Fits and Starts

A primary school class at Drzimurec-Strelec School

A primary school class at Drzimurec-Strelec School

MEDJIMURJE COUNTY, Croatia | Three years after a landmark court ruling jump-started school integration in Croatia, one of the successful plaintiffs, now a young man, says Roma are doing better in school. But his struggle to express himself in the Croatian language speaks volumes of the poor education available to many Roma in the European Union’s soon-to-be newest member.

Croatia began trying to integrate schools well before the case of Orsus and Others v. Croatia went before the European Court of Human Rights in 2003. The slow progress of those efforts – and the obstacles faced by the small Romani minority to find acceptance here – were underlined last fall when Croats shouting racist slogans tried to stop Romani youngsters from entering a Medjimurje County preschool.

Dejan Orsus, one of 14 plaintiffs in the case that bears his name, enrolled in the first grade in Macinec, a village in Medjimurje County in northern Croatia, in 1999. In this part of Croatia, most Roma live in separate settlements on the outskirts of predominantly Croat villages, and they speak Romani at home. Dejan spoke no Croatian when he started school. He was put in a class with only Romani pupils and remained in all-Roma classes until he left school at the statutory age of 15, in 2006, after completing the third grade.

Ten years ago, while Dejan was still in school, his case was submitted to the human rights tribunal in Strasbourg after the plaintiffs had lost their suit at all levels of the Croatian judicial system. On 16 March 2010, the court ruled that the practice of placing Roma in separate classes amounted to discrimination based on ethnicity.

The defendants – four primary schools, the Education Ministry, and Medjimurje County – had argued that separation of Romani pupils was justified because of their poor knowledge of Croatian, as established by appraisals prior to enrollment. But some of the plaintiffs complained that they had spent their entire school lives in separate classes and that their linguistic competence wasn’t regularly tested to determine if they could be placed in regular classes.

When I meet Orsus in Parag, the biggest Romani settlement in Croatia, he is holding a baby. He is now 21 and says he is attending the sixth grade at a community school – institutions where many adults, mostly Roma, receive 210 euros ($270) a month from the government to continue their primary education, provided they regularly show up for class. I ask him if anything has improved in schools in the three years since the court ruling. He looks at me in a way that makes me unsure whether he understands the question, so I repeat it. Dejan nods and says, “Better, it’s better.”

Only rough estimates can be made of the graduation rates of Romani pupils from primary and secondary school, owing to uncertainty over the true number of Roma in Croatia and the fact that the Education Ministry began tracking Roma school performance only in 2005. In Medjimurje County, home to more Roma than any other region in Croatia, it appears that few Roma make it to high school or beyond. Of 1,589 Romani pupils attending the county’s primary schools, which run from first to eighth grades, only 92 are enrolled in the eighth grade. Just 123 Roma are attending high school, according to the county’s department for education, culture, and sports. About 20 Roma graduate from high school annually.

Dr. Ivan Novak Primary School in Macinec, which was one of the defendants in the segregation suit, is attended by 465 children, 110 of whom are ethnic Croat. Roma children are concentrated in the lower grades: they make up seven-eighths of first-graders, while Croats outnumber Roma by five to one in the eighth grade.

Those figures show not only that most Roma fail to complete primary school, but also that the ratio of Roma to Croats in local schools is changing. Principal Bozena Dogsa, a 20-year veteran of the school, says only one-third of the pupils were Roma when she began working there, compared with more than three-fourths now.

While the overall birth rate in Croatia is declining, the rate among Roma has been on the increase for the last 20-odd years, which many think is a consequence of government policy in the 1990s to arrest the population decline by social benefits to parents.

Against the 2011 census figure of 16,975 Roma – 0.4 percent of the population – more realistic assessments estimate the Roma population at 30,000, with perhaps 6,000 living in Medjimurje County. All-Roma classes still operate in Macinec and other county schools in areas with many Roma. Some children still spend the entire course of their education without sharing a classroom with a Croat, except for the teacher. This is not necessarily a sign of deliberate segregation, some local educators insist.

“We don’t have any segregated classes. How can the Roma children be segregated in a school where they are the majority? We can’t form classes to avoid creating Roma-only ones. Who will we integrate them with when there are no Croat children?” Dogsa asks. She points out that teachers spend days prior to the opening of school every fall discussing the composition of that year’s classes, keeping in mind the children’s academic level, friendships, the ratio of girls to boys, and other factors.

