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Gypsy children fill Czech special schools
USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic (CNN) -- It was a simple request for directions. But the regional education official got more than she bargained for when she asked an elderly man on a bicycle how to reach the "special" school for mentally retarded children.
"The special school?" the man chuckled in mock bewilderment. "We don't call it a special school, we call it 'Gypsy University'."
Such quips rankle school officials here in Usti nad Labem, the town of about 100,000 in northern Bohemia which briefly grabbed the international headlines last year. That was when local authorities erected a concrete wall to separate Czechs from gypsy neighbours who they said were noisy and dirty.
Today, the physical wall has gone, but a tangible sense of ethnic "otherness" lives on in the country's system of special schools, where gypsy children far outnumber their Czech peers, accounting for around 70 percent of the student body.
Gypsy rights activists claim the disparity highlights the sort of endemic racism in Czech society towards gypsies -- or "Roma," as the ethnic group's members call themselves -- that many special school administrators say they have dedicated their careers to trying to eradicate.
A glut of gypsies in special schools?
One such administrator is Olga Tureckova. Her career in special school education has spanned 34 years, bridging the 'Velvet' transition from a Soviet-bloc Czechoslovakia to a stand-alone Czech Republic.
Tureckova is head master of the special school in the Nestimice district of Usti nad Labem. The school is tucked away in a quiet enclave on the outskirts of a town where railroad tracks slice through a bleak landscape dotted with soap factories and Communist-era housing complexes.
Nationwide, more than half of all school-age gypsy children attend special primary schools for slower learners.
That ratio, however, is far out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population, where gypsies represent no more than 5 percent of the country's 10 million people, Unofficial government estimates suggest the actual number may be far lower: perhaps just 150,000 people, or 1.5 percent of the population. Greater precision should emerge from a national census set for next year.
Gypsy rights advocates blame the disparity on an educational system that they say fails to consider cultural and linguistic differences that might conceal true aptitude. Standardised psychological exams used to determine a student's readiness for regular schooling, they say, are ill-suited to the purpose.
Old-style paternalism persists
Government officials concede the exams have not always been entirely objective -- which is one reason why the Ministry of Education is in the process of revamping the exam in an effort to filter out cultural biases.
Petr Uhl, the Czech government's commissioner on minority rights, an advisory post established 18 months ago, said the country's current law on human rights, ostensibly designed to "protect" gypsies and other minorities, actually does more harm than good by fostering the type of paternalism that was a hallmark of the former Communist regime.
Yet Uhl also believes gypsies are at least partly responsible for the proliferation of their children in special schools.
"It's also a family thing," he said. "The Roma like to put their kids in special schools, because they know that it's not as demanding as the other schools. …They (the parents) think these schools are more favourable."
Marta Miklusakova, who serves with Uhl on the Council for Human Rights, offers a further possible explanation: gypsies, she says, are more likely to be teased and taunted by Czech classmates in regular schools, where they might be more conspicuous.
Uhl believes the current special school system, with its emphasis on collective skills, rather than individual nurturing, does as much of a disservice to Czech students as to gypsies. "We must individualise education -- it's a giant task that's going to concern both gypsies and other students."
Tureckova, who starting working in special schools at the age of 22, seems undeterred by the challenges before her. She has put her energy into creating a special school that would be the envy of any administrator.
Learning 'the basics'
Colourful student artwork and papier-maché sculptures adorn immaculate hallways. In the classrooms, an enthusiastic teacher reads fairytales -- in Czech and Roma -- to students, and out back a cheerful garden, painstakingly tended by Tureckova, offers a sanctuary for students beyond the grey city outside.
But the curriculum itself is straightforward, including instruction in basic skills like shoelace tying and simple word formation, using lots of vowels and avoiding consonant clusters. "We are talking about special schools, special classes," said Emilie Vrzalova, a teacher. "They are learning the basics."
Vrzalova said that, as a test, she had tried reading fairytales to her students in the Roma language, but found they understood Czech better.
Tureckova, like Uhl and others, acknowledges that cultural and linguistic differences make educating gypsies an extra challenge. Yet she rejects claims that special schools deny gypsies the opportunity to make something of their lives.
The reason many people view special schools as a dead-end for gypsies, Tureckova says, is "because they are not using the opportunity we offer. We can't always grasp their mentality. They want to start working immediately."
That could soon change, after the Czech parliament passed an amendment to the Official School Act, which took effect in February, allowing special school students to apply to regular secondary schools. Under the old law, special school students could only gain access to a limited number of special secondary schools, a fact that gypsies from special schools say often consigned them to dead-end jobs.
But Miklusakova, on the Council of Human Rights, is sceptical the new amendment will make much of a difference unless the existing School Act is completely rewritten to reflect changing realities.
"On the one hand, we have a beautiful amendment which more or less solves the legal discrimination of the children," she said. "However, in practice there is really very little change because the (special school) students have no chance of making it into the secondary school by passing the entrance exam."
Czech gypsies still suffer legacy of Wall
European Roma Rights Center
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