Seminar “Gypsies and Education”

This conference, organised by the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany People, was held on 22 September 2003 at Aleksandrovskaya secondary school, in the Pushkin district of St. Petersburg. The seminar was attended by teachers from schools with Gypsy pupils, representatives of Gypsy social organisations, parents and pupils.

In this newsletter we will publish the comments of some of the seminar’s participants. We hope that their views will be of interest to our readers.

Stefaniya Kulaeva, Director of the Northwest Centre for the Social and Legal Protection of the Romany (Gypsy) People:

Dear Colleagues! Welcome to Aleksandrovskaya school, where we have been developing the “Gypsy School” project for several years now. We have gathered today to share our experiences with educating and raising Gypsy children, so that we may learn from our colleagues’ experiences and discuss what we can accomplish together.

From the very beginning, the Centre has been working on projects in human rights as well as education. These two areas of concern are closely related. We began by visiting the homes of Gypsies, travelling to all of the areas which are populated, more or less densely, by the Gypsies of northwestern Russia, and becoming acquainted with the life of the Gypsies. It gradually became clear that education is one of the most urgent problems facing Gypsies in our region. We began making contact with teachers, the first of which were here in Aleksandrovskaya. In recent years the situation has become worse in many regions. In the last 10-15 years the level of education among Gypsies has fallen sharply. There are a great many illiterate adults who are too old to be taught even the alphabet, and a new generation of completely illiterate young people – 12, 15 and 17-year-olds who can still be educated – is growing up. We all know that life in the 21st century is extremely difficult for an illiterate person, and we are doing our best to ensure that the level of literacy which we have already achieved won’t be lost.

Indeed, we must do all we can to ensure that all schoolchildren have the same opportunities, that children who have finished primary school go on to secondary school, and that they then at least have an opportunity to get a higher education.

Today, young people from the Gypsy community have these opportunities. Though it is difficult, in principle it is possible for them to finish secondary school and go on to university. The majority of Gypsy families lead a settled life and have access to local schools. Nevertheless, it is no secret that a huge number of Gypsy children don’t even make it to secondary school. Without a doubt, our top priorities are basic literacy and primary school education. If teachers can get Gypsy children to stay in school, even if it is only primary school, we should thank them for it. But we must keep our ultimate goal in mind — that all children, regardless of their background and the language that they speak at home, should have the opportunity to finish secondary school. Because a child who does not finish secondary school loses the opportunity to continue his education. From a human rights perspective, this constitutes discrimination: to deny one group access to a certain sphere of life is to infringe upon their human rights.

Thus, in theory, Gypsies can get an education. Then why do so many Gypsy children fail to attend school? A number of problems account for this. First of all, Gypsy parents make too little effort to send their children to school. Sometimes they cannot afford to do so, sometimes their children stay at home to do housework. In order to solve this problem, we must change people’s attitudes and make education more prestigious. We are working with parents to further this goal and hope to do even more in the future.

The second problem has to do with teachers and school administrators. In some schools Gypsy children do not feel welcome. Only a few Gypsy children, usually those who are better off financially and find it easier to meet the requirements that many schools have, make it into the school system. Children from large, poor families who can’t afford to buy a second pair of shoes or school supplies are excluded from the school system. And the vicious circle continues. If their first child doesn’t go to school, parents are less likely to think of sending their second child. We know of a boy from the Karelian city Segezh who picked berries all summer so that he could buy shoes and go to school. None of the other children from his family attended school – apparently their parents could not or did not want to make them go. In this case, the child himself made the effort, but this is a very rare occurrence. Nevertheless, children are also part of the audience which we want to reach, and so we have invited the pupils from our school, long-time participants in the Gypsy project, to join us. We urge all young people — attend school even if your teachers do not rush to welcome you, even if your parents do little to help you.

