Roma Folklore Classes in Bulgarian Schools:Preparing the Ground for the Desegregation of Romani Education

Deyan Kolev1

Introduction

Bulgaria has a large "Gypsy"2 minority of approximately 800,000, people or 10 percent of the whole population.3 The problems Bulgarian Roma face in the education system are numerous and serious. Various aspects of these problems have been the target of many projects over the past decade. As a rule, such projects are initiated by non-governmental organisations and sometimes are partially supported by the government (the National Council of Ethnic and Demographic Issues and Ministry of Education and Science, for example). Due to their inherent limitations as NGO projects, these projects cannot provoke a profound change in the education system. Nevertheless, they may lay foundations for and eventually facilitate such a change. Moreover, though these projects have dealt with Romani education, they have never remained limited to strictly education matters and indeed have had the potential to promote Roma-related policies in other areas as well. These NGO projects should be examined at three levels. First, the project results should be compared to the project goal. Second, the relations established with the education, municipal and other key stakeholders should be examined. Third, account should be taken of the connection between the project and the Romani community for whose benefit it was implemented.

Using these criteria, in this article, I will analyse one of the most successful Bulgarian initiatives in the field of intercultural education - the project "Roma Folklore in the Bulgarian School", implemented by the Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance "Amalipe" (Amalipe). I will argue the following points: First, that the project has led to committed involvement of local education and other authorities in finding solutions to the educational problems facing Roma. Second, that it has initiated a process of change in the local educational institutions at a level much deeper than it had envisaged it could do. Third, that it has created preconditions for the general improvement of the education situation of Roma. Finally, that it has stimulated Romani emancipation and has played an important role in Romani community building.

Background

The project "Roma Folklore in the Bulgarian School" was started in September 2002 by Amalipe with financial assistance from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science and the Open Society Foundation-Sofia. It introduced Romani folklore as an optional class in 14 primary schools in Veliko Turnovo County, central Bulgaria. The idea of the class was to present Romani culture and folklore as well as the relationship between Romani culture and folklore and the folklore of the other ethnic groups living in Bulgaria. This was the first time Romani cultural issues were taught in the public schools as a separate subject. The new course was taught to 30 classes, involving more than 550 students of Romani and non-Romani backgrounds. For the needs of the education process, two textbooks of Romani folklore were published: Stories by the Fireplace and Roads Retold by Deyan Kolev, Teodora Krumova, and Antonia Krasteva. They presented the most important parts of Romani folklore: fairy-tales, the festive system, wedding customs, and songs. A special section about Romani history was also included. The textbooks contained folklore from most of the Gypsy communities - groups and subgroups in Bulgaria (Yerlii, Kaldarashi, Rudari, Millet, and others). The main idea was to introduce the rich world of the Romani folklore as well as to teach children ethnic and religious tolerance.

Teachers of literature, history, and music in the respective schools were engaged to teach Romani folklore. Amalipe organised two workshops to introduce the teachers to Romani folklore, culture, and history as well as to train them to work with Romani children in a multiethnic environment. During the school year, the teachers successfully taught Romani folklore. They also pioneered a methodology of applying multicultural and interactive approaches in the education process.

Romani folklore was taught as a non-obligatory optional course4 twice a week. In the 2002/2003 school year, the groups of Romani folklore students organised a number of events (celebrations, concerts, broadcasting, exhibitions) to popularise their lessons, knowledge and skills.

In July 2003, the Ministry of Education and Science and the Open Society Foundation-Sofia evaluated the project results as excellent and decided to continue the financial support for the project. In addition, in September 2003, Amalipe successfully negotiated financial support for the project from the local authorities of nine municipalities throughout central and northeastern Bulgaria. As a result, at the beginning of the 2003/2004 school year, the project started to be implemented in 32 schools, involving more than 1000 students from Veliko Turnovo, Targovishte, Razgrad, and Shumen Counties.

Evaluation of the Project Impact

The general evaluation of the project indicated that it influenced the education process in the schools where it had been implemented. As well, it had a broader social impact on stakeholders such as the Romani community, the local authorities, etc.

Pedagogical Impact

The evaluation of the pedagogical impact of the project which is presented below draws on the results from the 2002/2003 school year. It is made on the basis of written analyses by Romani folklore teachers and school directors, records of the students' grades and attendance rates (not only of the Romani folklore classes but also of other classes), students' participation in events for the popularisation of Romani folklore and culture and, last but not least, the participation of parents. Analysing these sources, we can list 5 variables for measuring the project success:

1. Numbers and ethnic background of the students involved;
2. Students' engagement: attendance and participation in classes;
3. Change in students' attitudes towards the "others";
4. School achievement and general attitudes toward school and education;
5. Parents' engagement.

