Successful Romani School Desegregation: The Vidin Case

Donka Panayotova and Evgeni Evgeniev1

Starting in the school year 2000-2001, Romani children from the Nov Pat Romani settlement in Vidin, Bulgaria, began attending non-segregated schools as a result of local and international non-governmental initiatives. Donka Panayotova, Chair of the Vidin-based Romani non-governmental Organisation Drom2, which initiated desegregation of the local, all-Romani school, with support from the Open Society Institute's Roma Participation Program, describes how the effort was organised and what its results were.

"THE VIDIN PROJECT", the first Romani-led school desegregation initiative in Central and Eastern Europe, has come to be well known in the international human rights community. It began on September 15, 2000, when roughly 300 Romani children, from the all-Romani school in the Nov Pat settlement in Vidin, 3 began attending six mainstream schools in town. The desegregation programme successfully continued throughout the school year, with new students joining, so that by the end of the year, 460 Romani children had completed the school year in non-segregated schools.

In the project's second year, the number of Romani children who chose to attend non-segregated schools rose to 611 or about 75 percent of all Romani children attending school in the Nov Pat settlement.

Background of Roma Schooling in Bulgaria4

About 70 percent of school-aged Romani children in Bulgaria attend all-Romani schools, located in segregated Romani neighbourhoods throughout the country. Originally, schools in the Romani settlements, established in the 1950s and 1960s, were used as a means for the inclusion of Roma into the educational system. Apparently, however, Bulgarian authorities never intended to teach Roma in standard schools. The Romani neighbourhood schools were officially labelled "Schools for children with inferior lifestyle and culture", 5 and many of them had substandard curricula with a focus on vocational training. Even though Romani neighbourhood schools were supposedly made into mainstream schools with a standard curriculum after 1992, the quality of education in those schools has never been equal to that of the regular non-Romani schools. Unqualified teachers, poor facilities and racial prejudice towards Roma on the part of school authorities are staples in these schools. This can be easily seen in the striking disparities between Romani children in the all-Romani schools and their peers in non-Romani schools, with respect to school accomplishments.

The basic idea of the Vidin desegregation project is to guarantee equal access to education for Romani children from the Nov Pat settlement, by supporting their transfer to mainstream schools in the town. In practice, tasks of the project are:

  • To bus Romani children from the Romani settlement to schools in town;
  • To ensure that Romani children are equitably distributed in non-segregated schools and in classrooms – avoiding secondary segregation into all-Romani classes at the mixed schools;
  • To provide the most impoverished children with free school materials such as bags, textbooks and notebooks;
  • To conduct regular anti-bias teacher training and monitor how the children adapt to their new school environment, as well as closely to follow their school progress.

Preparing for Desegregation

The preparatory phase of the project has been, to date, crucial for its success. Activities that Organisation Drom undertookbetween July and September 2000, prior to implementation of the Vidin project, helped create a positive environment in both the Romani community and community at large. Organisation Drom staff held meetings with local authorities, non-governmental organisations and Romani leaders to help garner publicity for the impending desegregation.

Later the same month, Organisation Drom initiated conversations with school authorities from non-Romani schools in town to negotiate the enrolment of Romani children. Following such discussions, Organisation Drom was invited to a regular meeting held by the directors of the Vidin mainstream schools. Donka Panayotova was requested to present Organisation Drom's provisional agenda for the implementation of the desegregation project. At the meeting, the project received unanimous support from the directors, who pledged to open the doors at mainstream schools for every Romani child from Nov Pat as well as to offer assistance for their integration at these schools. 6

At the end of July 2000, TV Roma, a cable television station based in the Romani neighbourhood and run by local Roma, aired clips advertising non-Romani schools in Vidin. The brief segments mentioned the schools' profiles, staff and facilities with the aim of helping Romani parents choose a new school for their children.

The next step in the preparatory work was the selection of supervisors for Romani children enrolled in the Vidin project. Following a competition, Organisation Drom selected seven young Roma who had finished high school – six were assigned to each of the receiving non-Romani schools and one was made responsible for facilitating contacts between Romani parents and teachers.

In the next phase of the project, the Organisation Drom leadership, together with the supervisors, held individual meetings with Romani parents who had children of school age. Discussions focused on the advantages of sending their children to mixed schools in town. This stage was necessary for the future of the desegregation process, as the will of parents was crucial for the project's success.