Another problem which we must address is the segregation of Russian and Gypsy pupils. We hope that this seminar will serve as a springboard for the creation of new approaches to this problem. The ideal solution, of course, would be one which protected the rights of all: In accordance with international and Russian law, no one can be denied access to education, but if a child finishes school with a diploma marked “Gypsy Class”, he has no guarantee of being admitted to university, even if he is an outstanding pupil. In Hungary, most Gypsy children attend segregated “Gypsy classes”. In the Czech Republic, they are beginning to move past this segregated system. It used to be that Czech children went to “white” classes and Gypsies to separate classes. Everyone was satisfied with this: the parents because no one bothered their children, the teachers because it made it easier for them to conduct lessons, and the authorities because it was easier to keep an eye on the Gypsies. And the result? The children who graduated from the Gypsy classes wanted to go to university or to find a job, but because they held “Gypsy diplomas”, no one would take them. They were doomed to unemployment. We must take their experiences to heart as we consider how to deal with our own situation. We have little experience with Gypsy classes – they are just beginning to form and often they are the only option. Maybe it would be better to integrate Gypsies with other pupils and to organise supplementary lessons for them in Gypsy language and culture. This is precisely the aim of the project we developed at Aleksandrovskaya school: Gypsy children study the dances, language and folklore of their people. By doing so they heighten their understanding of their own language and culture and build their self-respect. The programme motivates more people to attend school, even those who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the school system (because of their age or where they live, for example).

S. Berdyshev, psychologist:

I would like to talk about the myths about Gypsies which, unfortunately, are rife among professional pedagogues and psychologists. The underlying cause of these myths and prejudices is racism: the Gypsies are thought of as a national minority which is incapable of being educated and does not aspire to it. You often hear people say things like, “Why do Gypsies need to go to school? Let them tell fortunes, dance and sing.” Might I remind you that not long ago we thought the same way about Far Northern peoples and even developed a theory which held that they were “genetically” incapable of being educated. Such notions are, of course, false and ignorant. But unfortunately, in my work I often encounter children who have collided with the school system and suffered psychological trauma as a result. I have found that when it comes to education, some children are given a “green light”, others a “yellow light”, and still others a “red light” — One gets the feeling that the traffic signal is broken. Often Gypsy children are the unlucky ones. But the mindset of the Gypsies is changing. On a recent visit to Petrozavodsk I met with representatives of the Gypsy community and was pleasantly surprised by how well the local Gypsies – children and adults alike – understand the importance of education in modern society. Here’s an example: A few days ago I met three 16-year-old Hungarian Gypsies who had been detained by the police. The girls were very eager to learn, if only basic grammar. They were treated very well treated in the reception and placement centre and the staff began giving them lessons. The girls were very grateful to their teachers and glad to be learning something for the first time in their lives. Thus we must give up the old prejudice that Gypsies do not need an education. We should take joy in seeing that the Gypsies themselves, as well as the authorities (recently the Russian minister in charge of national minorities, V. Zorin, noted the importance of education for the Gypsy people) have realised the truth.

Galina Vasil’evna Chernil’nikova, A specialist from the Board of Education, Chudovo, Novgorodskaya Oblast’

Around 600 Gypsy children attend schools in our region, and there is a major stratification in the Gypsy community. Some children attend mainstream schools, but the more prosperous Gypsies have started their own school. This had led to a string of problems: As the school is private and was not designed according to any established scheme, there have been problems with the regulatory framework, licensing, and teacher certification. Sixty-three pupils, aged 7 to 14, attend the private school. Lessons are taught in two shifts by two teachers from the state school.

Vera Nikolaevna Podiacheva, Assistant Director of Education, School No. 17, Pskov

Fifteen Gypsy children currently attend our school, and in the twenty years since 1980 we have had thirty-nine Gypsy pupils. Of these, ten have completed eight years of education. Many children leave school because their families move, and this is a serious problem: if parents work as travelling merchants and take their child along with them, the child must forego many lessons. Our school accepts even students who have fallen behind and cannot attend classes with other pupils their age. These problems aside, we have also made real achievements: one of our graduates is a theatre student in the College of Culture. Our school is attended by children of many nationalities – Armenians, Chechens and Belorussians. We are planning a celebration of national cultures.

