Thursday, 26 November 2020

Roma families see few effects from latest inclusive education reform

By Emily Mason | Prague Daily Monitor |
20 January 2020

This article was first written for the international reporting class taught by Dinah A. Spritzer for NYU in Prague.

While fall leaves still hung on the trees in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava, seven-year-old Denisa Gaborová came home from school crying. After prying for several minutes, her mother learned her daughter had been told she could not attend a class field trip to a farm several miles from her elementary school. Her teacher said it was because there was no room on the bus, but only Denisa and the four other children belonging to the Roma ethnicity were left behind. "She didn't want to go to school that day," her mother, also named Denisa, says. "She said the teacher is mean taking the other children and not us."

The young Denisa's long, dark braids trail behind her as she chases a onesie-clad toddler into the spacious sitting room. From the couch, her mother gestures for her to quiet down and turns back to explain how her daughter's teacher regularly favors non-Roma students. Her daughter has said other students are given stamps and stickers as rewards for good work, but she is not. Despite the double standards, Denisa wants to keep her daughter in mainstream school, rather than send her to one of the so-called "Roma schools."

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found the Czech Republic guilty of indirectly discriminating against Roma children by syphoning them off to special schools with the diagnosis "mildly mentally disabled." In 2016, facing international pressure and criticism for not doing enough in the wake of the judgement, the nation amended its education law to curtail segregation. Three years after the amendments, Roma parents are still finding themselves subject to an arsenal of tactics to keep their children out of certain schools, according to critics.

"The biggest obstacle is that the schools are always trying to find some ways to get rid of Roma children," says Miroslav Klempar, chairman of Awen Amenca, an organization aiming to integrate schools in Ostrava, the city where Gaborová and her daughter live.

The Roma ethnicity, disparagingly called gypsies, originated in India and are a traditionally nomadic people. Roma live on every continent, but are concentrated in Europe. Today, many have abandoned the wandering lifestyle, but members often face discrimination and stereotyping wherever they settle. A recent study by the Social Inclusion Agency in the Czech Republic found that one-fifth of Czech parents believe schools without Roma and foreign students are better.

Klempar and Gaborová report a slew of tactics to keep Roma children out of schools including asking for money upfront with the school application, which is restrictive for low income parents; claiming that the school is at capacity; not accepting applications; only accepting online applications; and hiding the enrollment dates for mainstream schools from Roma parents, while advertising the dates for segregated schools in Roma neighborhoods.

"There's posters all over the excluded localities on every corner and every shop, there's flyers for segregated schools everywhere in the excluded localities," Klempar says. "And for the mainstream schools it's always hard."

Even without receiving a mental health diagnosis, Roma children still end up in separate schools. While only 2.3 percent of the Czech population is Roma, as of 2018 there were 13 primary schools with over 90 percent Roma students, according to data from the ombudsman's office. The same report showed that children educated according to a reduced curriculum as a result of the "mildly mentally disabled" diagnosis had decreased by only 1.6 percent since the Education Act was revised in 2016.

"Our conclusion is that the amendment of the School Act in 2016 have no impact on segregation," Klempar says. "Not at all."

In the wake of the 2007 European Court of Human Rights ruling, special schools were eliminated and are now unofficially referred to as "former special schools." Today, they serve as de facto Roma schools, according to Jindra Marešová, director of Nadace Albatros, a Roma activist organization.

"It's a very low quality of education, not all of them, they really, really try, but mostly they are very poor quality," Marešová says. "Who goes there are usually children of former pupils, so the parents know they are friendly and they would rather give children to this school."

Social pressures gear Roma parents towards these "former special schools," including wanting to protect their children from bullying. In 2018, a Romani eighth grader attempted suicide by cutting after being bullied at her primary school, TV Nova reported.

"It began with insults because of what I look like and what I am. They said I am a 'shitty gypsy'," the girl told TV Nova.

To protect their children from hostility in schools, many Roma parents do not enroll their children in preschool programs.

"You don't want your small child to face racism and hostility," Klempar says. "So the Roma parents would rather have their child at home as long as possible."

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport made one year of preschool mandatory in 2015 to combat low enrollment rates among Roma. However, most Czech students attend preschool for three years and enter primary school able to read and count. Meanwhile, Roma children with only one year are far behind, leaving teachers frustrated.

"The teachers are not very skilled in inclusive education at all," Marešová says. "Here there is a very short history of talking about being inclusive in education, this is something nobody taught them."

Within the teaching community, people believe it is the family's responsibility to fill gaps in their children's education, according to Lenka Felcmanová, vice president of the Czech Society for Inclusive Education, an NGO working to integrate Czech schools. But with 72 percent of Roma people dropping out before high school, it's difficult for parents to supplement their child's studies.

"For some teachers, it's difficult to find some functional ways of cooperation with their parents," Felcmanová says. "Racial prejudice is sometimes behind all these feelings towards Roma children, so it's a mixture of all these."

Gaborová says it can be near impossible for her to schedule a meeting with her daughter's teacher and often feels the conversations are unproductive.

"They are not harsh, they are not rude or something. They are speaking politely because they know you can complain." Gaborová says. "You can feel you are second class citizen; they are speaking to you from a high point."

Jaroslav Faltýn, Director of the Department of Preschool, Basic, Art and Special Education of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport, argues that social factors, such as bullying, rather than legislative obstacles are what keep Roma students separate.

"How many vulnerable children coming from families with alcohol, drugs, drug abuse from a very early age, during pregnancy, during the early childhood?" Faltýn says. "Imagine that these children are coming from families where there are sources of very serious health problems."

Faltýn emphasized that in 2016 the Revision Act was passed, allowing children in special schools to be retested if unsatisfied with their results. However, many Roma parents did not take their children to be re-evaluated.

"The whole problem of the Roma community is very serious. We are worried," Faltýn says. "That is why it is obvious that other organizations, other forms of services, are needed as well. This complex problem cannot be fixed by the ministry of education only."

Awen Amenca, an organization working to integrate Czech schools, has seen some success enrolling Roma children in mainstream schools by educating parents on their rights and the benefits of mainstream schools.

"I want her to actually not be separate, not with just Roma," Gaborová says of her daughter. "Have a good education with the other children, being better prepared for high school, a better future."

Emily Mason is a junior journalism and English major at New York University with bylines at amNewYork, Straus News, Transitions, and Washington Square News.