Produced stories

Into the Mainstream
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

Czech Ingenuity Puts New Shine on Endangered Craft

After barely making it through the ’90s and limping through the 2008 crash, Bohemia’s fabled decorative glass industry is on the rise again.
By Sandra Dondenne
20 September 2016


Full stories:
Into the Mainstream
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. 

Czech Ingenuity Puts New Shine on Endangered Craft
After barely making it through the ’90s and limping through the 2008 crash, Bohemia’s fabled decorative glass industry is on the rise again.

by Sandra Dondenne

20 September 2016

As he strolled down the streets of Paris four years ago while on holiday with his girlfriend, Czech master glass blower Michal Masek spotted something that brought him to a standstill: through a shop window, he saw a set of fine drinking glasses that he had manufactured.

“I felt so happy and proud, it was an amazing feeling,” says the 41-year-old artisan with the north Bohemian company Verreum. “Today, if you go abroad and say you are a Czech glassmaker, it really means something.”

Masek’s memorable moment illuminates how Czech glass, displayed since the 18th century in cities like Vienna or Lisbon, regained international splendor by adapting to 21st century globalization and finding niche markets. Starting in 1989, after four decades of isolation from Western customers under a state-controlled economy, Czech glass firms went through wrenching privatization and restructuring to survive the new competition. Some, however, embraced innovation, welcoming investments and technology from the West, and found their niches on the market. Glass is today one of the most identifiable Czech products, along with Skoda cars and Pilsner Urquell beer. The refinement of Czech glass is recognized worldwide, notably in the Middle East where it is “absolutely number one,” says Michal Mejstrik, director of the Institute of Economic Studies at Charles University in Prague.
Michal Masek at work in Novy Bor, long a center of Bohemian glassmaking.
While Czech decorative glass is best known to tourists, thanks to collaboration with designers, Czech glass is also competitive in other forms, such as container glass for the food and beverage industry, flat glass used in the automotive and building sectors, glass fiber employed in textiles or insulation, and laboratory glass. Each sector had to adapt to trade liberalization following the fall of communism, as the surviving makers cut work forces and embraced new technologies to increase their products’ attractiveness and compete with the lower labor costs of developing countries. From 2002, Czech glass lost market share worldwide against cheaper Chinese glass.

Strongly dependent on customer expectations, decorative glass was particularly sensitive to these changes. “Firms were used to manufacturing low-quality mass products for the Russian market, but these were not the type of goods that were successful in the West,” Mejstrik says. Handmade glass survived in small- and medium-sized enterprises that succeeded in renewing traditional know-how to specialize in products with high margins, such as luxury vessels and lighting fixtures.

National Heritage Reaches World Markets  

Bohemian glassware appeared on the scene in the 13th century thanks to abundant natural resources – sand, soda, potash, and wood – which local craftsmen used to produce a glass whose malleability allowed it to be more easily worked and engraved. Starting in the 19th century, the state’s investment in art and technical schools fostered participation in exhibitions like the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. More permissive with glass than with fine arts, the communist regime financed experimentation. Many painters, sculptors, and designers also worked in glass, says former Corning Museum of Glass curator Tina Oldknow. Still, the state monopoly on foreign trade meant that Czech glassmakers were relatively isolated.

New freedom – and new pressures – arrived with the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Between 1990 and 1993, restructuring to adapt to market realities eliminated the jobs of half a million Czechs, including 314,000 industry workers and 10,000 glassmakers, a quarter of the sector. By 1995, two-thirds of exports were re-targeted from the old Soviet bloc to the West: “Soviet banks were running out of money,” Mejstrik explains.  

The competition from China especially was an incentive to improve the quality of products. Glassware made with traditional methods could not compete with lower-priced products and exports dropped by 30 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of workers in decorative glass fell by almost half to 7,500, according to the Czech Glass and Ceramic Industry Association. During the 2008 economic crisis, major Czech companies like Crystalex went bankrupt, and 5,000 more decorative glass workers lost their jobs between 2007 and 2009. The crisis mostly affected sales of old-fashioned glass, targeting middle-class clients, says the chief executive of glassmaker Czevitrum, Vlastimil Janecky.

New Technologies for Luxury Products 

Decorative glass recovered to account for 27 percent of jobs in the Czech glass industry in 2014, and export revenues grew by 85 percent over 2009, driven by sales of luxury products. “Specialized glassmaking is now mushrooming; it’s stunning how successful it is,” Charles University’s Mejstrik says. Because glass production is not homogeneous, compared to the production of car components, high-quality glass cannot result from mass production. Hand-made firms could not lower prices through automation or bigger quantities and have focused on marketing their products as unique. “Our targets are people who want to offer original gifts,” says Janecky, whose glass lamps incorporate LED and touch technology.

Handmade is the key to give customers a sense of exclusivity. Since launching the brand in 2009, Verreum founder Pavel Weiser worked with universities to develop a secret and, he says, unique formula of 99.9 percent pure silver that is injected into double-walled decorative glass, giving it the intense shine and silvery sparkles that made the old, unsafe, and now prohibited mercury glass such a sought-after product.

Starting with eight employees, the company now counts a staff of 20, and with sales growing by 65 percent in 2015, it will soon need more skilled glassmakers.

Early on a July morning, Verreum’s glassmaking studio in the north Bohemian town of Novy Bor hums to a quick rhythm. Michal Masek and his colleagues carry the heavy glass and turn the blowpipe in a colorful ballet. Across the street, a truck waits for containers to be filled with ornamental glass. It’s the point of departure for a long journey to reach retailers: once in the Italian port of Portofino, they will embark on cargo ships for the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas.

Czech decorative glass suffered more than other types of glass from international competition in the 1990s and 2000s, but recovery from the 2008 crisis started earlier, in 2011. Flat glass, container glass, and glass fiber had to wait until 2014 to return to their pre-crisis revenues and employment figures, while technical and laboratory glass still struggle.

Decorative glass has a wider outreach to world markets than other glass products: in 2014, Czech exports of container and flat glass outside Europe did not exceed 5 percent of the industry total, while 35 percent of decorative glass was sold in non-European countries.

Boosted by a process of emulation of foreign competitors, who in turn pick up ideas from Czech makers, Czech handmade glass is being reinvented by masters who combine know-how with new coloring or shaping techniques. According to Czevitrum’s Janecky, luxury glass firms require experienced workers and pay better wages than lower-quality ornament companies. Teamwork is more important, especially for producing big pieces. Looking back, Masek explains, “Ten years ago, the work was more routine and calmer than now. The work has become more demanding but also more interesting.”

Sandra Dondenne works in the fields of communications and filmmaking. She is currently a press officer for the World Trade Organization and conducted research for this article while attending TOL’s International Storytelling Course in July 2016. 

Photos courtesy of Verreum