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Czech school director says closing the "practical schools" is unreasonable

23.7.2015 1:17
Divado Archa, Prague -
Divado Archa, Prague - "Truth or Dare" (Vadí - nevadí). Photo: Divadlo Archa

The Czech town of Kostelec nad Orlicí has a population of 6 000 and a diverse composition in terms of nationalities. A refugee camp is located there and a large Romani 

community lives there as well.  

Relations between immigrants, the majority society, and Romani people in Kostelec were the subject of a play called "Vadí – Nevadí" (Truth or Dare) which the local theater ensemble from Kostelec recently toured with, including a performance at the Archa theater in Prague. After seeing the play, news server Romea.cz decided to map the situation of Romani people in Kostelec.  

The play presented a great deal of interesting information, much of which was also disturbing, about the coexistence of different nationalities and the unfortunate experiences of the actors themselves. One such piece of information is that two of the talented Romani children performing in the play attend the town's "practical school".

Why is this the case,and is there any effort underway to include Romani children in mainstream education in Kostelec, given that the town has such a big Romani community? We asked these and other questions of Jiří Němec, the director of the mainstream primary school in Kostelec nad Orlicí.  

Q:  What is your opinion of inclusive education? 

A:  Everyone who objectively has the option of mastering mainstream education should be given the opportunity of being educated there. The educational-psychological counseling facility is the body that should decide that. Speaking for our school, I can say we are prepared for inclusive education, since 2001 we have had children in our school who are seeking international protection because there is a refugee camp here, so we have experience with this. We have also had children here with various kinds of disabilities, and we managed to ensure their care by finding money for teaching assistants.    

Q:  Do you support closing the "practical schools"?

A:  I disagree with the idea of totally closing the "practical schools" and the "special schools". However, I consider it important for the approach taken by the educational-psychological counseling facilities to be genuinely professional and responsible when it comes to determining the depth of children's disabilities and their educational options in regular school. Like it or not, there is an enormous difference between various children, and if you have to safeguard the education of children in a primary school who are both above-average, average, and below average, and then you have another 10 % with specific educational needs, and on top of that you have children who have various kinds of disabilities, then we are asking too much of our teachers. What would happen with the above-average children in that case? Their parents will say that their children aren't going to waste time with the others and will look for a more selective school. What happens to primary school then?    

Q:  There is a difference between "practical schools" and "special schools". Do you believe both these forms of school should remain part of the system?

A:  If the educational-psychological counseling facility's standpoint says "This child's case could be a problem in mainstream education", then I believe that should be taken into account and special care for those children should be secured. Even a child with just mild mental disability needs an assistant, each child manifests symptoms differently and every assistant or extra person in the classroom disrupts the concentration of the other children. I liked President Zeman's opinion in response to this question a couple of months ago.

Q:  You said you have experience with teaching assistants and that you're prepared for inclusion. How has that worked in the past?

A:  We once had two children here with combined mental and physical disabilities. We told ourselves that at least the socialization process would be useful for them and that it would give the others a better perspective on people with disabilities. What I can say is that it partially worked in lower primary school, but in upper primary school it stopped working, the older children don't view someone with disabilities like they did when they were younger. Exclusion begins at that time. Disabled children have different needs and an absolutely different work style. For the upper primary instruction phase it was more about looking for a place in the school where we could put these children so they could work and not disrupt instruction in the classroom.  

Q:  Now you're talking about children with profound disabilities. What about Romani children, do you have any experience with them?

A:  Some Romani children do attend our school. When, during registration, my colleagues determine that there might be a problem, we ask, in the standard way, that the parents arrange for their child to be examined by the educational-psychological counseling center. That examination reveals whether the suspicions of a problem are grounded or not. If so, the child is recommended to delay enrollment, and in more serious situations, the parents are offered the option of enrolling the child into special education. We treat each child exactly the same, whether they are white, red, yellow or black, it's all the same.  

Q:  Have you ever heard that the registration process into primary schools here might be culturally conditioned? That it disadvantages Romani children because they come from a different culture and are unable to deal with some tasks because they have never seen such things before, they don't know Czech fairy tales, etc.?

A:  I don't know what we ask of the children exactly, I am not physically present during the registration. The common questions are about body parts, colors, shapes, nursery rhymes - how they manage to verbally express themselves. However, all of it corresponds to the recently-issued methodological instructions on registration from the Education Ministry. I presume there are no difficult questions and that it's really about basic orientation. The parents have a veto right all the same. If we recommend that they take the child to the counseling center, they can do it, but they don't have to, and if the counseling center issues an opinion on their child, they can respect it, but they don't have to. They should, however, count on the fact that their child may not even properly complete first grade, and the child can only repeat each grade once [if a child fails first grade and the parents don't want to enroll him in a "practical school", he will repeat first grade and then continue on irrespective of his achievement; he can fail in this way and repeat years up until 6th grade - Author's Note]. Certainly, however, I do not believe that there are any significant differences between non-Romani and Romani children, or that the counseling center would diagnose Romani children somehow as a priori incapable of attending primary school.      

Q:  So in your view the number of non-Romani and Romani children at the local "practical school" is balanced?

A:  I don't know the precise ratio of non-Romani to Romani children there.

Q:  Each class there is roughly 70 % Romani.

