In the second of two features, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos examines the educational challenges faced by Romany children in the Czech Republic. In the first part, Poolos looked at so-called "special schools," which experts believe severely restrict the long-term educational opportunities of Romany children. In today's final part, Poolos explains why the issue of quality education for Romany children is a complicated one.
Prague, 14 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Most Romany adults living today in the Czech Republic never made it past the third grade. Many cannot read. Activists say this is the result of centuries of Roma persecution and their subsequent marginalization to the outskirts of mainstream society.
But Jana Markovicova believes the Roma can and should do more to overcome the past. A tall, heavy-set woman with bright blond hair, Markovicova is one of 60 Romany assistant teachers trained by the New School. The New School is a non-profit, non-governmental organization in the Czech capital that helps Romany children stay in regular grammar schools.
Markovicova works as a liaison between Romany children and their Czech teachers. The students vie for her approval and call her "Aunt." She says that many Romany parents don't invest enough time in their children's schooling and blame their poor performance on teachers:
"When the children go to the zero grade, the mothers take care of it. They pay attention to them at home. But when they go to the higher grades -- the first grade, the second grade -- the mothers sort of don't pay attention any longer. And the children start slipping and the mothers think it is the teachers' fault. They think the teachers don't pay enough attention."
Jim Goldston is the legal director of the European Roma Rights Council (ERRC). Goldston is representing the Romany families in the Czech city of Ostrava who are taking the Czech Ministry of Education to court. Goldston takes a more sympathetic view of why Romani children struggle to succeed in regular Czech grammar schools.
He criticizes the Czech practice of routinely sending normal Romany children to special schools, which are designed for the mentally disabled. He says such schools negatively affect the development of Romany children and reinforce in their minds the unflattering stereotypes about their ethnicity. But he says many Romany children would rather stay in special schools, where they at least feel a sense of safety:
"We have documented a whole host of testimonies of children that started out in basic schools in the Czech Republic who experienced systematic racial exclusion and harassment in basic schools by other children, by teachers, by administrators. Given that hostile environment, it seems perfectly understandable that some parents are going to say, 'Hey, I want my kid to have at least a physically secure environment and not be subjected to threats of violence. And so I'll acknowledge the situation and send him to special schools.'"
Goldston says such schools, though, deny Roma the opportunity to acquire the basic skills needed for most employment, other than manual labor. He says special schools only succeed in condemning the Roma to a lifetime of poverty.
Czech educators say their hands are tied. They contend that no matter what they do, Romany children won't succeed in school because education is simply not part of their tradition.
Garoslav Fantura is the director at Zvlastni Skola, a special school in the Nusle neighborhood of Prague. Fantura says Romany children like to come to school when they are young but that the intense pressures of Romany life force the children to grow up too fast:
"The problem is when they get older, when they're about 10. There is some sort of a breakthrough or something. They stop coming to school. They don't want to come to school because they don't know [the benefit of education]. It's because ... in the Roma tradition, the children grow up very fast. In the Roma tradition, they start the families very early and young. So a 13-year-old girl, she already feels grown up." Misha, who wears pigtails, has missed school for three months. She returned for her last day of class at the special school in Nusle only because Jana Markovicova -- the assistant teacher from the New School -- was able to escort her from the shelter where they both live with other displaced Romany families.
It is clear from Misha's carefully buttoned red sweater and pressed pink pants that a lot of attention went into preparing her for school. She says she likes class, and her Czech teachers say she has the intelligence and enthusiasm to succeed in the regular Czech school system.
But for a 5-year-old girl, Misha has a lot on her mind besides singing Czech songs and learning her colors. Her family could not afford their apartment and was forced to move into the public shelter. Misha says she is the only one in her family who goes to school: "Not my brother, because he is in an orphanage."
For many Romany parents, who lack decent jobs and struggle to survive day to day, the concept of quality education seems like a luxury. Activists say that if the Roma are ever to build a better future for themselves, they must be socially integrated. The pressure of leading the Roma in from the outskirts of Czech society has fallen on the current generation of Roma. And for children like Misha, the journey promises to be a long and difficult one.