I’d like to slap the next middleclass American kid I hear complain about the uselessness of his high school education. In my three years teaching – and especially tutoring – in Massachusetts schools, I heard it all. Yes, I know, Johnny is abused and under-appreciated at his school. Teacher hates him. Administration is out to get him.
Well let me tell you a story.
An ordinary, well-adjusted, fourth-grade girl walks into her new school. Livia is tired, because it was a long walk and her shoes don’t fit her right, but she’s excited to be there. It’s her first day of school, so she’s told she must go for some “tests.” Aptitude tests, to see where she’ll “fit in.” Is it because they need to know at what level math to place her? No, it is because this school is in Hungary, and Livia is Roma.
I know, you saw that coming. But let me go on, because this is a true story…
So Livia is examined by the county committee of experts. They recommend that, though she possesses otherwise “appropriate socialization,” she be placed in special education. “Considering that she did not attend preschool and predominantly understands the Gypsy language, the pupil should continue her studies in an elementary school that offers education for the mildly mentally handicapped.” As this committee makes clear, in Hungary, speaking predominately Romany is tantamount to being “mildly mentally handicapped.”
So Livia is removed to her “special school,” which is in a different building altogether, and where, as she immediately notices, every single one of her peers is also Roma. In fact, this school boats no fewer than 53 “mentally handicapped” students, and not one of them is white. Livia takes her seat under a big, colorful poster that reads “Study and Work Can Help Gypsies Too!”
In this under-funded, understaffed, overcrowded classroom, the eighth-graders share a room with the fourth-graders “because they serve as good mentors,” and as Livia quickly learns, none of them receives any written homework. The reason, one special-ed teacher explains, is that “The outcome is always that they get it dirty, lose it, rip it into pieces, or use it to light up the stove.”
The administration at Livia’s school attributes the overwhelming representation of Roma children in remedial classes to undernourishment, which they say then leads to mental and physical disadvantages. However, while the “regular” children eat their lunches in the school cafeteria, Livia and her peers eat in their classroom. On her first day, school lunch is bread spread with liver paste. Students in the main cafeteria, however, receive an ordinary lunch, complete with hot soup.
A week goes by, and though Livia was placed here predominately because of concerns over her linguistic abilities, she has had all of three Hungarian lessons, while her Hungarian-speaking peers at the “regular” school have had eight. She’s also only gone to gym class once, though the non-Roma forth-graders have phys-ed every other day. Maybe these “special” students are simply harder to control? The principal certainly thinks so. “Wherever they go, no stone remains in place,” she explains, “and it’s best if the old ladies take cover, because they’ll stomp all over them.”
Livia’s experience is a fairly routine one in a country where more than 700 Roma-only classes are in operation, and 84 percent of students separated out into special-education programs are Roma. At Livia’s school, of the 300 students in attendance, only one-fifth of those in the standard classes are Roma. Her teachers are under-qualified and over-extended; and the students are largely undernourished and mistrusted.
The impression that emerges from the Roma Press Agency investigation that I recently covered is that while these special-needs schools are indeed separate, they are by no means equal. These educational ghettos are a grim echo of the social ghettos from which so many of the students come, and to which so many are doomed to return. And while one-in-four of the schools examined in the Hungarian Educational Ministry’s latest study boasts students moving from special needs to standard programs, in most cases, this amounts to just one student per school.
If Livia goes on to study at the high-school level, then she will be among the one-half of one-percent of Hungarian “special needs” children to do so. She will then, along with the majority of these predominately Roma students, more than likely go on to vocational or trade school. Even more likely is that she will simply drop out altogether. The director of the study enlightened us with the obvious: “From there, it’s a straight path to unemployment.”
So the next time your kid tells you that his teacher treats him completely unfairly, or that the principal thinks he’s a punk and singles him out just because of the way he dresses… or better yet, the next time he cynically asserts that he is learning absolutely nothing at all in school and would be better off just quitting and getting a job… tell him sweetly that you know of a student who would sell her soul to take his place for a year, and that you will be quite happy to send him as an exchange student to a very “special” school in Hungary where he won’t even have to do homework.
Liver paste anyone? I didn’t think so.
(For the full text of my article “Separate but not Equal,” please see http://www.dzeno.cz/?c_id=4465&pre=1)
Posted By Stacy Kosko (Czech Republic)
Posted Jul 26th, 2004