Into the Mainstream

By Barbara Levin

As Czech students headed back to class this fall, their schools started implementing a long-awaited law that could finally end the de facto segregation of Roma students – though activists remain skeptical.

by Barbara Levin

3 October 2016

At age six, Edita Stejskalova was asked to stand in front of the blackboard in her classroom. Her teacher then conducted a vote among her classmates to decide whether the young girl should stay in the class or re-take first grade. She was the only Roma in her class. They voted for her to re-take first grade, but Stejskalova refused.

“The moment I stood in front of the class, I did not feel human,” Stejskalova remembers.

Four years later, a Czech teacher recognized Stejskalova’s learning abilities – for the first time in her life – and provided encouragement, while nurturing a pro-integration spirit within the classroom. The “gypsy” name-calling faded, and Stejskalova began to thrive in class. That teacher had changed her life.

“She connected me with society and the other children in the class,” Stejskalova says. “Her positive attitude made me stronger. I started to believe in society, in people, in positive change, and in the world.”
Edita Stejskalova, a Roma activist in Ostrava.
Today, Stejskalova is an activist and politician based in Ostrava, representing and speaking on behalf of the Roma community through her campaigns and social work. Despite the early challenges, she has succeeded. But childhood experiences like Stejskalova’s are hardly a thing of the past. More than a quarter century into the post-communist transition, Central European countries like the Czech Republic continue to struggle with the issue of ensuring equal access to education for the Roma, Europe’s largest, most marginalized minority. But after years of international pressure from the European Union, Amnesty International, Open Society Fund Praha, and other organizations, the Czechs have begun the new school year with legislation that mandates equal access to education with a mainstream curriculum for all children, including those with mild mental disabilities.

While on paper, the change in language may appear minimal, the potential for a dramatic transformation of the system is there, especially in the area of inclusive education for the Roma minority. In the past, many Roma children were often diagnosed with mental disabilities (“conveniently” say activists) and then shunted into so-called special schools. These schools placed lower demands on the children, and the vast majority then opted for vocational training instead of secondary schools, intimidated by difficult entrance exams and their limited knowledge. Such choices, in turn, drastically reduced these students’ chances to continue on to higher education and better-paying jobs. They have also led some Roma parents to send their children to private schools, sometimes putting families into debt.

“So we have a paradox here,” says Yveta Kenety, country coordinator for the Roma Education Fund. “The poorest group in society is studying at private schools while the relatively rich Czech kids are studying at state, free secondary schools. This has to be discussed soon and something has to be done about it.”

Name Change 

Past reforms attempting to push for educational integration have led to some improvements in Roma education; from 2007 to 2013 fewer Roma children were diagnosed with mild mental disabilities. The authorities also changed the name from “special” to “practical” schools several years ago. But advocacy organizations have argued that little has changed and de facto segregation has continued. According to a recent Al Jazeera article, an estimated 30 percent of Roma children attend the practical schools versus just 2 percent of non-Roma pupils. In 2014, the European Commission agreed with the criticism, initiating infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for systematic discrimination against Roma children in schools.

With the new law, the special curriculum found in these practical schools has now been abolished. And just as significantly, all children can now be educated in their local, basic schools. Once parents show interest, the schools then have to take all special measures necessary for each individual student to undertake a mainstream education, with a special pedagogical center providing guidance and the state delivering funding. These measures may include supplying a pedagogical or personal assistant, a psychologist, and an individual educational plan, if needed. Previous legislation had not clearly defined the notion of special measures.

“The purpose of the inclusion isn’t to create more special classes, but to include the children with disabilities or disadvantages into mainstream education,” Kenety said.

While they credit the government for finally taking a step in a positive direction, anti-discrimination activists, Roma parents, and Czech educators wonder what impact, if any, the new law will have in the classroom, particularly when it comes to changing attitudes and behaviors of administrators and teachers, as well as parents.

“I’m keeping some level of skepticism about the possible impacts of the reform because we did see several other reforms in the past that have not produced that huge change that we hoped for,” says Stepan Drahokoupil, the education and youth program coordinator at the Open Society Fund Praha.
An integrated primary school in Trmice, the Czech Republic.
Equalizing access to the same curricula across the county for Roma and non-Roma students together is a long and complex process that will take years, if not decades, to accomplish. Minimizing the bullying of Roma students as schools begin to integrate is therefore a great concern for the implementation of the new educational reform. Drahokoupil expressed his worry about the current dilemma that many Roma parents may face.

“Roma parents have to decide whether to send their children into mainstream, non-segregated schools where their children may face bullying on a racial basis, or to remain in the Roma- populated schools where the child will most likely receive a lower-quality education,” Drahokoupil said. “That’s a terrible choice, right?” 

Misplaced Fears

Another obstacle, says Kenety, is that many teachers today don’t know how to handle children with special needs in their classrooms because they have taught for years under the rigid, segregated school system. One poll showed that more than 80 percent of parents and teachers support the notion of segregation because they fear that the educational process will be slowed down as integration begins and Roma children will start to transfer from practical schools. This public perception has, activists say, led to systematic prejudice within the Czech school system.

“Parents and teachers don’t realize that in the long run their children will benefit from being exposed to children with special needs,” says Kenety. “Education is not only about learning facts but also about learning how to socialize with various groups of people.”

So far, most Roma parents have apparently chosen not to send their children elsewhere, despite the efforts of some Roma mothers to end segregation. Statistics available for this fall indicate that only approximately 205 students applied to transfer into mainstream education (18,000 students attend practical schools, both Roma and non-Roma).

Lucie Bubnarova is a teacher at an integrated school at Trmice, a town in the Usti region. She expressed concerns for Roma students whose parents cannot give them financial or educational support. “Education is not just about the school system. It is also about preparing for class at home, something that Roma parents are often not able to offer their children.”
Lucie Bubnarova, a teacher in Trmice who assists students with special needs.
Stejskalova is working with the Ministry of Education in the Czech Republic toward greater inclusion of the Roma population into local communities, while upholding Roma self-identity and pride. They are in the process of creating material for teachers to learn how to handle direct bullying in the classroom that she hopes will be implemented as soon as possible, given the current reforms.

“Solving bullying starts with the teacher. The teachers are often the first aggressor when it comes to racial bullying of Roma children in segregated schools. Helping teachers change their behavior can have a positive change and reduce harassment in the classroom,” says Stejskalova.

“We hope to change the education system and make it more adaptable to children of different backgrounds,” she said.

Barbara Levin is a freelance journalist based in the United States. She conducted research for this article while attending TOL’s International Storytelling Course this past summer.