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Let Someone Else Do It

In the absence of a law or money, Bulgaria has ceded the responsibility of school desegregation to private groups. [Also in Russian.] by Hristo Hristov 18 May 2006 SOFIA, Bulgaria | In a country like Bulgaria, where segregation of the Romani minority became a state policy during communism, private groups have been struggling for five years to lay the foundation for a permanent desegregation of the country’s school system. But many groups think it’s high time the state took over and made desegregation a national policy.

Eight organizations run projects in Bulgaria aiming to remove Romani children from segregated schools and integrate them into mainstream schools. Their work is coordinated by the Sofia-based foundation Equal Access, established in 2002 to turn these desegregation projects into a long-term state strategy.

The foundation lobbies local and state governments, the Education Ministry, and parliament to adopt action plans for desegregation. Equal Access gathers information on desegregation of children and on the conditions of study in segregated schools in Bulgaria.

The first school desegregation efforts started in 2000 in Vidin with a successful pilot project carried out by the Drom organization. The next year, Drom’s success prompted similar projects elsewhere involving 1,263 pupils. In Sofia, desegregation started in 2003 and in Plovdiv, the country’s second-largest city, in 2005. So far, about 2,500 children have taken part in the project in seven big cities, said Kalinka Vasileva, executive director of Equal Access.

AN OLD PROBLEM

When the communists took power in 1944, they started to establish state schools across the country, but that process did not begin in Romani neighborhoods until the 1950s, when a rule was promulgated requiring children to attend school in the districts where they lived. In the 1960s, vocational training programs were set up in Romani districts. These were non-academic schools – often referred to as “Gypsy schools” – as Romani children were considered less intelligent than non-Romani children. Teachers with the least training or worst reputations were sent to work there, according to a 2005 report on desegregation efforts authored by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

From the 1960s until the 1990s, more than 300 schools with predominantly Romani students were established. Of these, 140 had only Romani pupils, the report states.

In the 1990s some advocacy groups started lobbying the Education Ministry to abandon the local-school rule, which it did only in 2003. But nearly 70 percent of Romani children continue to study in segregated schools, according to Vasileva. The curricula of these schools focus on gaining elementary literacy and some workplace skills.

A GOOD PLAN

It was not until 1999 that the government began to officially consider desegregation – in the Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma into Bulgarian Society. The program foresees measures aimed at ensuring free access of Romani children to mainstream schools and the abolition of segregated classes in these schools. It includes six measures to combat discrimination: desegregation of Romani schools, stopping the practice of registering healthy Romani children in schools for mentally disabled students, fighting racism in classes, teaching the Romani language in schools, preparing Romani children for higher education, and offering elementary literacy and employment qualification courses to Romani adults.

However, until 2001, when a right-wing government left power, the program was simply words on paper. The government took no steps to implement it, nor did it have any intention of doing so, according to the Helsinki Committee report.

In 2002, the new government issued an instruction for integration of minority pupils – but municipalities were not required to comply, the report states.

Some schools and kindergartens still refuse to enroll Romani pupils, saying that they are full and that children should enroll in their local schools. But the real reason is that school principals are afraid that enrolling Roma will prompt the “white” children from stable families to leave the school, according to some school principals interviewed by TOL. The Helsinki Committee report says that attitude is widespread, except for in towns where the NGO-sponsored desegregation programs are taking place.

AN NGO JOB?

The process of desegregation includes organization of preparatory classes for Romani pupils, improvement of poorly performing schools, and the hiring of assistant teachers, usually Romani representatives of groups conducting desegregation projects in various towns. These assistants help Romani children with their study in the host school. Sometimes they join classes and translate for Romani children from Bulgarian into Romani. They also help Romani children with their homework and act as mediators among teachers, children, and parents.

The Drom organization’s Vidin team includes 14 full-time employees, including assistant teachers, parents’ coordinators, drivers, teachers, teachers’ coordinators, and school principals.

In all of the desegregation projects, private groups provide buses to take Romani children from their homes to mainstream schools. They also provide food, textbooks, and often clothes and shoes for the children. For pupils having trouble with their studies, additional one-on-one classes are offered.

Private groups are also helping teachers learn how to work in a multiethnic classroom. In Vidin, parents have established a committee to provide aid to Romani families, including giving them clothes, helping them to get medicine from the health insurance fund free of charge, and offering free legal consultations.

The desegregation team in Pleven is supported by evangelical and the Seventh-day Adventist churches, which have given financial support to parents of children in the project. They also give children school materials and food, and they monitor the pupils' educational progress.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

But in the absence of a law that local governments must obey, desegregation efforts remain scattershot. “Desegregation is not a state policy yet and it will be very difficult to become such. The state doesn’t want to take upon itself desegregation, and that’s why government lets the NGOs [manage] desegregation. It is still only Romani organizations that are active in desegregation,” Vasileva said. No money for desegregation has been earmarked in the national and local budgets.

Although the Education Ministry adopted a strategy for desegregation based on the integration framework in 2002, state institutions, such as the ministry, and local governments still play little role in the desegregation of Romani schools. It took the ministry three years after adoption of the framework plan to issue a document on integrating minority children into the educational system.

Last year, after prodding from the state Council of Cooperation on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the ministry again issued instructions to municipalities for desegregating their schools – but still did not require them to do so.

“In order to carry out desegregation and to achieve real results, NGOs [working on desegregation] want the government to pass a law on educational integration of Romani children and allocate funds for it rather than look for money from foreign donors,” said Stela Kostova, chairwoman of the Roma Youth Organization in Sliven, the group heading the desegregation project there. Instead, in 2005 the Education Ministry set up a center for educational integration of minority children to function as an intermediary between donor organizations and local NGOs working on integration projects rather than a state institution allocating state money. “The center only throws dust in our eyes. However, it’s better this way than doing nothing. But we NGO people keep pushing for desegregation to become a government priority,” Kostova said.

However, two main factors could force the state to get serious about desegregation: pressure from the European Union, which has made recommendations to Bulgaria on desegregation in its annual country reports; and the demographic crisis stemming from the lower birthrate and the annual decrease of pupils attending schools in Bulgaria. These phenomena have prompted a reform of the entire educational system, including shutdowns or mergers of some schools.

With schools merging, children from different cultural backgrounds might find themselves sitting side by side more frequently, regardless of the state’s inaction.
Hristo Hristov is a Sofia-based reporter with the biweekly newspaper Drom Dromendar.

Translated by Petrana Puncheva.
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