schools could not act like this for 40 kids. It’s a question of approach. And of course, a question of money so that the schools could afford assistant teachers and so that they could pay the teachers better,” Lyer adds. “But all of this should already be clear to us. After all this Lacnov school is not ‘gypsy,’ nor is it ‘alternative,’ nor is it somehow ‘weird.’ Surely, this one is the normal school.”

Lacnov_schoolThe elementary school in Lacnov. Photo: http://www.zslacnov.svitavy.cz/

This article originally appeared in the Czech weekly Respekt.

 

Translated by Victor Gomez.

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