The main results in relation to each of these variables are outlined below:

Students: The minimum required number of students for the operation of 30 classes is 360 (30 classes, 12 students per class). At the beginning of the project (in September 2002) we expected about 450 students to be enrolled in the Romani folklore classes. The number of students who actually enrolled and attended these classes was over 550. It is important to note that all of them enrolled voluntarily and with the agreement of their parents. Amalipe and the teachers had undertaken a campaign to persuade Romani parents that the subject was valuable and important for their children.5

 










 

The Romani folklore classes were generally mixed. Forty-six per cent of the students participating in them were of ethnic Bulgarian or Turkish origin. This composition was in accordance with one of the major goals of the project: to help non-Romani students overcome their prejudices towards Roma.

It was important also that many Gypsy students who do not identify as Roma were included in the classes.6 About eighty percent of the Gypsy population in Veliko Turnovo County consists of Millet (Turkish-speaking Gypsies) and Rudari (Wallachian-speaking Gypsies). Thanks to the efforts of Amalipe and teachers, parents from the Millet and Rudari groups also enrolled their children in the Roma folklore classes. Advocacy work was also done among ethnic Bulgarian and Turkish parents resulting in the enrollment of children from these ethnic groups in the Romani folklore classes.

Student engagement: In 13 out of 14 schools in which Romani folklore was taught, the Romani folklore classes had the highest rates of attendance of any class. According to official school documentation, on the days when the Romani folklore classes were held, the attendance rate for all subjects was higher. Also, according to official school documentation, none of the students attending the Romani folklore classes dropped out of school in the course of the 2002/2003 school year. School directors and teachers reported another promising fact: in some schools children who had dropped out in the previous year took part in events organised by Romani folklore students.

The increased level of attendance was accompanied by active student involvement in the classes and in the extra-curriculum events organised by the Romani folklore groups. Finally, high levels of ethnic and religious tolerance and mutual respect were recorded in the end of the school year on the basis of the questionnaires that the students had filled in at the beginning and at the end of the school year. Greater tolerance for differences was also evident in the students' essays and poems written at different stages of the Romani folklore educational process.
















School achievement: According to official school documentation, Romani folklore students improved their grades in all subjects. This fact was reported by teachers and school directors. Their explanation was that the higher achievement had been possible due to student activity and self-confidence stimulated by the Romani folklore classes.

Parent engagement: It is rather difficult to measure this variable because of the lack of any school documentation on parent engagement. Despite this, there were reports by seven schools where teachers systematically engaged parents (especially Romani parents) in school activities. In three of the schools, parents took part in the lessons by playing music, telling fairy-tales, or demonstrating rituals and customs. In the other four schools parents (both Romani and non-Romani) took an active part in the preparations of the extra-curriculum events. According to teachers, unlike previous lack of interest for the school activities on the part of the parents, Romani and non-Romani parents were easily engaged in activities connected with the Romani folklore classes. Parent involvement, however, had been secured ad hoc rather than in a systematic way and the development of a mechanism for the systematic engagement of parents is recommended for the future.

Social Impact

The social impact of the project is evaluated in terms of the impact of the project activities on educational authorities, local authorities, and Romani communities. Although this particular impact is difficult to measure precisely, some effects of the project on social relations effecting education are worth mentioning. In this respect the Project Manager Teodora Krumova explained: "Very often, in the course of the implementation of the project, we had to solve problems that were not necessarily related to the education process but had to do with human rights, Romani emancipation and community building. It would be a limitation to assess the project only as a new course in the school curriculum. It has a more profound nature."

Educational authorities: These can be divided into two groups: officials from the Ministry of Education and Science and school directors. There was a clear understanding of the need for this project and a strong support for it from the Ministry of Education and Science. The Ministry's Regional Inspectorate of Education (RIE) based in the Veliko Turnovo County was also very supportive. RIE, for example, helped the project leaders solve several administrative problems connected with securing the school documentation necessary for the start of the project. At the same time, Amalipe helped RIE officials become familiar with the education problems of Romani children at national and local levels as well as with current efforts for their solution (for example, NGO-led desegregation projects in several municipalities). As a result of this cooperation, several serious problems connected with Romani students in Veliko Turnovo County were solved at the beginning of 2003/2004.7

Dealing with individual schools was far more problematic. A major obstacle was the conservatism of the Bulgarian education system regarding multicultural education. Up to 2002, there were no lessons about the history and culture of minorities.8 Two school directors refused to allow the participants in Romani folklore classes to present their achievements through public events, with the argument that such events would provoke resentment on the part of the ethnic Bulgarians. Supported by teachers and the RIE, Amalipe eventually managed to organise the planned events, the public reaction to which did not bear out the directors' anxieties. A second serious obstacle was the widespread prejudices among educationalists about the capacity of Romani children to follow the standard education process. At the beginning of the year, the teachers in one of the schools tried to reduce the Romani folklore classes to music lessons, ignoring the theoretical lessons in Romani history and culture, with the excuse that they were too sophisticated for the Romani children. In the course of the project, Amalipe, working in cooperation with teachers, had to convince the school authorities and staff that the Romani children's capacity for normal education was the same as that of any other children.