Romani parents had a variety of reasons for which they might have refused participation in the Vidin project. Not only did inertia drive several generations into the ghetto school over past decades, but many harboured feelings of insecurity about the chances their children would have for success at a mixed school, among the majority population. Many Romani parents were also uneasy about the possible impact on their children witnessing first-hand, every day, the glaring economic differences between themselves and non-Romani children.

During these meetings, Organisation Drom realised no one had previously talked to parents about the educational standing of their children. No one had questioned the quality of education their children received in the all-Romani school or the possibility of moving the child to a better school. After Organisation Drom's discussions with the parents in Nov Pat, many agreed that sending their children to the all-Romani school could be detrimental. They eventually agreed to participate in the desegregation programme.

Generating Public Support

A major portion of work on the Vidin project was dedicated to launching a publicity campaign aimed at generating public support. Previous experience had taught us that a public campaign was necessary to explain the goals of desegregation, or else the process could be doomed to failure. 7 In a series of public appearances, including articles in local newspapers and public debates on local television stations, Organisation Drom defended the desegregation initiative and worked to convince the public of the benefits such integration of Romani children would potentially bring. Once the Vidin project was underway, Organisation Drom kept the public informed about the project's progress and accomplishments. A documentary film, produced by local cable station, TV Vidin, highlighted activities at Organisation Drom with a focus on the desegregation project. The film was broadcast in December 2000 by the private national bTV television station. Another documentary on the project, by Canadian journalist Nancy Durham, was broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel in September 2000 and was shown by Organisation Drom at several public forums focusing on the problems of Romani education in Bulgaria. In addition to the reports, the successful progress of the Vidin desegregation project was described in two articles by John Tagliabue in the New York Times on June 12, 2001 and in the International Herald Tribune on June 14, 2001.

Another crucial factor for the success of the Vidin initiative was support from the Romani movement. Fundamental backing on the part of Romani non-governmental organisations for the desegregation of all-Romani schools in Bulgaria came as early as 1998-99. At that time, negotiations were taking place between representatives of the Romani community and the Bulgarian government for adoption of the Romani-initiated policy document, "Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society".8 Representatives of the Romani community demanded that the desegregation of all-Romani schools should be a priority in state policy towards Roma. The Programme stated: "A long term strategy must be developed for the removal of segregated Roma schools in Roma areas and decisive measures taken to ensure free admission of Roma children to the 'normal' schools and prevent segregation of Roma children into separate classes...."9

The Vidin project also garnered the support of prominent majority public figures. In December 2001, Bulgarian intellectuals and artists initiated the "Civil Movement for Support of the Desegregation of the Romani Education". The national media published interviews that quoted such intellectuals as saying that the Vidin project is the only way to raise the status of Roma and integrate them into Bulgarian society. Furthermore, positive results from the desegregation project in Vidin prompted a group of Vidin intellectuals in January 2002 to form a local civil movement to support the entire process. The intellectuals actively participated as co-organisers, together with Organisation Drom, in public initiatives that included roundtables, seminars and concerts. These efforts helped promote the idea of integrated schooling for Romani and non-Romani children.

Meanwhile, problematic relations were developing between Organisation Drom and Vidin local authorities. Since the very beginning of the desegregation process, the project was not welcomed by municipal authorities, as they believed it would create ethnic tensions between Roma and non-Roma.10

During the project's first year, municipal authorities tended to support the all-Romani school, with the goal that the school would take back the Romani children. For instance, the director of the all-Romani school, with the support of municipal authorities, attempted to obstruct the desegregation process by refusing to give Romani children certificates to leave the school. Without such certificates, children cannot attend another school. Only after the intervention of Organisation Drom were certificates issued.

By the end of the first year, however, the local authorities' attitude seriously changed as positive results from the desegregation project became evident. The municipality pledged to support such desegregation efforts in the future. In October 2001, agreements for co-operation in desegregation were signed between Organisation Drom, the school directors, the Vidin municipality, the Vidin County administration and the Regional Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education and Science.

Support among local officials became even more evident as the popularity of the desegregation process grew among the wider public following the establishment of the local civil movement that supported desegregation.

