Projects in Romani education: Bulgaria
10 September 1998
The average number of Romani schoolchildren in Bulgaria in recent years has been around 50,000. Before 1989, the number was about 120,000. The abrupt decrease in school attendance by Roma does not reflect a drop in the numbers of Romani children.
Why are there so many recent dropouts, as well as children who do not even start school? There is nothing spectacular about my answer; the primary reason is the bad economic situation in Bulgaria. The already underprivileged social groups: the elderly, the poor, and the minorities, are hit hardest.
Under these unfavourable circumstances, the government at least tried to implement an educational policy combatting the minority dropout problem. It should be noted that all the changes in curricula, new textbooks and experimental classes that were developed after 1989 were the first ones in Bulgarian educational history. Thus, in 1990-1991 the Ministry of Education experimented with "preparatory classes" for children of Romani and Turkish ethno-cultural backgrounds. Special textbooks were written for the pupils. The teachers received a new instruction manual to help them with these unusual classes. Besides this, a special reading book for minority children was designed and has been in use since 1995. This book was helpful.
The authorities have also recognized the right of Romani students to be educated in their own language. A bilingual reading book has been published (Kyuchukov et al., 1993). The two most common Romani dialects in Bulgaria, the Laho and the Erlij, were used as the basis for this reader. The book functions as a general text about Romani language, history, and culture; it was accompanied by a teacher's instruction manual (Kyuchukov et al., 1993). Further publications include Romani Alphabet (1995) and Romani Reader (1996); the latter introduces Bulgarian Roma children to the Romani writers of the world.
In 1992, the Bulgarian UNICEF Committee began a two-year project to help the socialisation of Roma children in kindergartens and schools. The project covered 14 nurseries and schools throughout the country. The schools also received support for materials, as well as for free meals. As a result, dropouts and absences in schools covered by the project were minimised by any standard. Two experimental bilingual textbooks were published and used in this project: Romani Language and Let's Learn Bulgarian.
The International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations directed by Ms Antonina Zhelyazkova co-operated with the Central Office of UNESCO to launch an anti-dropout project for Romani children and youth in 1995. The project has continued through 1996 and, thanks to its success, came under the administration of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education in 1997. Special music, dance and sports classes for Romani students were experimentally added to the curriculum. Results were again excellent; attendance neared 100%, and parents became interested in their children's achievements. In 1996 the Human Rights Project, a non-governmental organisation working on Roma rights, undertook an in-depth study of the reasons for the high dropout rate of Romani students. In 1996 the Inter-ethnic Initiative for Human Rights Foundation, directed by Ms Kalina Bozeva, launched a two-year project to acquaint both Romani and Bulgarian students with masters and masterpieces of Roma culture. The programme runs in fact in three types of schools: all Bulgarian, all Roma, and mixed; despite the fact that there is no official segregation policy, in practice there are numerous cases of separation on the basis of ethnicity.
Last, but not least, the project of the Balkan Foundation Diversity should be mentioned. This organisation has an on-going project (finishing in January 1999) to reform the educational programmes of Bulgarian correctional schools. There are thirteen of these in the country, largely populated by Romani inmates, and their educational programmes have remained unchanged since 1979.
Unfavourable conditions, half-hearted efforts by the authorities and an NGO sector still experimenting: this seems to be the current situation, resulting in unacceptably slow progress. The education of the Roma is too vast a problem to be left to the initiative of NGOs alone. What we should opt for in this case is a joint effort, combining the organisational capacity of the Ministry of Education with the zest for change exhibited by NGOs. It is too early to lose hope.