Finally, high levels of conservatism among the school directors proved to be a serious obstacle too. Many of the directors we had to approach had been in this position for a long time, preserving the stereotypical and conservative attitudes towards Roma and multiculturalism that characterised the pre-1989 era. Our project team worked with 14 principals in 2002/2003. Eleven of them were relatively "new", appointed after 1989. Eight of them genuinely helped with the project activities, while the other three were indifferent (i.e. they neither helped nor obstructed the classes). The remaining three principals were "old" principals, holding their positions since the time before 1989. They did not consider the Roma folklore classes a priority; they saw these classes as merely "reading and writing" classes and were not supportive of giving publicity to the classes. In addition, two of them (as well as three other principals) shared the opinion that the school should receive significant material support from Amalipe and the Ministry of Education and Science in exchange for participating in the project.

Local authorities: Since most of the primary schools in Bulgaria are funded by the municipalities, the relations with the local authorities during the project were crucial in many respects. There were no Romani officials in any of the seven municipalities included in the project in 2002/2003. The officials' attitudes towards Roma were generally positive but the solving of the Romani problems was not a priority on the municipal agendas. During meetings with authorities in September 2002, the project team found a lack of understanding about the nature of the education problems of Romani children. For example, in August 2002 the Municipal Council of the town of Gorna Oryahovitza had approved the proposal of Paisii Hilendarski Primary School director for the segregation of two "Gypsy classes" in a building separated from the main body of the school. At the same time, the Mayor of Gorma Oryahovitza was among the public officials most open to work for solutions to Romani problems.

As a result of the campaign carried out by the project team to familiarise local officials with the nature of the education problems of Romani children and the possible solutions to these problems, in the 2003/2004 school year, the municipalities where the Roma folklore classes were implemented, provided half of the funding for these classes.9

Romani communities: The project was carried out in villages and towns with marginalised and disempowered Gypsy communities. It catalysed processes of Romani emancipation and community development that will certainly continue after the end of the project activities. Teacher reports indicated that there was a lot of interest among the local Roma for the two textbooks in Roma folklore. Roma also actively participated in the public events organised by the Roma folklore students. In January 2004, Gypsy communities in nine municipalities organised for the first time public celebrations of Vasilica - the Romani New Year.10

To sum up, the introduction of the Romani folklore course in several Bulgarian schools has achieved significant involvement of the local education and other authorities in the work on Romani education issues and has started to foster a deep change in the education system at the local level. It has also contributed to the Romani emancipation and Romani community development.

Looking Forward

The Romani folklore course has proven its capacity for strengthening the Romani identity as well as for cultivating ethnic tolerance, solidarity, and friendship among all students. It has also proven its role in increasing school attendance and stimulating student participation in the educational process. Our objective is to see this course included in the obligatory curriculum of Bulgarian schools. When this stage is reached, we may be able to say that the Bulgarian state protects and fulfills the cultural rights of Roma.

It is also important to analyse the possibilities for the general improvement of the education status of Roma opened by the project activities. Of particular importance is the link between the project and the desegregation of Romani education which the Bulgarian government has committed to achieve in the coming years. The government Draft Strategy for the Integration of Pupils and Children of Minority Ethnic Communities in Bulgaria has envisaged a crucial role of the municipalities in the process of solving the educational problems of Romani children. The municipalities should prepare and implement municipal plans for desegregation of the so-called "Gypsy schools" as well as for overcoming all disadvantages in the education of minority children.11

As a whole, the project "Roma folklore in the Bulgarian school", implemented by Amalipe, demonstrated a successful model for creating the conditions for a profound change of the educational system. This model contains four features:

1. Preparing teachers to work in a multicultural environment: The role of the teacher in the education system is extremely important. Student attitudes towards school, student participation and engagement as well as student success depend to a high extent on the teacher. The desegregation of Romani education will depend on the capacity of the teachers in the so-called "receiving schools" (the schools that will enroll the Romani children from the segregated all-Romani schools) to create an environment in which Romani and non-Romani children can study together.

In this regard, the experience cultivated by Amalipe can be used as a model. The teachers trained to teach Romani folklore can be role models for their colleagues in other schools because they have already gained knowledge of Romani culture and experience in working with children of different ethnic backgrounds.

2. Preparing children to study in a multicultural environment: The project helps children to overcome their prejudices against each other and promotes ethnic tolerance and friendship. Without this, any process of desegregation will be a failure.

