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Faith-based schools growing

Jewish, Catholic schools see steady enrollment hikes

Shortly after the fall of communism, the Czech Republic saw tremendous growth in the number of faith-based schools. Partly it was a dramatic reaction to what many perceived as the failure of decades of state-sponsored atheism and education. Schools closed for nearly half a century were able to reopen. Partly it was a restoration of a tradition of religion-sponsored education going back to the Middle Ages.

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Although not all of its students are Catholic, Archbishops gymnazium counts religion among its required subjects.

But today, a Czech parent’s choice — or in many cases the child’s — of a faith-based school is only seldom determined by the family’s religious beliefs. This is hardly surprising, considering that more than 5 million Czechs declared themselves atheists in the last census. Some families simply believe that faith-based schools offer the highest-quality education available. Also, students can apply to a maximum of two state high schools but have unlimited access to those supported by a religion.

According to the Czech Bishops Conference, there are more than 200 Christian- and Jewish-sponsored schools in the country. (Only religions officially recognized by the state can sponsor schools; at present, the Czech Republic does not recognize Islam and other faiths.) Almost 14,000 students enrolled in such schools during the 2002-’03 school year. Enrollment is increasing slowly, usually at less than 10 percent a year.

“The Prague [administration] will give money to its high schools, but the church doesn’t have money for us.” Pavel Krizek, Archbishops gynmazium principal

Money matters

The Archbishops gymnazium in Prague 2 reopened in 1992 “after a 40-year interruption,” says Principal Pavel Krizek, alluding to the school’s closure by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. The school has almost 500 students, roughly 40 to each teacher.

In most ways, the Archbishops gymnazium is like any other Czech high school. Students attend classes for eight years, studying the curriculum passed down by the Education Ministry. Religion courses are mandatory, but the lessons cover the belief systems of the ancient world as well as current global religions, including Islam and Confucianism.

Churchgoing families choose the school because they want to maintain or re-establish a connection to religion, Krizek says. Other families may perceive the Archbishop’s school as safer. Krizek says there are fewer cases of drug abuse and violence at his school than at state schools. Final-year students interviewed for this story could not recall ever witnessing a fight here.

But demand for the Archbishops gymnazium’s brand of education may soon surpass the school’s ability to supply it. The state funds all schools, state- and faith-sponsored alike, according to how many students they have. For the 2002-’03 school year, the Archbishops gymnazium’s share came to 13 million Kc ($448,000) — about 82 percent of the nearly 16 million Kc budget, but not enough, Krizek says. “With this money, I was not able to increase the salaries of the teachers to the same level as it is at, say, state schools.”

convertsEach year, it is up to the principal to find additional funds to pay for what the state contribution doesn’t cover. Still, the school charges no tuition, instead relying on donations from parents. “We can collect a sum of about a half-million to 700,000 [Kc a year],” Krizek says.

The law governing school administration is changing. Financing matters are being transferred from the state to the regions. The goal is to have the state cover teachers’ salaries and the region — or, in this case, the church — cover the rest. Krizek expects the changes to be complete in 2004.

“For church schools this is a tragedy,” he says. “The Prague [administration] will give money to its high schools, but the church doesn’t have money for us.”

Ivana Hajickova teaches at the Archbishops gymnazium and has two children enrolled there. She feels the pinch, not just in her small salary, but also in her children’s future. “[The church] recently gave some money to improve the natural sciences department, but otherwise we are totally dependent on the state and those parents who donate money,” she says. “The church should be more interested. I understand there are important things elsewhere, but I believe they should give more importance to the young generation and to schooling.”

Firm foundation

The Lauder Schools have found a different solution. Like the Archbishops gymnazium, the Lauder Schools charge no tuition. According to principal Petr Karas, only about one-third of the schools’ budget comes from the state.

The only Jewish-sponsored schools in the Czech Republic receive support from the Prague Jewish community and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. The foundation sponsors schools and cultural centers throughout the region. “Without the Lauder Foundation, there wouldn’t be Jewish education in Central Europe to the extent there is today,” according to Leo Pavlat, the foundation’s adviser in the Czech Republic. The Lauder elementary school opened in 1997; the high school two years later. Today, there are just under 200 students, or fewer than 20 per teacher, a limit imposed by the school.

In addition to the state-required curriculum, students at the Lauder schools study Judaism and Hebrew, with high-school students devoting five hours a week to these subjects. The schools observe Jewish holidays, and the cafeteria serves kosher meals. For the Purim holiday, “there will be a masked carnival for the younger students,” Karas says. “The older students can go to synagogue or to the stadium to play ice hockey.”

According to school officials, as much as 20 percent of the students — and 50 percent of the teachers — are not Jewish. “[The non-Jewish students] are just interested in Judaism,” Karas says. “Some want to be Jewish, but only very few — one or two or three. Usually, [students’ parents] heard it is a good school.”

According to the students, Lauder compares favorably with state schools. “State schools are anonymous,” says a young man with an unruly nest of locks tucked under his knit cap. “Here when you do something nice, everybody knows about it, even the director. Here is also more money. We have computers, Internet, video. This,” he taps the desk in front of him, “is the best you can buy.”

A few students choose schools such as Lauder almost by accident. Upon finishing elementary school, Czech students must take entrance exams to apply to the high school of their choice. They are prohibited from applying to more than two state schools to prevent a situation in which high-scorers turn down offers from several schools, leaving the schools with empty spots and the lower-scorers locked out of their first-choice schools. However, students may apply to as many faith-based schools as they wish.

Karas acknowledges that Lauder may be second or even third choice for some of his students. “Some choose Lauder first, students from Orthodox families, for example,” he says. Other students want to attend state high schools but are not accepted.

Michaela Hapalova says the decision to send her child to Lauder was not easy. Her own parents experienced the Holocaust. “I spent a year or two thinking if it is a good decision or not to have my son in school and for everyone to know he’s Jewish,” the psychologist says. “I felt afraid, but for me it was very important to give him this kind of education with history, religion. … I want him to be a whole person.”

By Theodore Schwinke

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