Miroslav Klempár: Parents make the final decision on where to enroll their children for school
In the former communist Czechoslovakia of the late 1950s, the Government decided that Romani people were different from the rest of society and should therefore be educated separately. This differentiation on the basis of race led to today's two-track school system, in which a high-quality education is offered by mainstream schools where mostly non-Romani children are educated, and Romani children are disproportionately represented in what were once called the "zvláštní školy" (special schools) where a reduced education is offered for children who have mild mental disability.
To be clear, no children should be sent to a special school that is operated in such a way, not in the Czech Republic and not anywhere else. Each child has the right to a high-quality, inclusive education where all children are educated together irrespective of their differences and everybody benefits from that education.
The names of these schools in this country have changed over time, and about 10 years ago the "zvláštní školy" were re-named the "practical schools" ("praktické školy") so the Government could claim to have abolished the "zvláštní školy". However, segregation in education persists, and the mechanisms that facilitate it are rather complex.
I would like to tell you how these mechanisms work today in my home town of Ostrava. This is the third-largest city in the Czech Republic.
School-readiness tests with predetermined outcomes
When a child turns six and registers for first grade, he or she will undergo a series of tests of school readiness. At a high-quality primary school, for example, they will show the child a picture of a dog, an elephant, a house, and a forest and ask questions such as: "Which animal belongs in a house and which in the forest? Isn't an elephant too big to bring into a house? Have you ever seen an elephant in the forest?" etc.
One month after this enrollment procedure, Romani parents in Ostrava usually receive a letter stating their their daughter is "too shy", or that their son is "hyperactive", or that their child is mentally disabled and therefore would be better off attending "practical school". Sometimes the news is even easier to undersand: "Your child has not been accepted."
This systemic discrimination involves an economic aspect that goes beyond mere prejudice. The "practical schools" receive 80 % more funding per pupil than the mainstream schools do.
This means teachers in the "practical schools" have a financial interest in enrolling as many Romani children as possible into their institutions. The constant input of Romani pupils into this system guarantees that those teachers will keep their lucrative jobs, which are better-paid than regular teaching jobs at mainstream primary schools are.
Thanks to this system, there is enormous interest in studying "special needs pedagogy" in the Czech Republic, and the country has a high proportion of special needs educators who have developed a strong political lobby for pressuring the Government in their favor. Additionally, teachers in the mainstream schools are concerned that if they accept Romani pupils for enrollment into their schools, non-Romani parents will remove their children from those schools, which would reduce class sizes and therefore reduce the number of staff those schools can afford to hire.
It's important to be informed
There is a way out of this, though - according to the legislation in effect since 2004, while tests of school readiness during enrollment are permissible, they cannot be used as a reason to refuse to enroll a child in a specific school. Ultimately it is up to a child's parents to decide where to enroll that child.
However, many Romani parents are not aware of their rights with respect to their children, rely on the advice of teachers, and enroll their children into the "practical schools" based on their advice. I joined forces with Romani community organizers Magdalena Karvayová and Jolana Šmarhovyčová in Ostrava and together we decided to take a pragmatic approach toward changing the status quo there.
For the past three years we have gone door to door and invited the Romani parents of children about to be enrolled into first grade to attend social events where we have done our best to explain to them what they could anticipate on enrollment day. We have informed the parents about what these tests entail, and we have rehearsed with them what might they might hear on registration day and how they might respond.
We have constantly emphasized to these parents that it is they who decide where their children will attend school. We are recommending Romani parents enroll their children into high-quality mainstream schools and convince other parents to do the same.
During the last two years, Romani parent volunteers have led their own campaign on registering children into high-quality schools in the places where they live, and they are offering support to children and parents during enrollment and monitoring the process to record discriminatory behavior by teachers during these tests. Together we have created an informal group of Romani parents who are fighting for equal access to education, called Awen Amenca (which in Romani means "Come with us").
Amendment taking effect
This mobilization has paid off. During the past three years, around 200 Romani children have been enrolled into high-quality mainstream schools, 34 during the first year and this year more than 100.
Because of this effort, six classes in segregated schools did not open this month because there were not enough pupils for them. Also this month, an amendment to the law is taking effect which will, among other things, result in the eventual closure of the "practical schools" per se - but whether that will have any significant influence on the segregation of Romani children remains to be seen.
Only by closing the current arrangement of the special education system will the Czech Government fulfill its obligation to provide a quality inclusive education for all children in mainstream schools. The Government is contributing to this glaring discirmination when it maintains systemic segregation through financial incentives and endangers future generations of Romani children thereby.
P.S. The system of segregation of Romani children is not restricted just to the "practical schools", but has a similarly harmful effect in the segregated mainstream primary schools that are often 100 % attended by Romani children only. Our next article will describe those schools.
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