Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion director says all-Romani classes are unfortunate, media misquote him
Radek Jiránek, Director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, was quoted recently by news server iDNES.cz in a way that suggested he was praising the separate classes for non-Romani and Romani pupils that have been set up at a primary school in the Czech town of Krásná Lípa. He considers the quotation imprecise and has told news server Romea.cz that it could have a negative impact on how the public and the schools might interpret how to include children with special education needs into "normal school".
Discrimination or helpfulness?
The discussion about the school was kick-started recently by Romani parents protesting these arrangements. Principal Ivana Preyová has opened three first-grade classes at the school: An alternative first grade featuring elements of Montessori and Waldorf pedagogy, a "normal" first grade, and a first grade for children who need assistance integrating into mainstream education.
Only Romani children were assigned to the latter. Their parents called that discrimination, but the principal is defending her approach as one that is helpful toward children who never attended preschool and lack some basic habits and skills.
The discussion has not just sparked media interest, but also commentary from David Beňák of the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission on Roma Community Affairs and from Jiránek. The Czech School Inspectorate will also be visiting the school.
News server iDNES.cz quoted Jiránek as saying the following: "The school had good intentions when it divided up the children. The class where a special needs teacher and assistants work has taken a big step toward integrating children without big problems into mainstream education."
Jiránek says that quotation is a distortion of what he originally said. He says the newspaper combined answers he gave to two different questions in order to create it.
Criticism or praise?
"I actually did express overall praise for Krásná Lípa because in the past both the school and the town itself have proceeded in a very modern, clearly pro-integration way when it comes to the areas of employment and security, for example," Jiránek told news server Romea.cz. "At the same time, however, I also said that I did not like the creation of that one class attended just by Romani children and that I consider it unfortunate."
Jiránek said he understands that whether a child has undergone some type of preschool nurturing or not is important information for educators. "However, that is not the only criterion according to which children should be divided among different classes. It's just information for the school and the teachers. Both modern trends and current Government policy today are heading in the direction of having children with various educational needs attend school together," he said.
The Agency director was unable to explain why the school has changed its approach this year compared to previous years. "There's talk of a petition from the 'white' families because they do not want their children to attend the same class as Romani children, but I have not seen that petition, nor have I met anyone who has seen it. There is also talk of the number of Romani children enrolled at the school increasing, but such trends are not so severe so as to justify the creation of such structures in the first grade, in my opinion," he said.
Schools are primarily responsible for communication problems
overcome their initial handicaps will then be brought into the other classes so that the "all-Romani" class will no longer exist.
"Communication is a big problem and it is clear that the school bears the main responsibility here," Jiránek said. "We have ascertained, for example, that some parents do not know what the school means by 'interchange', nobody has explained it to them. I also think such big changes should be discussed with parents in advance, they should not be presented with a fait accompli at the beginning of the school year."
Jiránek also said he does not want to pass himself off as a judge: "We are offering this school examples of good practice, such as the approaches taken by schools in Poběžovice and Sokolov, we will stay in communication with the principal. I believe the school has not abandoned its pro-integration approach, that it is actually serious about 'interchange' and that this will soon be demonstrated."
Is it a "Romani" class?
Preyová spoke about the creation of the three different first-grade classes in August on Czech Radio. During that interview, she said one reason she arranged the first grade to be distributed in this way was that parents who did not want their children to have to adjust to the slower tempo of children who never attended preschool in the same class were declining to enroll their children in the school at all.
Mayor Jan Kolář was far more specific in a later reportage by Czech Television, where he said the following: "Some parents of children from the majority society concluded it would be more appropriate for their children not to enroll in our school, precisely because the proportion of Romani children in the classes is growing." Petra Jelínková, the Romani mother of a first-grader attending the school this year, described the situation to news server Romea.cz as follows: "On the first day of school, one of the mothers asked the teacher whether the class our children are attending is a Romani class. He said yes it was and that we should address it with the principal, but she told us that the reason for assigning the children into that class is that they never attended nursery school and that during enrollment it was ascertained that the children need a special class. Enrollment took 10 minutes... Yes, there are children here who might need a special class, but certainly not all of them do. The principal closes herself off in her office, it's not possible to communicate with her much."
Jelínková also believes there was a petitoin by "white parents" pressuring the school to arrange for Romani children to attend a "special class". The principal, however, says no such petition exists and local councilor Miroslav Řebíček, who is in the opposition, also said he doesn't know of one.
"I think I would have noticed such a thing. I attend the council meetings and follow the situation in town," Řebíček said.
He could not, however, explain the change in the school's approach to its incoming first-graders. "I don't know what caused it. In my opinion the atmosphere in town has not changed," he said.
It now remains to be seen whether the set-up of the first grade will be altered. Will the segregated "special" class for Romani children really disappear soon?
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