Bosnia and Herzegovina: The World Under One Roof

the world under one roofSARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina | Last year Omri Beeri traveled from Israel to Mostar to attend an international gymnasium, or high school.

Beeri, 16, said when he arrived in the city it took him some time to understand that Mostar was divided from the 1992-1995 war – that people of different ethnicities lived separately.

“At first, I was a bit surprised, as I’m not used to living in a city like Mostar,” Beeri said. “It was also a bit of a visual shock at the beginning to see that parts of the city were still destroyed. Then I started to love this place. The city is beautiful, I have friends of all nationalities, and I see no reason for them to be separate.”

After a few months of attending school and getting to know Mostar better, he understood why it is important to have a united school offering an international experience at the heart of a divided city.

Beeri attends the United World College, one of 12 around the world meant to bring together students of different nationalities, chosen on the basis of merit. The program was introduced in Mostar this school year.

While some schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina still face the problem of ethnic segregation 11 years after the end of the war, and others are slowly integrating students of Croat, Serbian, or Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) background in the same classrooms, the United World College seems to have bridged the gap overnight.

This school year’s pioneers come from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and 18 other countries. The nearly 100 students are taught in English, and they learn according to the same, non-national, curriculum, which is unusual in a country where children of different ethnicities have been taught in different ways since the war.

The 1995 Dayton peace accords, which divided the country into two entities, the Federation and the Republika Srpska, did not make any provisions for education. While the Republika Srpska features a more centralized education system, education responsibility in the Federation is devolved to its 10 cantons. Education reform is significantly complicated by administrative fragmentation, and students and teachers find it difficult to move from one school to another because of differing education standards.

Segregation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – seen frequently as “two schools under one roof” – has been especially prevalent in the predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation. In more than 50 schools, children of different ethnicities enter through separate entrances and are taught according to different national curricula.

Although a 2003 law on primary and secondary education was supposed to act as an administrative and legal unifier of schools, it has been difficult to implement in Bosnia’s complex education system.

Currently, three national curricula are in place, where children are taught in separate languages – Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian – despite the fact that the three languages are perfectly mutually intelligible. The programs differ particularly on the subjects of history and geography, with each side offering its own interpretation, especially of the war.

Thinking for Themselves

The United World College breaks this mold.

“The students are encouraged to think analytically, to recognize that different opinions do exist and that it is all right to have different opinions,” said Mirna Jancic, development director of the UWC-International Baccalaureate program in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For instance, she said, when studying history, students are expected to look at different sources and to consider the motivations of authors behind each document in order to form an opinion.

“It is okay for them to have different opinions,” Jancic said. “That is how the entire world works. Through their subjects, students are being taught how to think critically and are encouraged to become open-minded and to become responsible for what they believe in, so that they do not believe in something only because someone else told them to believe it.”

This approach is a departure for many Bosnian students, who typically study from a curriculum that includes up to 17 subjects and who are seldom encouraged to think critically.

Irma Husic, a student from Mostar, said she feels more able to speak to her teachers at the UWC on any concerns she might have with her studies. She also relishes the exchange of languages and cultures that the school offers.

“You really can’t see the differences between us when we’re all working together,” she said.

But Husic, 17, admitted that it’s not quite the easier ride she expected. “At the beginning, I thought that the work load would be lighter, as I have six subjects at UWC, and I used to have up to 17 subjects at my former school,” Husic said. “However, this is not the case, as these six subjects are studied in depth.”

A Lesson for Educators?

So what ideas can Bosnia and Herzegovina borrow from the UWC and its two-year, International Baccalaureate curriculum?

“This may be an international school, but everything that the college is doing, the majority of it, is applicable and can be transferred to our system,” Jancic said.

In teacher workshops to take place in the next year and a half, the aim is to concentrate on the applicable parts of the curriculum and to encourage the teachers from across the country to create a network through which they will be able to lobby for change, Jancic said.

Lamija Tanovic, a professor at the Faculty of Science of the University of Sarajevo and chair of the executive committee of the UWC-IB program in Mostar, helped bring the IB curriculum to Bosnia, where it debuted in a Sarajevo gymnasium in 2000.

Tanovic said Bosnian education officials have started to address the issue of a state examination and that UWC staff are working with authorities to consider as a model a system of standardized exams already in use at the UWC and schools in Sarajevo and Banja Luka that use the IB curriculum.

Such a project could go a long way toward fighting the corruption that plagues the current exam system, Tanovic said.

The UWC and the International Baccalaureate program can create templates, but they also serve a philosophical purpose.

“The UWC in Mostar has two important roles,” Tanovic said. “One of them is the teacher-training center, where we will bring together teachers from around the country and show them the uniqueness of this way of teaching within the framework of the IB program, as well as the uniqueness of UWC in general.”

In addition, Tanovic said, the Mostar UWC “returns to the original idea of the college,” which was founded in Wales in 1962 to bridge Cold War divides. With the end of the Cold War, Tanovic said, the program’s focus shifted. “And now you have Mostar, a witness to a ‘hot’ rather than a cold war, that now offers a chance to go back to that original idea,” Tanovic said.

At the Mostar gymnasium that hosts the UWC, Tanovic said, “You have 800 children who enter the school’s doors each morning, who study different national curricula and are separated in all possible ways. And now we have placed the UWC between them, which has a hundred children from around the world, many of whom are from Mostar and are learning in English according to the IB program.

“Through the college itself, we are showing that this segregation has nothing to do with our children, that it is artificial and political, and that children can prepare very well for university in a system that has nothing to do with a specific national program or language,” Tanovic said.

Still, it remains to be seen how much influence the Mostar UWC can have on education reform in a country as riven as Bosnia and Herzegovina. If its teachers and boosters had their way, the force of the UWC would be considerable. But there’s always the question of political will to be dealt with. One ally UWC’s champions may have, however, is the accession process into the European Union, which will require significant changes in Bosnia’s education system.

But if the Mostar UWC does nothing else, it has already proven that students in Bosnia and Herzegovina can thrive while learning side-by-side, under one curriculum, regardless of language, ethnicity or tradition.




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