Thursday, 1 October 1998

A School Unlike Any Other

On 1 September 1998, a new school opened up in the city of Kolín in Bohemia. In marked contrast to other educational institutions in the Czech Republic, this one aimed to be Roma-friendly. In fact, the Romani High School for Social Affairs was the first secondary school in the country established by and for Roma. Local Czechs looked on suspiciously, while others asked if this new school heralded the development of a Roma elite in the Czech Republic or provided a means of self-segregation that simply confirmed the inability of the two groups to live together. This piece first appeared in The New Presence, a Czech/English monthly where I was editor, in October 1998, and then it was republished in a number of places throughout Central Europe.

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"This is a completely normal school," says Doctor Tluchorova.

As the educational director of the new Romani High School for Social Affairs in the Central Bohemian town of Kolín, Tluchorova is trying hard to present the school's best image. We sit in the staff room of the new school, as her office is still a jumble of paint cans and building tools. Everything in the building smells of drying paint and carpet adhesive.

"We will have the same problems as any other school," she tells me. "I taught for five years at another private school, and the problems here are entirely the same as they were there."

Tluehooová is full of enthusiasm for her new assignment. The past few months for her have been difficult, and she is pleased just to see the experiment finally up and running. In the middle of July, she could hardly have had such a positive outlook.

When the new Czech government came to power in the wake of the June elections, certain promises of the previous government were forgotten. In spring of this year, both the Ministry of Education and Minister without Portfolio with Responsibility for Minority Issues Vladimir Mlynar had given their word that the school in Kolín would have the required funds to buy the pre-fab concrete slab building in which the school was to be housed. Those promises disappeared as fast as the interim government, and Tluchorova suddenly found herself with a full complement of teachers and students and no suitable place to put them.

Tluchorova immediately assigned everyone on her staff to fundraising duty, and eventually a principal sponsor was found in the form of George Soros, billionaire currency trader, critic of unfettered capitalism and patron of "civil society" in Central and Eastern Europe. As the plaque outside the school now says, Soros provided the money for the building and saved the Romani High School project.

Long, unsteady beginning

The idea of creating a Romani school emerged within the Romani community eight years ago. Soon, it became a primary goal of the Rajko Djuric Foundation, a non-profit, educational organization closely associated with the political movement Romani Civic Initiative (ROI) (the Chairman of the Foundation, Emil Scuka, is also the Chairman of ROI). The Roma community set up the school, and the Roma community has paid for its establishment -- with a little help from Soros. The students' parents pay tuition fees and accommodation, and ROI helps with fees for students from families who do not have the means to pay. The Canadian and British embassies have also played a part by donating textbooks and teaching aids.

The school building, just completing its renovation, not only contains classrooms and offices but also dormitory areas for both male and female students. The décor is almost painfully new. Apart form a lonely donated piano in one corner of the mirrored exercise room, everything seems fresh off the shop floor.

Smart, raw pine bunk-beds grace the dormitory rooms. Gleaming living-room console furniture in one or two of the offices seems very oddly out of place, but maybe these were seconds donated by a local firm. The classrooms have new desks and chairs. The computer room has an excellent arrangement of furniture for a network of thirty computers; although the school is about 27 computers short of that figure, so the room appears empty and expectant. There are several new televisions in various rooms, clubrooms in the dormitory and a pleasant soda bar and dining facility in the basement.

The newness of it all may seem like extravagance, but the quality of these facilities was only made possible by the donations of Soros and others.

Interestingly, the teachers signed their contracts before these new facilities were guaranteed. Until August, everyone assumed they would be working with borrowed desks and blackboards. By September, the students were learning in a respectably refurbished building.

Expectations high, too high

The school currently has 41 students from all across the Czech Republic. Like other secondary schools, the school was able to choose its students, and about a third of applicants failed to make the cut. Both domestic and foreign press have seen these first students as a nascent Romani elite. Sean Nazerali, spokesman for the Rajko Djuric Foundation, however, rejects these claims.

"These are normal kids," he says, "some good, some not so good. When I read in the Prague Post that this was to be the creme de la creme of Romani society, I just shook my head."
According to Nazerali, a few of these students may very well become members of the intelligentsia. Some will enter public service as "Roma advisors" in various state institutions, and some will work in NGOs. A few, he hopes, will go on to study at university.

"The number of university educated Roma here in the Czech Republic is minimal, and the community needs more people with higher degrees, but to expect these first classes to become a new Romani elite is simply asking too much." That is putting too much pressure on both the school and the students themselves.

A teacher at the school agrees with Nazerali, "This is just like any other school, some students are a bit more advanced, some are a bit behind."

The same teacher sees the education of the younger generation of Roma as the key to the overall progress of the Romani community. "The older generation of Gypsies is already beyond saving," he says disparagingly and rather disturbingly. "We just hope that we can teach this generation and that they can set some kind of respectable example for their friends and then pass these lessons on to their children. It all has to start with educating the younger generation."

"There goes the neighborhood"

The people of Kolín have very mixed reactions, and many local residents are much more skeptical about the new school in their neighborhood.

On the one hand, local officials seem to have accepted the school, and the representatives of both the school and the foundation warmly praise their cooperation. The mayor of Kolín herself, for example, has agreed to sit on the school board.

"The local education authority and the various town authorities we have had to deal with have been extremely helpful," says Nazerali. "They are working with us very constructively on all levels."

But while the town's officials may be encouraging and helpful toward the new school, the ordinary citizens of Kolín often have different opinions. Nazerali explains that when another school in Kolín was looking for extra dormitory space for ten students, they called the Romani High School, and a suitable agreement was reached.

