In a decade, church-run schools have become a serious alternative for Romania’s Hungarian minority.
CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | When Balazs, an active and chatty 8-year-old, started public school two years ago, he could already read and write, the lucky brother of two older boys who had taught him to read various stories that had piqued his curiosity.
“Balazs had been waiting to follow his brothers into the classroom, expecting it to be fun,” his mother, Reka Foris, said. “Instead, he found it boring and tiring, and he struggled with the systematic teaching methods, rules, and rigors. He lost interest, was labeled a difficult student, and didn’t make many friends.”
To arrest his downward slide, Balazs’ parents did what an increasing number of Romania’s ethnic Hungarians have done in the past decade: enrolled their children in a church-run school.
Balazs and his brothers now attend a Montessori school managed by the Reformed Church in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second largest city. His mother says Balazs has started to look forward to school again.
GOODBYE, RAT RACE
Students in Romania’s public schools can face eight to 10 hours of study each day – normal classes plus extra tutoring – aimed at generating the best grades at final exams (and, skeptics say, making their schools look good in national rankings). Many public school educators insist such harsh competition motivates their pupils.
But many families who opt out have little faith in that high-pressure approach. Some say they are looking for a more closely knit environment for their children.
The country’s ethnic Hungarians, concentrated in Transylvania, are at the forefront of this trend. Unlike the dominant Orthodox Church, their churches have a long history of running schools, and they regained many of those buildings after the collapse of communism.
Gone are the uniforms, exemplary discipline, and separate boy-girl boarding arrangements that marked religious schools in the past. Many pride themselves on a more community-oriented, flexible approach to education, sometimes supported by progressive teaching methods and smaller classes. Pupils, parents, and teachers are encouraged to work together on making learning enjoyable, giving children room to develop their personalities and cultivate their own interests.
“I like that the education here isn’t based on competition,” said Ilona Deme, the mother of a 7-year-old girl attending the Talentum Reformed School in Cluj. “It doesn’t matter who’s the best among the pupils and their teachers; she can learn how to cooperate, how to help others if they’re in need. We, as parents, are also part of their community, participating in volunteer activities, being consulted about the education of our children, and so on.”
The changes are most evident in the case of church-run elementary schools. Many are independent of the government, receiving no public funds and setting their own curricula. As for secondary schools, they have fashioned a public/private hybrid of sorts. The state still pays teachers’ salaries, but the churches own and operate the school buildings (often in historical town centers) and provide additional capital for facilities such as laboratories and libraries. Being part of the public education system, however, means that the faculties have the freedom to choose only around 20 percent of the subjects in the curriculum.
Even with this limited flexibility, pupils graduating from denominational secondary schools targeted at the ethnic Hungarian community have shown better test results for the last couple of years than their peers from public schools.
According to Education Ministry statistics, more than 72 percent of students from these church-run schools passed the nationwide final exam (baccalaureate) in 2014, compared with 59 percent of those from public schools.
Those results are not always due to cherry-picking, according to administrators and teachers at church-run schools. They say the admissions process aims for social equity and at integrating disadvantaged children who participate in other church-run social programs into their classrooms. Such schools also tend to offer more vocational classes than their public counterparts.
In a recent interview with local newspaper Erdelyi naplo, Arpad Szekely, director of the Reformed College in Cluj, criticized public schools’ emphasis on results, saying his school welcomes students who have been handicapped by poor access to education.
“The provision of education meant [to produce] good statistical results does not acknowledge that there are pupils with poor abilities,” Szekely said. He claimed to know of a public school in Cluj that refused to let a large group of students take the baccalaureate exam for fear of dragging down the school’s results.
But two teachers interviewed for this story – one at a public school from which a church-run school broke off, the other a teacher at a religious school – said some church schools do look for a certain type of student.
“They are selective also in the way they choose pupils, though not officially. They prefer children of good families. Pupils from broken families, with divorced parents, or with ill breeding are not welcome at some of the church-run schools,” said the public school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.
Still, the key to religious schools’ success seems to be their choice not of students but of teachers.
“The selection of teachers is the most important step in creating a community around the school,” Talentum Reformed School Principal Katalin Tordai-Soos said.
Talentum, which uses Montessori teaching methods, offers internships to students and graduates of the teacher training college at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj. It’s not the salaries that attract those teachers – pay is on a par with that at public schools – but a chance to teach in different ways, the principal said.
“What differentiates us from public schools is that we try to involve parents in the education of their children and we are open to working together to improve the abilities of the children and their capacity to adapt to the rules of the school,” Tordai-Soos said.
A 2005 study of the public education system for ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania – authored by Rita Foris Ferenczi, an education expert at Babes-Bolyai, and published in the Educatio quarterly – underscores the importance of finding the right staff. It specifically highlighted the ability to hire as they wish as a clear advantage for religious schools over public ones, which are assigned teachers through a centralized process.
“Picking the most motivated teachers eager to create a small, selective local community … has helped church-run schools to achieve good results,” said the public school teacher who requested anonymity.
Along with a sense among teachers that they have more autonomy in church schools, an emphasis on community comes up repeatedly in roundtable discussions and in interviews with parents and school administrators. Though not all of the schools explicitly teach religion – some might offer ethics classes instead – religious values help to bind that community together.
“The good upbringing of pupils at home and at school is as important as their access to information through education,” Szekely, the college director, said. “It’s important to have the parents of pupils as our partners in education.”
ROOTED IN HISTORY
For those who know their history, it will come as little surprise that the Hungarian churches are playing a crucial role in the education of the local community. Five hundred years ago these churches – Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Unitarian – were the main providers of education in Transylvania, at all levels. Not only did they lay down the cornerstone of higher education in Cluj-Napoca (known in ages past as Klausenburg or Kolozsvar), but for centuries they were also the main funders, policy makers, and protectors of educational institutions.
Still, the speed with which church-run schools have become fashionable again has been remarkable. It was only in 2003 that Romanian legislation was changed to allow the churches to operate their own schools, financed at least partly from public funds. Now 16 of the 71 Hungarian secondary schools in Transylvania are denominational. In addition, the churches fully finance and manage some elementary schools.
The existence of these schools has as much to do with the political scene in Romania as with a push for better education or religious instruction. Without the influence of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, the political umbrella organization representing the country’s 1.2-million-strong Hungarian minority, it is unlikely that the constitution would have been amended or a special decree of the Education Ministry issued to allow for the churches to run separate educational institutions.
Even today, politics matters, as local governments must approve the establishment of new church-run schools. It’s an open question whether this new friendship between the churches and the Democratic Federation came about because of a genuine interest in diversifying and strengthening the educational offerings for Transylvania’s Hungarian minority or because the federation sought to boost its declining political fortunes by having the churches on its side.
Aside from obvious political motives, it is also in the government’s interest not to alienate the churches, which have had significant city-center property returned to them in the post-communist restitution process. Some of those buildings house public schools, and the government has been forced to rent back the space from the churches.
Critics who complain about the churches receiving public money to run schools have gotten little traction. For now, it’s an arrangement that suits many politicians and religious schools, especially secondary ones, which take public funds and in turn largely follow the national curriculum, ensuring their students know what to expect on graduation exams.
But even if the funds were cut off, churches would probably dig deep to keep the schools going, as they preserve a vital link to a generation that has turned away from all things religious.
Zsofia Kelemen is a freelance journalist and economic analyst in Cluj. This article was originally published by Transitions Online.