Equity & Diversity

Eastern Europe Pressured To Integrate Roma Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 29, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 7 min read

Corrected: This article should have said that a lawsuit alleging that the Czech Republic is violating the human rights of Roma children was filed in the European Court of Human Rights by the European Roma Rights Center.

Gypsies have about as much access to high-quality education in Central and Eastern Europe as African-Americans did in the United States in the early days of the civil rights movement a half-century ago.

At least that’s the view of Angela Kóczé, who, as the education director for the European Roma Rights Center, is working untiringly to prod governments in her native Hungary and neighboring lands to improve educational opportunities for her people.

Ms. Kóczé is a member of Central and Eastern Europe’s largest minority, a people who arrived in Europe after the 10th century from India. Many Gypsies, also known as Roma, enter school speaking only Romani, but others know the language of the dominant cultures in which they live upon entering school. Historically, Gypsies were primarily nomadic, but most are settled these days.

Their brown skin, impoverished lifestyles, and resistance to many of the customs of the dominant societies have led to some very dark times for Roma, who number some 8 million in Europe. The Nazis killed half a million Gypsies. During the Communist era, governments tried to force their assimilation into the mainstream culture. Still, by some accounts, they fared better economically and socially in that climate than they do now in the new free-market societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Most, in fact, are unemployed.

Since the late 1990s, some international organizations and private financiers have taken up the cause of documenting discrimination against Roma and trying to reverse it. What’s more, the European Commission, an arm of the European Union, is demanding that Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia work harder to integrate the Roma into their societies, including the schools, if they want to join the European Union. The commission is providing money to help them do so.

A report issued last year by the commission on the Czech Republic’s progress toward joining the European Union singles out education as an area for improvement. “These children still account for some 70 percent of the children sent to special schools, with little chance of later entering mainstream schools,” the report says.

But Karl Tomek, the director of preschool and primary education and primary arts schools for the Czech Ministry of Education, said such figures are supplied by activists from foreign countries and are not based on solid research.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Tomek acknowledged that Czech neighborhoods with many Roma often have a higher-than-average number of special schools, which he describes as remedial schools. But, he stressed, it’s not because of discrimination. Children are placed in special schools only with their parents’ permission, after an evaluation is done, he said. Educators occasionally run into conflict with parents who want their children in the special schools even though they don’t need it, Mr. Tomek said.

“There are many Roma parents who themselves went to the special schools. Because of that and because other Roma families have their children in the special schools, they want their children to go there, too,” he said. “When these children concentrate in the special schools, the activists come and point to the problem.”

At the same time, the Czech government stated in a March document that it was disturbed by the disproportionate number of Gypsies sent to such schools, and it called for the elimination of segregation of Roma in the educational system.

Mr. Tomek said the government was committed to integrating all but the children with the most severe mental deficiencies into the regular schools over the next few years. For several years already, 100 Czech schools have been part of such an experiment. The government has also stepped up efforts to enroll Roma in special preschool classes, in which they are taught the Czech language and prepared academically to enter regular 1st grades.

Homing In on Education

Roma activists and leaders of nonprofit organizations maintain that Gypsies do not have equal access to education and will gain equal participation in European society only when they do.

Save the Children, an international charity based in London, reported last year that the overwhelming majority of Roma children in most Central and Eastern European countries were attending either special schools for those with mental disabilities or remedial schools, with their placements often justified by biased intelligence tests.

“How can we participate equally when more than 70 percent of our children attend segregated schools? The quality is awful,” said Rumyan Russinov, a Roma from Bulgaria who directs the Budapest-based Roma Participation Program. The nonprofit organization distributes money to Roma- integration projects. Its underwriters include the European Commission, the New York City-based Open Society Institute, and the U.S. Department of State.

One effort the program sponsors produced what Mr. Russinov believes is a successful model for school desegregation: Six hundred Roma from poor-quality regular schools in Gypsy neighborhoods were transferred into seven high-quality schools in non-Roma areas of Vidin, Bulgaria.

To ensure its success, the project’s leaders had to gain the trust of Roma parents and prepare school personnel to receive the children, said Donka Panayotova, a Roma and the leader of the desegregation effort in Vidin. She and others launched a media campaign to sway the non-Roma people toward desegregation, assigned Roma adults to accompany Gypsy children to school, and organized school staff members to provide extra help for students who had educational gaps.

Integration has made a difference for such children as 13-year-old Radoslav Stefanov, Ms. Panayotova said through an interpreter. Radoslav had many educational deficiencies when he transferred to Simon the Great School in Vidin last school year, but this term, he was recognized as one of the school’s best students and was selected to attend an international academic camp in Ukraine.

Nonprofit institutions in the Czech Republic are also spearheading efforts to improve education for Roma. The Nova skola, or New School, a nonprofit in Prague, for instance, began in 1997 to train Gypsies to be teacher’s assistants.

In 1999, the Education Ministry created formal positions for the assistants and began to pay their salaries. More than 200 such assistants now work in kindergartens, special schools, and regular schools attended by Roma.

Meanwhile, the Step by Step program, financed by the Open Society Institute, set out to prove that most Roma in the Czech Republic who are assigned to schools for students with mental disabilities have no mental deficiency at all.

The project, said Elizabeth Lorant, the director of children and youth programs for the institute, was intended to support a lawsuit filed by the European Court of Human Rights. It alleges that the Czech Republic is violating the human rights of Roma children through segregation based on ethnicity.

Through the project, Step by Step provided anti-racism training to teachers in 16 classrooms of Roma 1st graders in four countries and required them to present the full curriculum of the countries. After two years, 64 percent of the students were able to meet the academic requirements.

Identity Issues

Not too long ago, Mr. Russinov and Ms. Kóczé say, even some well-educated Roma in Central and Eastern Europe didn’t want to reveal their ethnic background for fear of exposing themselves to prejudice.

Mr. Russinov, 55, said when he attended university, he would tell people he was Roma, but many other Gypsies wouldn’t because they were afraid it would harm their job opportunities.

Ms. Kóczé, who is 32, recalls feeling like a fish out of water as the only Roma attending her high school. “It was strange because everyone knew that I was Roma, but no one wanted to talk about it,” she said. “I knew I belonged to a community that was not well-loved. I was ashamed of my parents to come to the high school because they weren’t educated and weren’t sophisticated like the other parents.”

She embraced her identity after a miserable stint of working in a factory right out of high school. She became a teacher in the early 1990s and was assigned by the government to teach 2nd grade in a Budapest school in which 90 percent of the students were Roma.

The school had less-motivated teachers and fewer educational materials than most attended by non-Roma, Ms. Kóczé said. Some teachers were assigned to the school by the government as a punishment; others were retired and taught there just to earn money, she said. She decided she couldn’t solve the societal problems of her people by working solely at the school level, so she returned to the university and earned master’s degrees in sociology and human rights.

Now, as a human-rights monitor, Ms. Kóczé is frustrated with the pace of change, fearing the gap between the education of Roma and non-Roma has only widened in the decade since she was a teacher. “These children at a very early stage are transferred to a special school or a segregated classroom,” she said. “They never have a chance to meet the non-Roma children. Their life is completely cut off.”

Coverage of international education is supported in part by a grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Eastern Europe Pressured To Integrate Roma Students

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