"But when the parents of those students got wind of the plan to house their children in a 'Romani dormitory,'" says Nazerali, "they protested. Every one of those ten families called their school and demanded that their children be accommodated elsewhere -- in a 'white students' dormitory.'"

Local residents walking by the school seem to harbor the same feelings as those parents. One older man, for example, tells me of his general sense of dread.

"Well, you know what they're like," he says speaking about Roma in general. "They're going to ruin this area. They'll steal or break everything in that school, the building will be a gutted wreck in a few months and the whole area will go downhill."

"Well, I am not a racist," begins a woman of about thirty with what has become an empty mantra for many of her generation in the Czech Republic, "and if they keep things in order there, then fine. But I worry about the whole thing -- that it won't work out, that there are going to be some serious problems here."

A bit farther from the school -- literally but not figuratively on the other side of the tracks, an elderly woman leaning out of her window offers a more tolerant viewpoint.

"Look, there are differences between Czechs and Gypsies, but there are also differences among Czechs and differences among Gypsies. Some are good, some bad -- like anyone else. Maybe this new school will do some good. It's all got to start with education, after all."

But then she backs down from this statement, which is somewhat radical in today's Czech society, "Well, I can say these things, can't I, because that school is on the other side of the railway line, so it won't really affect me much here."

Another woman, perhaps forty years old, is much less understanding and rattles off the full catalogue of oft-heard racist clichés: "Look at the luxury they've got there. Why are we whites paying for this? I've got four kids, and they don't get anything special at school. My kids have to put up with all old equipment and facilities at their school. Why do the Gypsies get all the advantages? Look at that school -- it's absolute luxury how they have thing set up there. Everything brand new! It's just like under Communism -- they are given everything and never have to work. But what about us? Us normal people never get any of these things."

Us and them: self-segregation

Everyone, both inside and outside the school, talks in terms of "us and them." One representative of the school told me, "They (Roma) have a completely different mentality than we whites." Thus even among the staff of a school aiming to help minorities, ethnic differences are emphasized over wider human similarities.

The fundamental question everyone is asking is phrased in this manner: "What can we (white Czechs) do for them (Roma), and what should they do for themselves?" This clearly indicates the linguistic barrier that divides people here in the Czech Republic along ethnic lines. Some humans belong to the Czech "we," but that excludes certain members of the wider community right in the very language of daily communication. Such exclusion forms the subtext of every conversation about this new school.

In a sense, the Romani High School in Kolín is just confirming this exclusion and stands as a form of self-segregation. The school's existence simply reinforces the idea that these groups cannot live in the same community. It is a symbol of the failure of coexistence.

Surprisingly, Nazerali partially agrees with these reservations, but he puts a different spin on the arguments. For him, the new school is a symbol that Roma are not succeeding in the Czech school system. An examination of how Roma are pushed out of the mainstream school system here reveals de facto racial segregation in education. This school is not creating segregation; it is trying to make the best of it.

"This school will be a symbol, says Nazerali. "It will show people that Roma do indeed want to learn. It will hopefully end up being a signal to individual schools and to the Ministry of Education that Roma are capable of learning and that they should not be shut out. It will show them that Roma can succeed. Maybe it will get the authorities to change the way they do things and make the system more open to Roma."

But is there not a danger that, ten years from now, the plan will have backfired, and the Ministry of Education will only have concluded that Roma can learn, but only when they are separated from whites?

"Yes," admits Nazerali, "this could be a difficulty down the road. But I don't think that is going to happen. Look, this is only one school. Some of these kids will go to universities and return to mixed classes there. But they will go there with greater confidence that they can achieve academic success."

Not a "normal school"

Despite the efforts of those involved to convince the world that this is a "normal school" like any other in the Republic, the fact is that the Romani High School in Kolín is not a normal school. These students are taking part in what is generally considered a social experiment by observers both in the Czech Republic and abroad. The students are going to be under the microscope much more than kids in any normal school.

In fact, these students, somewhat like the first ethnic minorities who entered white schools in the US when the wall of legal segregation started coming down, will have to be better than normal. There will be pressure upon them to perform and to exhibit exemplary behavior. They will be held to a higher standard, and ethnicity will continue to be an issue.

If, for example, the students are playing ball outside the school one day, and the ball veers off and breaks a neighbor's window, how will the suspicious neighbors react? One fears that such an event would not just be treated as any other such incident, because residents do not see this school as just another school but as the "Gypsy School." Even minor incidents -- typically attributed to youth by residents living near a school, will in this case be attributed to ethnicity. In other words, it will not be a matter of "Well, kids will be kids." but rather "See what those Gypsies did!"

Education, who needs it?

In the classroom, most students seem to sense that the world is watching them. Indeed, members of the national and international press have been lurking about the school to such a degree, that the students would find it difficult to ignore the attention they are receiving.

Students in a normal high school for social affairs in the Czech Republic usually end up becoming social workers: they work in orphanages, senior citizens' homes and welfare offices. What do the students at the Romani High School want to do in the future? The question draws blank looks at first. Well, it's a stupid question anyway. Who knows what they want to do with their life when they are 15 or 16?

But then one student speaks up: "I'd like to be a gym teacher."

Another says he would like to do community work or something to do with the social sphere, but he is not sure exactly what.

A third student at the front of the room says, "I'd like to go to medical school." Some of his classmates snicker, but he is realistic about his chances, "I know I am behind in my studies, but I am going to try."

Back outside the school, another local resident expresses what he thinks. "People around here are scared," he says plainly.

"Scared? Why?"

"Why?" he says shaking his head squinting in disbelief. "Because they are dirty Gypsies, and they'll steal everything we have if we're not careful."

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