Call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I believe schools are the primary institution in society where we should learn to live together. As a parent, I’ve never seen the point of teaching kids how to divide numbers or how not to split infinitives if we can’t first teach them how to love and treasure each other’s differences. For far too many of Europe’s Roma children, however, schools are still places far more adept at dividing communities than uniting them.
But in the northern Croatian region of Medjemurje something fascinating is happening. Roma and Croatian families are learning how to live, learn, and play together. I’d gone there to see how improving the early education of very young Roma kids could improve their lives, but what I found should be exported throughout the European Union.
It’s not just the fresh paint at the brand-new Orehovica elementary school that left me feeling elated, it was the fresh thinking. Sitting half way between a Croatian town and large Roma community of the same name, the school literally occupies the common ground between two worlds. Roma kids make up 55 percent of the pupils, yet they are totally integrated with their Croat peers. Thanks to Principal Branko Susic and his staff, it has become a model example of how educational institutions can integrate communities together.
“We don’t count Roma people here anymore,” says Branko. “When they ask me the exact number I don’t know. The world is changing. More and more Roma kids are going to high schools after the eighth grade. And there are less and less parents who will not allow that.”
Branko’s belief that this is what schools are for is best illustrated by what I’ve come to film. A room full of Roma and Croatian parents and preschool kids mix playfully together in a workshop designed by the Croatian Open Academy Step by Step program and funded the Open Society Foundations. It powerfully proves that the best antidote to racism is simply meaningful contact between individuals of different backgrounds.
One country that could learn a thing or two from Croatia is the Czech Republic. Because of the ill treatment of the Roma community there, from the forced sterilization of local Roma women, to the practice of segregating Roma children into special schools, Ostrava has become the ugly poster child of Europe’s enduring and intractable anti-Roma apartheid.
In November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that segregating Roma students into special schools in Ostrava was a form of unlawful discrimination. But exactly five years later in November 2012, the community took to the streets to protest that nothing had changed. Research by civil society organizations in 2012 found that 32 to 35 percent of all children in Czech special schools are Roma.
This is why the Open Society Early Childhood Program, in cooperation with the Open Society Fund–Prague, has supported seven projects across the Czech Republic aimed at improving the early care of Roma children from socially excluded localities.
Filip Rames of the Open Society Fund–Prague explains that the all-important assessment that determines which school a Roma child is sent to may well be blighted by institutional racism, but it is also affected by the preschool experience of Roma children.
“These children often speak Slovak and Roma as first languages, but they then have to take the test using bad Czech. So we’ve found it’s crucial to work with the children to avoid this, so that they can succeed in any test,” says Rames.
In essence, they’ve found that the best way to avoid Roma kids being segregated in school is to work with their parents at a preschool age, so they can do just as well as their Czech classmates. Think of it as an educational inoculation against segregation.
One project that’s carrying out this critical work is the Jekhetane children’s center in the predominantly Roma neighborhood of Privoz in Ostrava. It serves a community living in extremely poor housing, which is often overcrowded and lacking electricity. Hygiene is often bad and the community has high levels of hepatitis.
“We deliver early years education in two ways: in our center and in the homes of the families themselves,” says social worker Vera Dolakova. “We have activities for kids and their parents from the age of three to six. We teach parenting skills and we teach the kids how to do things and how to learn.” So far about 25 or 30 families have benefitted from the work.
That’s a great start, I say, but shouldn’t the state be helping these kids? “Of course,” she laughs, “but that’s not where the politics here are at. The politicians just want to remove people from the districts.”
Like politicians across Europe and the centuries, the elected members of Ostrava have opted for the seemingly easy option of displacing problems rather than dealing with them. As they ponder where to spend their summer breaks they could do far worse than heading to Croatia to learn a few lessons from the EU’s newest star.