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article imageCzech Schools Offer A New Deal To Gypsy Children

By Eric Johnson     Feb 26, 2002 in Technology
PRAGUE (dpa) - After years of international criticism and internal soul-searching, the Czech Republic's school system is undergoing profound changes designed to improve educational opportunities for the country's Roma gypsy minority.

Education officials admit the new way is not a highway. "We understand this will take some time," said Karel Tomek, director of the Ministry of Education's Department of Basic Education.

But the changes, set against a backdrop of historically strained relations between white Czechs and their Roma countrymen, eventually should reach everyone in education and affect learning at all levels of the nation's schools.

In turn, officials hope the effort will kindle a new era of tolerance and close an ethnic gap blamed for various social ills, including the occasional headline-grabbing cases of dark-skinned gypsies robbing whites, and whites killing Romas.

Parents, children, teachers and school administrators from both sides of the colour barrier are being invited to play a role in the school integration process. And, according to Tomek, the government is committed to making the programme work.

During a recent interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, Tomek pulled a tall stack of books from his office shelf and flipped through each one. The books - now being distributed to schools nationwide - range from an historical account of the gypsy Holocaust to a collection of gypsy folk songs for children.

"The best way to reach a child's heart is through a song," Tomek said. "That will promote more understanding."

Segregation and discrimination toward the Czech Republic's estimated 250,000 gypsies has been exhaustively documented over the past decade by groups including the United Nations, Save the Children and philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Fund.

Tough criticism of the government's Roma policies also has come from the European Commission and activist groups such as the European Roma Rights Center.

"Considerable efforts have been made by the Czech government as regards Roma and other minorities," said the European Commission's 2001 report on the Czech Republic's progress toward E.U. entry.

"However, further measures to combat widespread discrimination are needed."

The Prague government and its office for Roma affairs has admitted that more should be done to reduce gypsy poverty, substandard housing, high unemployment and school dropout rates that in some areas top 75 per cent. On the social level, the government also wants to promote tolerance among whites for Romas.

Last year, parliament allocated more than 63 million koruna (1.75 million dollars) in new funds for gypsy education projects spearheaded by the Ministry of Education.

But for years, the school system has mirrored prejudices of the Czech majority.

For example, gypsy children have been classified as intellectually deficient and, thus, sent to learn alongside mentally disabled whites in "special schools".

Although the instruction programmes last as long as those in regular, nine-year primary schools, the special schools were blamed for preventing Romas from advancing to secondary or trade schools, since graduating students were considered unprepared for entry exams and the rigours of higher education.

Starting in September, Tomek said, the "special school" system will be eliminated and replaced with a programme to integrate Roma students into mainstream primary schools. In addition, older gypsy students denied a secondary education in the past will have a chance to receive additional training to qualify them for the second level.

The changeover won't happen overnight, however. Tomek said "pilot schools" have been selected where Romas from special schools will be welcomed into primary classes. The programme won't be fully implemented until the 2004-05 school year.

Teachers are being encouraged to learn about Roma culture, language and history, and whenever possible incorporate the information from special textbooks into lessons.

One text that encourages multiculturism, for example, is filled with games, poems and fairy tales for teachers to use in class.

Educators are also trying to tackle the difficult task of building up cultural self-esteem among Roma children.

Tomek noted that in last year's nationwide census, only about 10,000 people identified themselves as Roma, even though their population in the Czech Republic is thought to be as high as 300,000.

Tomek is particularly excited about a part of the programme in which Roma adults are recruited and trained to become classroom assistants. All schools are being encouraged to participate in the programme, which this year will involve 109 classrooms with nearly 1,500 children.
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