A:  The fact that there is such a ratio in the "practical schools" does not necessarily mean Romani children are being discriminated against. Everything must be properly documented by the counseling facility. The other thing that influences this enrollment is that some Romani families are not interested in their children's education, and the environment they live in also influences it. The parents are frequently satisfied with wherever their children's educational attainment is, they don't motivate their children to achieve higher aims in this area. Education becomes a fringe matter for them.    

Q:  Does it happen that Romani children transfer from the mainstream into the "practical school" during the school year?

A:  As far as I can recall that has probably happened only once. If we are talking about all children generally, they customarily make it through primary school as best they can. Romani children, however, very often stop attending school in seventh grade after repeating a grade twice. The core of the problem is that they understand very little of what they are supposed to learn, they get bad grades, and they don't have a sense of pleasure at having achieved something, they can't experience that. In that case it's a shame for them to prefer not to go to the "practical school", because there are special educators at that school who are better able to focus on their individual educational needs, the educational programs there are focused more on practical matters and don't go into theoretical depth in comparison with a classical primary school. At the practical school at least they achieve some success and master more of the curriculum on offer.  

Q:  You say an advantage of the "practical school" is its special educators. If your school could afford as many special educators and teaching assistants as needed, do you believe children from the "practical schools" could transfer into the mainstream school?

A: Once there is an assistant in the classroom, that constitutes a certain disruption of instruction. It leads to the other children losing focus. It is possible, however, to get used to such a situation. If there were a bigger range of need, I would say that if we had special educators and teaching assistants it would have to be combined so that the children who have similar problems were together some of the time and then with the rest of the children some of the time according to the sophistication of the subject. However, this is a hypothetical question, because who is going to pay for these assistants? Who will pay for the special educators? If the answer to that question is that the state will pay for assistants in any class where they are needed, then we will address it and think it through so it's feasible. Now we are receiving only CZK 12 000 (EUR 444) per teaching assistant from the Regional Authority per year to work with lightly mentally disabled children... As long as it's not stated that this will be secured in terms of financing and staff, I see it as a big problem.    

Q:  Do the children of the foreigners whom you mentioned have problems during registration?

A:  For the children of refugees we don't have a registration process, they arrive unexpectedly. We do a basic diagnosis of them and they attend our special classes at the residential center to teach them the Czech language and so they can acquire basic knowledge about our country. Then, according to their capacities and options, we assign them into mainstream classes.

Q:  Have you ever thought of introducing a preparatory course on the Czech language for Romani children? They frequently also do not speak Czech well because they don't speak it at home.

A:  The courses we have for asylum seekers are financed through the Education Ministry's development program for them. We have no money for preparatory courses for Romani children. We have a club for Romani children here, though, which we established as a preschool and preparatory school for Romani children several years ago in collaboration with the school founder and with Ms Halušková, who is the contact person for the local Romani community. I prefer this model to introducing preparatory classes at the primary school. This way the Romani community is contributing to preschool education itself - if everything is just given to them on a platter, they don't feel any responsibility for it. However, it is possible to consider such a preparatory class and to discuss what the real needs are and the effectiveness of establishing one with our founder as well as with the nursery schools.

Q:  Do you hold any joint activities with the children from the "practical school" or from the Romani club, do you have any children's events here?

A:  We only collaborate through the Archa theater project and through the theatrical ensemble that brings together actors from Archa, immigrants, pupils of our school including Romani ones, and Romani pupils from the "practical school". They have performed "Truth or Dare" all over the Czech Republic and abroad. Otherwise, however, there are no ties.

Q:  Are relations good between the Czech children, the foreigners, and the Romani children?

A:  I don't know of any problems related to the foreigners or the Romani community at the school. Children from all over the world, of various religions, have essentially adapted well here. I don't like tarring everyone with the same brush or this attitude of rejecting refugees. Naturally there is the need to do a certain selection and to watch who these people are, but the hysteria that has been going on against this is absurd. Previously, when we had more children of foreigners here, we did various projects on mutual cultural recognition, but now there are not so many of them here, and they are only here for a short time, so the projects can't be implemented. We also only have five children who are members of the Romani community.      

Q:  Do you believe the family environments of Romani children influence their success in primary school?

A:  Yes, I think this is related to the family's background. Some parents dedicate themselves to their children and you can tell, and some just let them be. When children live in a clean place, when parents talk to them and pay attention to them,they behave differently than those who de facto live on the street. From what I recall of the conferences I have attended on this issue, children from substandard home environments, whether they are non-Romani or Romani, have problems.  

Q:  How can we change this, though? This way it's just a vicious cycle.

A:  There is a need here for parents to acknowledge their responsibilities, to recognize that there is a system they are living in here to which they simply must adapt themselves
and support their children in their education. In many cases they don't do this. There is a need, therefore, to educate the parents to grasp the importance of education and to support Romani people in building their own community organizations like the Romani club that's running here. The Romani people who are leading this organization are closer to the other Roma, they can address problems with them and function as intermediaries, of a sort, between the local Romani community and a school, for example. Certainly mandatory preschool education would help - it would make it easier for children to make it through registration and first grade, but it definitely would not be a 100 % solution. Moreover, even in the nursery school, in my opinion, there must be special educators.   
Michaela Neuhöferová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Education, Inkluzivní vzdělávání, praktické školy, předškolní klub



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