"This is a completely normal school,"
says Doctor Tluèhoøová.
As the educational director of the new Romani High School for Social
Affairs in the Central Bohemian town of Kolín, Tluèhoøová
is trying hard to present the school's best image. We sit in the staff
room of the new school, as her office is still a jumble of paint cans and
building tools. Everything in the building smells of drying paint and carpet
"We will have the same problems as any other school," she tells me.
"I taught for five years at another private school, and the problems here
are entirely the same as they were there."
Tluèhoøová is full of enthusiasm for her new assignment.
The past few months for her have been difficult, and she is pleased just
to see the experiment finally up and running. In the middle of July, she
could hardly have had such a positive outlook.
When the new Czech government came to power in the wake of the June
elections, certain promises of the previous government were forgotten.
In spring of this year, both the Ministry of Education and Minister without
Portfolio with Responsibility for Minority Issues Vladimír Mlynáø
had given their word that the school in Kolín would have the required
funds to buy the pre-fab concrete slab building in which the school was
to be housed. Those promises disappeared as fast as the interim government,
and Tluèhoøová suddenly found herself with a full
complement of teachers and students and no suitable place to put them.
Tluèhoøová immediately assigned everyone on her
staff to fundraising duty, and eventually a principal sponsor was found
in the form of George Soros, billionaire currency trader, critic of unfettered
capitalism and patron of "civil society" in Central and Eastern Europe.
As the plaque outside the school now says, Soros provided the money for
the building and saved the Romani High School project.
Long, unsteady beginning
The idea of creating a Romani school emerged within
the Romani community eight years ago. Soon, it became a primary goal of
the Rajko Djuriè Foundation, a non-profit, educational organization
closely associated with the political movement Romani Civic Initiative
(ROI) (the Chairman of the Foundation, Emil Šèuka, is also the Chairman
of ROI). The Roma community set up the school, and the Roma community has
paid for its establishment -- with a little help from Soros. The students'
parents pay tuition fees and accommodation, and ROI helps with fees for
students from families who do not have the means to pay. The Canadian and
British embassies have also played a part by donating textbooks and teaching
The school building, just completing its renovation, not only contains
classrooms and offices but also dormitory areas for both male and female
students. The décor is almost painfully new. Apart form a lonely
donated piano in one corner of the mirrored exercise room, everything seems
fresh off the shop floor.
Smart, raw pine bunk-beds grace the dormitory rooms. Gleaming living-room
console furniture in one or two of the offices seems very oddly out of
place, but maybe these were seconds donated by a local firm. The classrooms
have new desks and chairs. The computer room has an excellent arrangement
of furniture for a network of thirty computers; although the school is
about 27 computers short of that figure, so the room appears empty and
expectant. There are several new televisions in various rooms, clubrooms
in the dormitory and a pleasant soda bar and dining facility in the basement.
The newness of it all may seem like extravagance, but the quality of
these facilities was only made possible by the donations of Soros and others.
Interestingly, the teachers signed their contracts before these new
facilities were guaranteed. Until August, everyone assumed they would be
working with borrowed desks and blackboards. By September, the students
were learning in a respectably refurbished building.
Expectations high, too high
The school currently has 41 students from all across
the Czech Republic. Like other secondary schools, the school was able to
choose its students, and about a third of applicants failed to make the
cut. Both domestic and foreign press have seen these first students as
a nascent Romani elite. Sean Nazerali, spokesman for the Rajko Djuriè
Foundation, however, rejects these claims.
"These are normal kids," he says, "some good, some not so good. When
I read in the Prague Post that this was to be the crème de la crème
of Romani society, I just shook my head."
According to Nazerali, a few of these students may very well become
members of the intelligentsia. Some will enter public service as "Roma
advisors" in various state institutions, and some will work in NGOs. A
few, he hopes, will go on to study at university.
"The number of university educated Roma here in the Czech Republic is
minimal, and the community needs more people with higher degrees, but to
expect these first classes to become a new Romani elite is simply asking
too much." That is putting too much pressure on both the school and the
A teacher at the school agrees with Nazerali, "This is just like any
other school, some students are a bit more advanced, some are a bit behind."
The same teacher sees the education of the younger generation of Roma
as the key to the overall progress of the Romani community. "The older
generation of Gypsies is already beyond saving," he says disparagingly
and rather disturbingly. "We just hope that we can teach this generation
and that they can set some kind of respectable example for their friends
and then pass these lessons on to their children. It all has to start with
educating the younger generation."
"There goes the neighborhood"
The people of Kolín have very mixed reactions,
and many local residents are much more skeptical about the new school in
On the one hand, local officials seem to have accepted the school, and
the representatives of both the school and the foundation warmly praise
their cooperation. The mayor of Kolín herself, for example, has
agreed to sit on the school board.
"The local education authority and the various town authorities we have
had to deal with have been extremely helpful," says Nazerali. "They are
working with us very constructively on all levels."
But while the town's officials may be encouraging and helpful toward
the new school, the ordinary citizens of Kolín often have different
opinions. Nazerali explains that when another school in Kolín was
looking for extra dormitory space for ten students, they called the Romani
High School, and a suitable agreement was reached.
"But when the parents of those students got wind of the plan to house
their children in a 'Romani dormitory,'" says Nazerali, "they protested.
Every one of those ten families called their school and demanded that their
children be accommodated elsewhere -- in a 'white students' dormitory.'"
Local residents walking by the school seem to harbor the same feelings
as those parents. One older man, for example, tells me of his general sense
"Well, you know what they're like," he says speaking about Roma in general.
