Rigid system, parent apathy behind Roma placement in ‘practical schools’
Ostrava, north Moravia
The kindergarten at the Ostrava-Kunčičky elementary school caters to children from socially disadvantaged families, comprising mostly local Roma. As teacher Jarmila Grossmannová goes through the attendance roster on a recent morning, she notes that 15 of the class’ 18 students are absent.
The three girls that did show up, Světlana, Kristýna and Natálka, seem shy but cheerful as they dance to a music video and sing along. “It is one of the few things I can do with them, because attendance is so erratic,” Grossmannová explains.
Because kindergarten education is not required by state law and undervalued by Roma families, filling up Grossmannová’s classroom is an everyday challenge, said Principal Jiří Smělík. “We have a preschool. It is paid for, and nobody takes advantage of it.”
This lack of parent initiative, coupled with an outdated education system, contributes to poor academic performance by children from low-income Roma families, often leading to their placement in schools for children with learning difficulties, in some cases as early as the first grade.
In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of 18 Czech Roma who claimed their being sent to an Ostrava elementary school for children with learning difficulties was an act of discrimination.
This verdict, along with growing civic initiative, has made the education issue a high priority for state officials responsible for Roma integration. “Roma children need to be integrated into the mainstream school system, and the prejudice that they are of a lower mental capacity needs to be remedied,” said Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michal Kocáb.
In reaction to the verdict, the Education Ministry implemented several cosmetic changes, renaming the stigmatized “special schools” to “schools with a practical curriculum.”
The ministry also commissioned two studies, one from the sociological research agency GCA and another from the humanitarian NGO People in Need (Člověk v tísni), seeking to analyze the situation in the schools and determine whether a disproportionate number of Roma children are sent there.
Findings confirm the outcome of the verdict. Thirty percent of Roma children attend practical schools, as compared with only 8 percent of other children. The probability that a Roma child will start elementary education in a practical school is six times higher than for another child, and 50 percent of Roma children do not graduate with the class they started in, the studies show.
While these statistics point toward a fault in the education system, experts say cultural factors such as family size, frequent migration and a lackadaisical approach to parenting also contribute to the problem. “A child can’t force a parent to buy them a pen,” said Klára Slípková, a first-grade teacher at Ostrava-Kunčičky.
One of her pupils, Barča, a dark-haired and lively girl, said she was recently grounded because she would not make her mother a cup of coffee. Barča wants to be a ballerina when she grows up, while most other children named blue-collar professions like hairdresser, cook or baker.
Cultural divides can also affect a child’s ability to meet local educational standards. Teachers often expect a Roma child to perform poorly, and, because Roma often converse in a mix of Czech, Slovak and their own Romany language, they enter school with poorer communication skills than other children, said GCA senior researcher Karel Čedan.
“There is a long history of restricting Roma access to education in the Czech Republic. A lot of the pedagogic assessments do not take into account that Roma do not speak Czech at home, and the system forces them into manual jobs,” said Roma rights activist Gwendolyn Albert.
People in Need’s study shows that Roma are also at a disadvantage because of their socioeconomic standing. “In the Czech Republic, the social situation of a child is a deciding factor of their success in school and their integration in society after they graduate,” said Zdeněk Svoboda, co-author of People in Need’s study.
Prior to placement in a school for students with learning disabilities, first-year pupils undergo a state-ordained psychological and pedagogic testing session. They are asked to answer basic questions about their age, address and parents’ names, well as recognize colors and count.
“Few [Roma] can get those questions right, because the parents never practice those things with them,” said social worker Marcela Ištazková, head of Ostrava’s Zárubek community center for Roma.
This lack of basic knowledge often sprouts from parents’ lack of awareness rather than learning disability, which is what frustrates education workers the most, Čedan said. “Sometimes, parents even send their children to a practical school just because the older siblings are already going there and it is more convenient.”
When resources such as a pre-kindergarten year are available, parents are usually not motivated to register their children in the program. “We used to have an onsite preschool, and even then, attendance was low. It’s free and convenient, but they still won’t bring them,” said Ištazková.
No way out
Once a child is placed in a practical school, transitioning back can be difficult. Only one-third of regular Czech elementary schools are suited to accept children with special education needs, and only 35 percent hire at least one special education teacher, indicating a reluctance to integrate children requiring special attention in mainstream schools, People in Need’s study shows.
Even when special staff is hired, efforts to integrate Roma children in regular schools usually fail, said Čedan. By the time a socially disadvantaged child starts first grade, it is often impossible for them to catch up with children from families where education is more emphasized, he added.
“Often, they are not able to do basic things such as hold a pen, because the parents never sat down and colored with them.”
Čedan stressed the importance of a preschool year, especially for children from an economically disadvantaged background where parents tend to focus less on their children’s education.
Schools should also motivate students to seek further education after ninth grade and emphasize that a better education will enable them to find better jobs and higher incomes, he said. “Some [children] only see people from a working-class background around them. Some even grow up thinking that money comes from the welfare office.”
Education Ministry officials say they have resolved to tackle the issue, and the mapping of the situation represents an important step. “We are aware that the education system is not well designed for children from economically weak families and that there are inequalities that need to be dealt with systematically,” said ministry spokeswoman Kateřina Böhmová.
Still, Čedan said it will take 10 to 20 years before the integration of socially disadvantaged pupils becomes noticeable.