Mariana Vladimirovna Seslavinskaya, Union of Romany Social Organisations in Russia (Moscow)

The issue of Romany education is, of course, linked with more general issues which face the Romany people: human rights and representation in government. For example, our organisation has written a textbook of the Romany language, but the people who are in a position to decide whether it will be published do not understand the issue and are not willing to help us. In order to give children the opportunity to study their own language and culture, the Romany people must be represented in government and have a say in political decisions. This, in turn, requires that they have an education. It should be noted that in Europe, where the Romany national movement has been active for 30 years, great strides have been made: Roma serve as members of parliament and ministers, there is a large Romany intelligentsia, and Romany interest groups lobby on the state level.

I would like to present some facts about Gypsy education in the early Soviet years. Some would say that our country has many problems now, but things were no better in the 20s and 30s, and in those days they somehow managed to support national cultures. Alphabets and textbooks were developed for languages without writing systems and literary classics were translated into these languages. The Romany alphabet was created in 1926, and two journals, Romany Zorya and Nevo Drom, were published. In 1929 the Romany writers’ section was established, and in 1931 the Romen Theatre opened. At that time, three four-year Gypsy schools, in which all subjects were taught in the Gypsy language, were operating in Moscow. A Gypsy intelligentsia formed during the same period, and their descendants are now the pride of the Gypsy people. Pedagogical courses for Gypsy teachers were created, and a Gypsy education department opened at the pedagogical college. The authorities also worked to create jobs for the Gypsy population: 28 Romany workers’ associations were created, and Gypsy collective farms began to form. But unfortunately, at the end of the 1930s the official stance on all national minorities, including Gypsies, changed drastically. As we see it, the greatest injustice is that we cannot further develop the Romany language.

Georgii Nikolaevich Tsvetkov, Union of Romany Social Organisations in Russia (Moscow):

It’s true that even in the 1920s they had enough time, specialists and money to develop educational programmes for national minorities. Because it was the government’s policy to provide education for all, Gypsies of that generation had an average of 7-8 years of education. If a child missed school two or three times, the teacher sounded the alarm and before you knew it the truant officer was there. Nowadays this doesn’t happen, and so we have fifteen-year-olds who can’t even sign their own names. Education has lost its prestige. The Gypsies know that their most serious problem is that they can’t compete in business or in any other sphere of life. And why? Because they are uneducated and have no specialised skills. This also leads to increase in criminal activity among Gypsies. Of course we need special educational programmes for Gypsies. We need literature and textbooks. These problems must be dealt with on a national level. As for segregated Gypsy classes, they are necessary for children who fall behind their age group. Those who begin school on time need supplementary lessons in the Gypsy language, literature and culture. Excellent dual-language primers for pre-schoolers are being published in Ukraine – one of the reasons that our children fall behind is that they don’t know Russian. Children like these books because they are illustrated with bright-coloured pictures with Gypsy themes. We have already published a dictionary of the Lovari-dialect, and now we are working on a textbook in two dialects, Russo-Gypsy and Lovari. Unfortunately, there have been difficulties with publishing it.

Margarita Vasil’evna Marshennikova, Director of School No. 409, Pushkin:

I worked at Aleksandrovskaya school for 20 years, and from the very beginning relations among parents, children and teachers there were very problematic. I had to go around to every home and practically drive the children into school. It didn’t matter whether they were good students as long as they went to school. Nowadays the situation is different. From a young age children are instilled with the idea that they must get an education, and they begin school with a clear understanding of this. Such progress has been made that some students are now able to complete eleven years of education. There was a time when Russian parents were reluctant to send their children to a school attended by Gypsies. We had to overcome the prejudice which held that Gypsies didn’t need an education and that their lot was to tell fortunes, sing and dance. When we surmounted these prejudices, the school became a big happy family.