Schooling Outside the Segregated School

"I would never, ever return to the school in Nov Pat neighbourhood," said Kalcho Vaskov Metodiev, a fifth-grade Romani pupil at the "Tzar Simeon Veliki" school, when asked about his experience at the new school. The boy argued that the new school is nicer, the teachers better and that he learns much more about mathematics, literature and English. "I have a dream to become a lawyer and I think that my new school will help me achieve that," Kalcho said. This is how most of the children in the desegregation program feel, despite the challenges facing them in a new school environment.

The Romani children were dispersed throughout six schools in Vidin and comprise up to 30 percent of the student body in each class. Free school materials, such as supplementary textbooks, notebooks and writing instruments were provided for roughly 80 percent of the children enrolled in the desegregation program. This helped them become equal participants in the education process. Moreover, additional classes were offered to children unable to master the new lessons because their starting level was lower than that of non-Romani peers.

During the winter vacation, children who had problems at school during the first term were taken to a training camp in the mountains. There they had additional lessons in the Bulgarian language, Bulgarian literature and mathematics. With the help of Vidin-based US Peace Corps volunteers, English language classes were organised. Students also participated in mini-competitions such as "Best Behaviour on the Bus" or "No Poor School Marks", which helped the children overcome bad habits from their previous school experience in the all-Romani school.

A number of extra-curricular activities organised by Organisation Drom brought Romani and non-Romani children closer. For example, a small competition to determine "The Most Tolerant Class" in all the schools was held in conjunction with the Regional Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education and Science. The winning class was rewarded a one-week vacation in the mountains of Berkovitsa, in northwest Bulgaria. Two parents – one Romani and one ethnic Bulgarian – helped organise the trip.

Just a few months into the start of the educational year, the school routines of Romani children had been significantly altered by the intensive amount of work and the constant communication taking place with their parents and teachers. One major indicator of change was that Romani children were attending school on a regular basis and the previously recurrent absenteeism practically disappeared. In March 2001, directors of the schools with Romani children invited the Organisation Drom team to a series of demonstrative lessons, the purpose of which was to show the progress of Romani children and their adaptation in mixed classes. School directors acknowledged the contribution desegregation had made in improving the attendance and grades of all students, Romani and non-Romani.

Throughout the school year, the Organisation Drom staff held regular meetings with the parents of children enrolled in the desegregation programme. The meetings were designed to keep parents informed of the programme's progress and discuss solutions to problems as they arose. Parents' involvement in school affairs was also ensured by their membership of the school council board, which encompasses non-Romani schools St Cyril and Methodius, and Tzar Simeon Veliki. This is the first known occasion that Romani parents have had membership of the organisation.

The success of the Vidin project was measured by the grades of the Romani students at the end of the first year (see Graph 1). Although the Romani

children did not have the same level of knowledge as their non-Romani peers at the start of the school year, they had managed to catch up by the year's end. No Romani student had to repeat the school year due to poor grades. These results show that fears of Romani children not being able to adapt to a new competitive school environment were unfounded. The good results continued during the second year (see Graph 2 on p. 50).

Education in a Multi-Ethnic Environment

Much of the success of the Vidin project resulted from assistance offered by teachers in the schools to which Romani children had transferred. While most of the teachers were worried that the quality of teaching might be affected in classrooms with Romani children, many of them worked with Romani students inside the school and out, so they could catch up with their peers. In response, Organisation Drom set up teaching groups for individual work with Romani children in the programme who were lagging behind in their studies.

Lyudmila Gerasimova, a primary school teacher at the Hristo Botev School, said the Romani children were very much behind in their education when they first faced the new school environment, a lag caused by the poor quality education in the all-Romani school in Nov Pat. However, these children appeared motivated to learn more as they visited classes in their new schools.11

Yulia Petkova, a Bulgarian language teacher from the St Cyril and Methodius school stated that many Romani children take advantage of the extra classes offered for individual work. She also added: "I use Romani fairytales in my Bulgarian language classes, thus making the classes more interesting. The class has become more tolerant and the Romani children have helped the whole class to become even more motivated to achieve high educational results."12

Organisation Drom works actively with teaching staff to assist Romani children to achieve at school. For example, in November 2000, we held a workshop on the topic: "New Approaches in the Education of Romani Children". The goal of the seminar was to present new methods for teaching in a multi-ethnic environment. The participants included officials from the Regional Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education and Science, the vice mayor of Vidin and other local officials, local media and Vidin teachers with mixed classes. We have held regular meetings with school administrators and teaching staff involved in the mixed classes and closely followed the status of Romani students.

