Many Romany children in the Czech Republic end up in so-called "special schools," which severely restrict their long-term educational opportunities. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos talks with educational and Romany activists about the schools and the education of Romany children in the country.
Prague, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) - When our reporter heard the confident voices of 10 Romany children, she gained the impression they have been singing this Czech tune all their lives. The children, however, learned the folk tale, including the song, only a few days ago. And most have just begun to speak the Czech language.
The zero grade class at Zvlastni Skola, or "special school," is voluntarily attended by Romany children who live in the Nusle neighborhood of Prague. They are between the ages of five and six and come to the preparatory class every day. Besides intensive language training, the children study the basic skills they will need to keep up with the Czech kids at grammar school.
Czech education officials began the experiment in a handful of schools throughout Prague to increase the presence of Romany children in regular Czech grammar schools. But in the three years that the Nusle program has existed, only three Romany children have transferred out of the special school.
Special schools in the Czech Republic are for the mentally disabled. The slower paced, nine-year curriculum teaches mostly vocational skills to children with serious learning handicaps. Mentally disabled students, however, are the minority in these schools. It is Romany children who fill the halls and classrooms. That is despite the fact that Roma comprise only 5 percent of the Czech Republic's population.
Education activist Ludek Novak says the practice of sending Roma to special schools has existed for decades. He spoke recently with RFE/RL.
"The Romany children -- because of their cultural and social disadvantages -- are so far behind the Czech children after one or two years of being in a mainstream school system that the decision and the practice is to send them to special schools. And the special schools are not designed for Romany children but for mentally handicapped children. So the curriculum is different, the whole learning process is much slower. And another thing is if you pass through special school, you cannot enter secondary school. So you are cut off from a full education."
Novak is a director at the New School, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that runs programs to help Romany children stay in regular grammar schools. While many people blame the Roma for failing to keep up in Czech classrooms, Novak says it is the fault of the system:
"The problem is that the Czech school is so ethnocentric. It's like the whole society is so ethnocentric. The school doesn't take into account the fact that there can be some different children. So the school is exclusive rather than inclusive."
The disproportionately high number of Roma in special schools is the result of intelligence and psychological tests which are administered to all children in the primary grades. Romany students tend not to do well on these tests which don't account for their fledgling Czech language skills and limited school experience. After being informed that their child cannot keep up with the curriculum of a regular school, Romany parents are advised to have their child transferred to a special school.
On June 15, 12 Romany families whose children were placed in special schools in the country's Ostrava district opened a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education. Filed in the Constitutional Court, the lawsuit charges that the practice of sending Romany children to special schools is racial segregation.
The Ostrava families are being represented by the European Roma Rights Council (ERRC). ERRC Legal Director Jim Goldston says the Roma face more discrimination and human rights abuses than any other minority in the region. He told RFE/RL he believes the Ostrava lawsuit will be the biggest test of the future of Romany civil rights:
"Roma suffer from a whole range of problems of course, and there are many remedies that need to be addressed. Some of them legal, some of them political. But it seemed that this was an opportunity for us to say here was a problem that many people have long perceived, the segregation of Roma in special schools in numbers way out of proportion to the population. And here's an opportunity to say, yes it's a problem of prejudice. Yes, it's a problem of social attitudes. But it's also a problem of law. And it's a legal problem with a legal solution and let's use the court system to solve the problem."
In a phone conversation with RFE/RL, Jiri Pilar, the director of special education at the Czech Ministry of Education, denied the accusations of prejudice in the Czech education system. But Pilar acknowledged that the system is not working for many Romany children:
"The fact is that there are children in special schools who have no business being there. We are now setting about to solve this problem. We have children who are retarded at these schools. But also the pseudo-retarded, which is a consequence of their social environment. This is the problem concerning Romany children we have to deal with. These children are normally intelligent, but because they are not sufficiently mature socially they are unable to keep up at grammar school."
Pilar says the Education Ministry is introducing new measures to better handle the educational needs of Romany children. He declined to provide details, but said radical new legislation would be passed by 2003.
The ERRC's Goldston says four years is too long to wait. He says children sent to "special schools" spend the rest of their lives fighting the stigma attached to the institutions. It is a stigma which he says effects both the way the children perceive themselves and how the larger culture perceives them as well.