Zinaida Georgievna Tsareva, Assistant Director of Education, Osel’ka School, Vsevolozhskii district, Leningradskaya Oblast

First of all, I would like to thank the employees of the Centre for the Protection of Gypsies for inviting us to participate in this seminar and in future projects. Previously, we felt that we were without allies in the task of educating and raising Gypsy children: It seemed that no light was being shed on the issue, that the problem had simply fallen from sight. We now know that many people are concerned about this issue and that we are not alone. We are very glad to be among like-minded people. Ninety Gypsy children, spread over five classes, attend our school. Naturally we encounter many difficulties in educating and raising our pupils, even though we place only the most experienced teachers in the Gypsy classes. Children enter school completely unprepared: They do not attend pre-school, they associate only with their own families, and they speak very little Russian. Nevertheless, we accept all Gypsy children. Another problem which we face is poor attendance: sometimes parents do not allow their children to go to school. One excellent pupil, for example, was kept at home because she was a good fortune-teller. Another problem is stratification within the Gypsy community. In our camp there are two families and thus two clans. At times they are in conflict, at times they get along. Social classes form according to the clan structure. Some people believe that Gypsies are very wealthy, but this isn’t the case for Gypsies in our area. We know that when it gets cold, out of 18-19 children only 7-8 of the most responsible pupils will come to school. Those who do come will be sneezing and coughing because they do not have warm clothes.

We are doing all that we can, and our greatest achievement has been to send one class on to secondary school, into the fifth grade. Out of 38 first-graders, only 15 made it to fifth grade, but we are doing our best to look after them and hopefully see them through to graduation. Gypsy children are very kind – you can sense their inner refinement. They are highly capable, have an excellent memory and do not pale in comparison with other children. Last year four pupils from Nadezhda Mikhailovna Klubovaya’s class received certificates from the Ministry of Education for excellence in their studies. Our experience demonstrates that Gypsy classes are essential. We did not create them in order to isolate Gypsy children, but rather to provide them with a comfortable environment. We have succeeded in placing children in age-appropriate classes.

It is very important that we support the Gypsy intelligentsia. If the mindset of Gypsy parents is to be changed, it is essential for them to meet educated, successful people who can talk to them in their own language. We need textbooks written in the Gypsy language and, ideally, we would like to teach Gypsy children according to the national minority school curriculum.

Nadezhda Grigor’evna Vinokurova, School Counsellor, School No. 14, Volodarskii, Krasnosel’skii district, Saint Petersburg:

We don’t have as many Gypsy children as some other schools, but our pupils face exactly the same problems as pupils elsewhere. Why is it that children, even those from well-to-do families do not attend school? I believe that this is entirely dependent on the family. If parents decide not to send their children to school there is simply nothing we can do about it. We also have some success stories: This year one Gypsy child, an excellent pupil, finished school. I believe that we need to make education more prestigious within the Gypsy community.

Tamara Nikolaevna Cherepovskaya, St. Petersburg Gypsy Cultural Centre:

I would like to thank Memorial for once again raising various issues which relate to the future of our people. I would also like to announce that our Centre is planning an exhibition dedicated to St. Petersburg’s dynasty of Gypsy artists – Masal’skii, Abaurovyi, Shakhovskii, Cherpovskii and many others. These representatives of the Gypsy intelligentsia have contributed to our culture for decades.

Of course Gypsy children should know our language, folklore and history. Education is absolutely essential in the modern world and it is the intelligentsia who must bring this idea to the Gypsy community.

Alla Anatol’evna Kuznetsova, Director of School No. 462, Aleksandrovskaya, Pushkin District, St. Petersburg:

Our school is truly unique: many of our pupils were turned away by other schools. I believe that it is difficult for Gypsy children to hold onto their own culture. I would also like to point out that Gypsies live in large communal families, a fact that is very apparent in the behaviour of Gypsy children: they seem to feel that they are part of a large, close-knit family. Unfortunately, many Russian children lack this “family feeling”.

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