Thousands sign Czech petition for "practical schools"
Some parents and teachers are defending the Czech Republic's former "special schools", which are still attended in large numbers by Romani children today, including children who are not disabled. A petition to preserve the schools has received more than 75 000 signatures. Authors of the petition plan to deliver it to the Czech Education Ministry today.
Previously called the "zvláštní školy" (special schools), today called "practical primary schools", the controversial facilities are intended for children with "light mental disability". The ministry is preparing changes to prevent discrimination against non-disabled Romani children who are capable of attending regular primary schools but instead are enrolled into the "practical primary schools". Those plans are in response to rising domestic and international criticism of the current system, but some parents and teachers are defending it.
"Previously, when children did not receive special educational care, they were unsuccessful in school, left early, and did not continue their educations. When the practical schools were established it was a blessing for children who need to be educated differently than children are in regular schools," says Jana Smetanová, the director of a school in Pardubice who organized the petition.
Deputy Education Minister Jiří Nantl, however, has already said the "practical primary schools" will not be closed. "The ministry is not planning at this moment to close the practical primary schools, and even if it were to make such a plan, it would have no authority to do so. The ministry does not establish the practical schools, the territorial self-administration units establish them. This means the ministry cannot close them," Nantl said.
Romani residents of Ostrava recently protested the enrollment of Romani children into the "practical primary schools". The schools have been permanently criticized by international institutions such as the Council of Europe.
"We are here on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the European Court of Human Rights judgment, which ruled that the segregation of Romani children in the Czech Republic and their inclusion into the 'special schools' in general is illegal," said the organizer of the Romani protest against segregated schools, social assistant Jolana Šmarhovyčová. In her opinion almost nothing has changed since the judgment.
"There were some changes to the legislation, but the approach to Romani children is still the same. All-Romani and non-Romani classes are still being set up. When a child is hyperactive, that is viewed as a handicap and the school sends the child to a psychological counseling center that it chooses, the parent has no choice. There are slower children who might just need tutoring, but they are transferred to the 'special schools'," Šmarhovyčová said.
"I don't want Romani children to be targeted for enrollment into the special schools," said 40-year-old Elena, a Romani field social worker who works for a nonprofit organization. As a parent, she had a bad experience of the Czech school system of her own to report. "When my boy started school, it was discovered that he is hyperactive. That was the reason they put him into special school. It definitely did not benefit him. While he was at the special school, he practically forgot everything he had learned in the normal primary school. Moreover, he started doing things he wasn't supposed to do," she said.
A group of protesting Romani girls said they want the same opportunities for education as those afforded to people from the majority part of society. "I have friends who go to special school and I don't think it is benefiting them," said 15-year-old Nikol Viragová, who wants to become a baker.
Council of Europe criticizes segregation
"Romani children are experiencing segregation and unsuitable education in the school systems of most of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. This has destructive results, because these children find it all but impossible to escape from poverty and social marginalization later in life. The fact that they are not being integrated also leads to large expenditures by society as a whole that wouldn't otherwise be necessary," Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks said during a recent visit to the Czech Republic. "We can find classes and schools in which Romani children form the majority across all of Europe, from Portugal to Russia. However, this problem is most vivid in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Slovakia."
Commissioner Muižnieks said the many "explanations" he has heard for this usually do their best to indicate that "Romani parents do not value education. The pressure from non-Romani parents, however, to have Romani children removed from mainstream classes plays a fundamental role in the segregation process. For example, this past September, 40 adults reportedly prevented 50 Romani children from entering a new preschool facility in the town of Gornji Hrašćan in Croatia. Local police were present but they did not intervene."
Pilot research by Equality
Commissioner Muižnieks also mentioned a report by the British organization Equality, which determined that the same Romani children who had attended "special schools" in the Czech Republic "soon catch up to their non-Romani peers and are rapidly able to achieve average results or slightly below-average results" when attending school in Britain, even though instruction is in English there. "Those positive results were achieved with the assistance of special support in the classroom, but always within the framework of mainstream education," Muižnieks said.
All of the parents who participated in the Equality research expressed appreciation for the all but total absence of antigypsyism, discrimination and racism in British schools and were of the opinion that the chances of their children for future success in life were greater in the British schools than they had been at schools in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. One parent originally from the Czech Republic said: "They sent me to 'special school'. Only now do I see we did not get the same chance as non-Romani children. I want a better future for my children, they're sharp."
Judit Szira, director of the Roma Education Fund, says, "We have clear evidence that it is possible to overcome the abysmal difference between the educational attainments of Romani students and others. It will be possible to guarantee their position on the labor market once a broad consensus is achieved between government, the Romani people themselves, and society."
Alan Anstead, director of the Equality organization, says, "Our research might start a process of seeking a better, fairer way of educating Romani children in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It can also serve as a source of information for schools in Great Britain that want to learn how they can best help the Romani pupils who have enrolled with them."
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