3. Making school directors sensitive to the problems of Romani children: In the course of the project implementation, the directors of the schools have demonstrated greater awareness of the education problems of Roma and have changed, more or less, their attitudes towards Romani children.

4. Building cooperation with local authorities (municipal authorities and the Regional Inspectorates of the Ministry of Education and Science): Support from the local authorities is indispensable for the sustainability of any initiative. Moreover, working together with the local authorities provides an opportunity to make them more sensitive to the problems facing Romani children in the educational system and to advocate implementation of policies to address these problems.

By way of conclusion, it could be noted that the project "Roma Folklore in the Bulgarian School" has served a twofold purpose: On the one hand, it has had a role in promoting Romani culture and the right of Roma to develop their own culture. Its further implementation will lead to the strengthening of the Romani identity and the emancipation of the Romani communities. Without this, the education reform will provoke not integration but assimilation of Romani people.

On the other hand, this project prepared the ground for the more profound reform in the education system that the Bulgarian government has committed to pursue in the decade to come, i.e. the elimination of the segregated education of Roma.

Endnotes:

  1. Deyan Kolev is a teacher of philosophy and leader of the Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgaria)-based nongovernmental organisation Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance “Amalipe”. He is currently a student at the Central European University History Department in Budapest.
  2. About 40 percent of the people defined as “Gypsies” by the majority population speak the Romani language and identify themselves as Roma. The other 60 percent do not identify themselves as Roma. They usually have preferred Turkish, Romanian or Bulgarian identity. Some of them, however, recognise the term “Gypsy” as a self-appellation name. In this article, I use the term “Gypsy” to refer to a number of groups generally identified as “Gypsies” by the majority population in Bulgaria and the term “Roma” – to people who identify themselves as Roma and who speak Romani language.
  3. Liegeois, Jean-Pierre. Romi, Tzigani, Chergari. Sofia: Litavra, 1999, p. 35; Marushiakova, Elena and Vesselin Popov. Tziganite v Bulgaria. Sofia: Klub’90, 1993, pp. 94–95. According to the 2001 census, the number of Roma is 370,908. The difference between the official census data and the estimates provided by scholars and Romani activists is due to the fact that many Roma prefer to declare another ethnicity – mainly Turkish, Bulgarian, and Wallachian. I agree with Liegeois, Marushiakova, and Popov that Roma who do not declare themselves as such should nevertheless be regarded as Roma because they have preserved the main characteristics of the community organisation typical for all other Gypsy groups in Bulgaria. Moreover, they have preserved important characteristics of culture, folklore, and social behavior that can be observed only among Roma in Bulgaria. It is also important that the surrounding population (both Bulgarians and Turks) call them “Gypsies” and refuses to accept their declared non-Gypsy identity. See also Tomova, Ilona. The Gypsies in the Transition Period. Sofia: IMIR, 1995, pp. 20–21.
  4. There are two types of courses in the Bulgarian educational system: mandatory and optional. The optional courses are divided into non-obligatory optional and obligatory optional. In order to study a course as a non-obligatory optional subject at least 12 students are needed. They should freely express their will by writing a letter to the school authority. The letter should also be signed by the student’s parent.
  5. Due to various reasons, Romani parents are sometimes reluctant to have their children study Romani culture. One reason for this is that Romani children who openly declare their origin may be harrassed or picked-on by their classmates and teachers. For example, the efforts of the Ministry of Education and Science to introduce Romani language as a subject in the beginning of the school year 2003/2004 did not achieve any visible success (only 4 classes for the whole country were established), mostly because there were not enough efforts to persuade Romani parents to enroll their children in Romani language classes.
  6. Sixty-nine percent of the Romani students who studied Romani folklore in 2002/2003 were from Gypsy groups that did not speak Romani.
  7. For example, thanks to the cooperation between Amalipe and the RIE, the formation of segregated “Gypsy classes” in several schools was prevented and Romani children were placed in mixed classes.
  8. After 1992, the subject “mother tongue” was introduced in the Bulgarian educational system, allowing minorities to be educated in their native language. While Turkish language classes were taught systematically, Romani language classes were limited in number and lasted only for a few years. As a rule, minority language classes were not attended by ethnic Bulgarian children.
  9. The other half was financed by the Ministry of Education and Science. In the school year 2002/2003 all classes were financed by the Ministry of Education and Science.
  10. Information for this initiative is available at: http://www.geocities.com/amalipe2002/.
  11. See Strategiya za integratsiyata na detsata i uchenitsite ot maltsinstvenite etnicheski obshtnosti v Bulgaria (proekt), available at: http://www.minedu.government.bg/normativni_doc/proecto_doc/malcinstva.htm.

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