These children must be offered equal access

Zdenka Svobodova PragueJuly 2000
[In the Czech Republic a "special school” is a school for retarded children one which Romany (Gypsy) children are assigned if they fail an examination which emphasizes skills in Czech language and culture.]
I met twenty-year-old Tereza H. on a bus going to her home town in central Bohemia. Two years earlier this petite and smiley young woman had married a Romany, and shortly before our meeting she had graduated from the pedagogical faculty. Tereza invited me to her flat and there she told me the following story. At her request I won’t mention any full names or the name of her town.
“I grew up in what you would call purely white surroundings. Yes, I did meet some Roma in the street, at the swimming pool and in shops. But I never had any close contact with them. My family is Christian, though, and I’ve been brought up in a spirit of mutual love and understanding. I was taught equality among people based on the idea that we are all children of Our Lord, regardless of our respective skin color. I’ve never been prejudiced.
I actually met Roma and, unfortunately, also prejudice and racial stereotypes, for the first time during my practical teacher training, which took place at an elementary school in Prague. I spent two weeks teaching in the third grade, and whenever I could, I also visited the classes of my colleagues who were teaching younger children. In my class there were two Romany girls, both very clever and diligent. They were fully integrated into the class and wholly accepted by the other children. For example, during the music classes I heard the whole class sing several Romany songs. It was obvious that their class teacher had taken great pains with those two girls, helped integrate them with the others, motivated them, and even managed to get their parents involved. Twice during my stay parents came to enquire about their children’s progress. Everything worked so well that my main concern was to avoid spoiling it by my lack of experience.
So I was unpleasantly surprised to see quite a different situation in the other classrooms. Things were worst in the first grade. The number of Romany children was disproportionately low: only a few had managed to get through the psychological testing — which was far from objective. And in one of the classes I visited I saw particularly obvious efforts to “eliminate” even those few Romany children. Of course I understand how difficult it is to manage children with a lively temperament, without adequate knowledge of Czech, and without any sense for school discipline. In many cases Romany parents don’t even send their children to school. Still, we must try to understand their background, and we have to accept two facts: the life of these children is closely linked to Romany culture, and their thinking is heavily influenced by the Romany language. They need to be supported in the activities in which they excel, and in other areas we must make use of alternative methods: songs, theater, contact with parents. In short, these children must be offered equal access to education instead of being pushed out into special schools, which I did my teacher training. It is always easier to brand a child as unmanageable, hyper-active, and immature than to make an effort at improving things.
My experience at that school made me very interested in these problems. Together with a few other schoolmates I set up a drama group at an elementary school with a high proportion of Romany children. We did theater, gave the children supplementary classes, and organized trips for them. I decided to start working in a pre-school program for these children which was to be launched in my town as soon as I’d graduated. With that in mind, I started taking Romany lessons from a woman, and at her place I later met Milan. First he helped me organize some events and then- well, he ended up by marrying me. This September I start teaching at a local school, and I hope that everything will work out for us.”

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