At the end of the first school year, a ten-day summer camp was organised for students from the desegregation programme who finished the year with excellent marks. It was also a reward for the most successful teachers at the Vidin schools, who are considered partners with Organisation Drom. Romani children nominated the teachers.

Moving Forward

At the time of writing, the third year of the Vidin project is underway. The number of new children who joined the desegregation programme in the school year 2002-2003 is approximately fifty. The Vidin project is no longer a novelty for Vidin. The integrated schooling of Romani and non-Romani children has become part of the town's routine social life.

The Vidin example has also been replicated in other parts of Bulgaria. Five other Bulgarian towns are currently on the way to desegregating their all-Romani schools in Romani neighbourhoods. The results of these efforts are clear arguments and evidence in favour of desegregating Romani education. What remains is to have a coherent government agenda directing and financing such action, as well as establishing good co- operation between the Romani non-governmental organisations and educational officials.


Escorted by Organisation Drom supervisors,
Romani children board the morning bus that takes them from
the "Nov Pat" neighbourhood in Vidin to school.
Photo: Organisation Drom;

 

 
Fifth grade English class at "Hristo Botev" school.
photo: Endre Sebők, courtesy of OSI Budapest.

Endnotes:

  1. Donka Panayotova is a teacher of Romani origin and chair of the Vidin-based non-governmental Organisation Drom.
  2. Organisation Drom was established in 1997 as a Roma rights advocacy organisation focusing on legal defence of Romani victims of human rights abuses, promotion of media tolerance for Roma and promotion of equal educational opportunities for Roma in the northwestern part of Bulgaria. Prior to launching the Vidin desegregation project, Organization Drom implemented another education project which allowed 80 Romani children from poor families to attend pre-school classes and kindergarten in the Nov Pat Romani settlement.
  3. The Nov Pat settlement is situated on the periphery of Vidin and accommodates between 15,000-20,000 Roma or one-third of the town's population.
  4. A comparison of data from two national censuses held in 1991 and 2001 shows that the number of illiterate Roma increased from 28,897 in 1992 to 46,406 in 2001. The 1991 census showed that the general education level of Roma was much lower than that of the non-Romani population in Bulgaria. Roma with high school diplomas constituted 4.9 percent of the Romani population older than six years, while those with university diplomas represent 0.1 percent of the same population. The rates for the non-Romani population were 36.5 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively.
  5. For more information on the educational policies of the Bulgarian government prior to 1989 see Marushiakova and Popov, Gypsies (Roma) in Bulgaria, Peter Lang Publishing, Frankfurt am Main et al., 1997.
  6. The project was also discussed with staff at the all-Romani school in the Nov Pat neighbourhood. As expected, the school staff resisted the withdrawal of Romani children from the school, claiming the school provided a "high quality product" in a manner that best suited the needs of Romani children. The most likely reason for such resistance, however, was the fact that the reduction of the number of Romani children in the school posed a threat to teachers' job security. Additionally, some teachers at the school, because of their poor qualifications, were unlikely to find jobs in any other school in town. The formal response of the all-Romani school to the desegregation project was a decision that banned Romani children who decided to leave from ever returning to the school.
  7. For example, in September 1999, in the town of Yambol, southeastern Bulgaria, there was an attempt to transfer several dozen Romani students from the all-Romani school to a neighbouring mainstream school. The initiative for the transfer came from school staff at the mainstream school that were interested in increasing the size of the student body in order to avoid a threatened reduction in teaching staff. The process provoked protests, led by non-Romani parents, who did not want their children to study with their Romani peers. Under pressure by non-Romani parents, the Romani students were returned to the all-Romani school.
  8. The Framework Program was supported by over 70 Romani organisations throughout Bulgaria, who campaigned for its adoption by the government. The Framework Program was adopted on April 22, 1999, with a decision by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers.
  9. See "Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society", part II, section 5.
  10. Secondary and elementary schools in Bulgaria fall under the authority of local municipalities.
  11. Interview by the author in February 2002.
  12. Interview by the author, May 2002.

 

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