The controversial issue of ethnically separated
schools has arrived in Eastern Europe. And unlike the United States, where
1950s civil rights activists said separate schools were unequal and unfair,
some minority advocates say separate may be better for Gypsy children.
Even within the Gypsy community, officials and educators seem to have
a hard time agreeing on the best way to increase the educational level
of Hungary's Gypsy community.
While the change of system in 1989 offered new
opportunities for many in Hungary, for the Gypsies, by far the nation's
largest minority, their social and economic status has deteriorated even
further. Under communism there was no place for wandering casual labour
and Gypsies were placed in co-operative farms in the countryside and state
factories in the cities. With both these sectors having largely collapsed,
Gypsies are finding it tough in the competitive new labour market - unemployment
is widespread and those in work are usually employed in the lowest paid
sectors. Caught in the classic poverty trap some Gypsy leaders see separate
schools as the way out.
"Sadly we have to say that the Gypsy children are not doing well in
the Hungarian schools." says Jozsef Choledroczi, headmaster of Kiraly Jag,
a new Gypsy secondary school in Budapest. "Forty percent of Gypsy kids
do not graduate from primary school and less than 1 percent of Gypsy students
make it to a university. That has an obvious effect on the employment situation."
Choledroczi says Gypsy children suffer from indirect discrimination,
based on low expectations from teachers, but he believes there are other
reasons why Gypsies need their own schools. "We learn in a different way
and require teachers to teach in a different style, but also we need to
develop a real knowledge of our own culture, our own language and our own
history. These things are not taught in normal Hungarian schools."
The school, in central Budapest is just closing its first academic year
and currently has 40 students. As well as learning Gypsy culture they are
taught computer skills, English and management training. "We want these
children to get the kind of education that will enable them to go to university,
get good professional jobs and become role models for the next generation,"
says Choledroczi. The only other Hungarian school offering special education
for Gypsies is the Ghandi School in the southern city of Pecs.
Both schools receive financial aid from a number of foundations, including
the Soros Foundation set up by billionaire American-Hungarian George Soros.
This year, Soros set up a Roma Education Programm, and although the foundation
funds the two specialist Gypsy schools, the programm prefers to concentrate
on improving the lot of Gypsy students within integrated schools.
"There are a lot of experiences in the west of separate schools and
I think the results are not too positive." says Programm Co-ordinator Ferenc
Arato. "It is dangerous to separate children according to language or colour.
It is dangerous for them because it creates a virtual situation. They are
not separated in society and need to know how to communicate with non-Gypsies,
to learn about other cultures as well as their own."
The more than 20 organisations claiming to represent
Gypsy interests are divided over the issue. While some welcome schools
such as Ghandi and the Kiraly Jag others see separatism as a dead-end street.
Three years ago municipal authorities in Budapest floated the idea of creating
Gypsy schools within the existing state school system. The move was rejected
by many Roma groups as ghettoisation. According to Arato the roots of the
differences are in the deep political divide in the Gypsy community. "There
are some Gypsy groups who see Gypsy civil rights in a 19th century nationalist
way. They want to emphasise their language and their culture. Others see
integration into society as the way forward. That is reflected in their
attitude to education."
The Roma Education Programm supports a pilot project in the village
of Nyertelek, where Gypsy children are taught separately for two years
before entering mixed classes. According to Arato this is an attempt to
address the issue of the special teaching methods proposed by advocates
of separate schools. "It is true that you need a different approach with
Roma children. Firstly you have to build a bridge because they come from
very difficult social situations. Secondly Hungarian teaching methods come
from a very middle class perspective. Often Gypsy kids can't understand
the lessons. They speak a very different Hungarian language. But this can
be done within an integrative environment."
Its not only Gypsies and educationalists that are divided. Hungarian
political opinion, while largely pragmatic on the issue, includes some
conservative critics, who see separate schools as undermining Hungarian
national values. Choledroczi sees this as hypocrisy. "These are the same
people who demand that the Hungarian national minority in Romania and Slovakia
be allowed separate schools so that they can preserve their language and
culture." he says.
Yet while educationalists and community leaders
debate the issue, in the communities the move towards separated Gypsy schools
may be taking place by default. The educational reforms enacted following
the change of system allowed parents greater freedom of choice in school
selection. Previously children had to go to the nearest school. Schools
with catchment areas including large Gypsy communities are reporting a
dramatic decline in the number of white Hungarians enrolling. "Once a school
gets a reputation for being a 'Gypsy school' the Hungarians stop sending
their kids," said one teacher at heavily Gypsy school.