"They're going to ruin this area. They'll steal or break everything in
that school, the building will be a gutted wreck in a few months and the
whole area will go downhill."
"Well, I am not a racist," begins a woman of about thirty with what
has become an empty mantra for many of her generation in the Czech Republic,
"and if they keep things in order there, then fine. But I worry about the
whole thing -- that it won't work out, that there are going to be some
serious problems here."
A bit farther from the school -- literally but not figuratively on the
other side of the tracks, an elderly woman leaning out of her window offers
a more tolerant viewpoint.
"Look, there are differences between Czechs and Gypsies, but there are
also differences among Czechs and differences among Gypsies. Some are good,
some bad -- like anyone else. Maybe this new school will do some good.
It's all got to start with education, after all."
But then she backs down from this statement, which is somewhat radical
in today's Czech society, "Well, I can say these things, can't I, because
that school is on the other side of the railway line, so it won't really
affect me much here."
Another woman, perhaps forty years old, is much less understanding and
rattles off the full catalogue of oft-heard racist clichés: "Look
at the luxury they've got there. Why are we whites paying for this? I've
got four kids, and they don't get anything special at school. My kids have
to put up with all old equipment and facilities at their school. Why do
the Gypsies get all the advantages? Look at that school -- it's absolute
luxury how they have thing set up there. Everything brand new! It's just
like under Communism -- they are given everything and never have to work.
But what about us? Us normal people never get any of these things."
Us and them: self-segregation
Everyone, both inside and outside the school, talks
in terms of "us and them." One representative of the school told me, "They
(Roma) have a completely different mentality than we whites." Thus even
among the staff of a school aiming to help minorities, ethnic differences
are emphasized over wider human similarities.
The fundamental question everyone is asking is phrased in this manner:
"What can we (white Czechs) do for them (Roma), and what should they do
for themselves?" This clearly indicates the linguistic barrier that divides
people here in the Czech Republic along ethnic lines. Some humans belong
to the Czech "we," but that excludes certain members of the wider community
right in the very language of daily communication. Such exclusion forms
the subtext of every conversation about this new school.
In a sense, the Romani High School in Kolín is just confirming
this exclusion and stands as a form of self-segregation. The school's existence
simply reinforces the idea that these groups cannot live in the same community.
It is a symbol of the failure of coexistence.
Surprisingly, Nazerali partially agrees with these reservations, but
he puts a different spin on the arguments. For him, the new school is a
symbol that Roma are not succeeding in the Czech school system. An examination
of how Roma are pushed out of the mainstream school system here reveals
de facto racial segregation in education. This school is not creating segregation;
it is trying to make the best of it.
"This school will be a symbol, says Nazerali. "It will show people that
Roma do indeed want to learn. It will hopefully end up being a signal to
individual schools and to the Ministry of Education that Roma are capable
of learning and that they should not be shut out. It will show them that
Roma can succeed. Maybe it will get the authorities to change the way they
do things and make the system more open to Roma."
But is there not a danger that, ten years from now, the plan will have
backfired, and the Ministry of Education will only have concluded that
Roma can learn, but only when they are separated from whites?
"Yes," admits Nazerali, "this could be a difficulty down the road. But
I don't think that is going to happen. Look, this is only one school. Some
of these kids will go to universities and return to mixed classes there.
But they will go there with greater confidence that they can achieve academic
Not a "normal school"
Despite the efforts of those involved to convince
the world that this is a "normal school" like any other in the Republic,
the fact is that the Romani High School in Kolín is not a normal
school. These students are taking part in what is generally considered
a social experiment by observers both in the Czech Republic and abroad.
The students are going to be under the microscope much more than kids in
any normal school.
In fact, these students, somewhat like the first ethnic minorities who
entered white schools in the US when the wall of legal segregation started
coming down, will have to be better than normal. There will be pressure
upon them to perform and to exhibit exemplary behavior. They will be held
to a higher standard, and ethnicity will continue to be an issue.
If, for example, the students are playing ball outside the school one
day, and the ball veers off and breaks a neighbor's window, how will the
suspicious neighbors react? One fears that such an event would not just
be treated as any other such incident, because residents do not see this
school as just another school but as the "Gypsy School." Even minor incidents
-- typically attributed to youth by residents living near a school, will
in this case be attributed to ethnicity. In other words, it will not be
a matter of "Well, kids will be kids." but rather "See what those Gypsies
Education, who needs it?
In the classroom, most students seem to sense that
the world is watching them. Indeed, members of the national and international
press have been lurking about the school to such a degree, that the students
would find it difficult to ignore the attention they are receiving.
Students in a normal high school for social affairs in the Czech Republic
usually end up becoming social workers: they work in orphanages, senior
citizens' homes and welfare offices. What do the students at the Romani
High School want to do in the future? The question draws blank looks at
first. Well, it's a stupid question anyway. Who knows what they want to
do with their life when they are 15 or 16?
But then one student speaks up: "I'd like to be a gym teacher."
Another says he would like to do community work or something to do with
the social sphere, but he is not sure exactly what.
A third student at the front of the room says, "I'd like to go to medical
school." Some of his classmates snicker, but he is realistic about his
chances, "I know I am behind in my studies, but I am going to try."
Back outside the school, another local resident expresses what he thinks.
"People around here are scared," he says plainly.
"Why?" he says shaking his head squinting in disbelief. "Because they
are dirty Gypsies, and they'll steal everything we have if we're not careful."