“We have 25 Roma children in two seventh-grade classes and only four Croats. It wouldn’t be acceptable for us as educators to separate those four students into different classes since they are friends and wanted to stay together. I don’t think we should stick to the formalities just to show the world we are doing a good job,” she said.

Off the record, teachers in Medjimurje admit that Croat children are typically assigned to classes with the more capable and, as they often say, “more civilized” Romani pupils to make sure they learn at a similar paceA teacher from the primary school in Kursanec, a predominantly Roma school that was also one of the defendants in the Orsus case, said children in all-Roma classes don’t complain about being segregated because the standards are lower in such classes. Pupils can get by with less effort, at the cost of acquiring less knowledge. Even after several years in school some have very poor reading and writing skills, said the teacher, who spoke on condition that his name not be used. He added that it would be more efficient for them to first learn to read and write the Romani language, as this would help them grasp the concept of language-learning more easily.

Three years ago, Croats boycotted the school for a week after mixed classes were introduced, the teacher said. There have been other scattered protests against integrated schools over the past decade. At the outset of the 2012-2013 school year, residents of the nearby village of Gornji Hrascan refused to let a group of Romani youngsters begin preschool at the nearly all-Croat village school, arguing the school could not accommodate the new pupils. After a two-day standoff the Croats relented and the Roma have been attending the school ever since.

Preschools have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of integration schemes in the three years since the Orsus decision. Although the ruling did not obligate Croatia to take remedial action in segregated schools, the government introduced two new programs designed to give Roma a leg up before they start primary school and to help them stay once they get there.

Preschools for children lacking fluency in Croatian now operate throughout the school year, rather than for only three months as previously. Many Romani parents leaped at this opportunity for their youngsters to spend five hours a day in school, with transport to and from school and two meals day, all paid for by the state. School officials in Gornji Hrascan say 90 percent of local preschool-age kids now attend the school, despite the efforts by Croats earlier this year to bar Roma from “their” school.

By keeping the preschools open longer hours throughout the school year, educators hoped to inculcate the habit of attending school at an early age and give Romani speakers a head start on learning Croatian, and they believe the program is already yielding results. Dogsa said only one pupil at her school was held back in first grade last year, compared with an average of five per year before the expansion of preschools.

Dogsa and other principals in the area argue that the next step is to make preschool compulsory for three years in order to further entrench the benefits of early schooling.

The other major integration measure inspired by the Orsus ruling is an after-school homework help program in primary schools. While such programs exist in many schools, here in Medjimurje the main aim is to help Romani students with their Croatian language lessons.

Drzimurec-Strelec School in the village of Drzimurec participates in the homework-help program, but so far only first-graders are included because of lack of funding, principal Djurdja Horvat says. There’s reason to believe the program can make a difference: in a similar pilot project three years ago involving fifth-graders, nine of the 15 Roma participating completed all eight grades of primary school, Horvat says. Typically, only one Roma student per year completes the eighth grade. Opening this program to more pupils, as well as extending preschool to three years, would significantly improve the academic performance of Roma children, she says. As things are, her school is trying its own methods. “This year we have about 30 first-graders, of whom half have been held back. Those who are held back in first grade rarely get held back later because they acquire a more solid foundation. So this has proven to be a good method,” she says.

Radovan Balog, head of the village council in Parag, has four children in school. He elaborated on his neighbor Dejan Orsus’ answer to the question about what has changed since the European Court of Human Rights ruling.

“It’s better than it was before, mostly because almost all children attend preschool now,” he said.

“Also, schools are getting parents more involved in their children’s education. However, the problem is that even those who graduate from school cannot find jobs, and this causes children to lose motivation for continuing their education. Most often they give up in fifth or sixth grade when they turn 15. That’s when they get married and have children. That way they can at least get welfare checks to help them get by.”

Balog says segregation is entrenched here: “There are simply too many Roma people and too few Croats for all classes to be mixed.”

The teacher from Kursanec proposes an idea that was born out of the civil-rights movement in the United States and has been tried out in a few places in Romania and elsewhere in southeastern Europe. If Roma kids were bused to predominantly Croat schools a few kilometers away, so as to form classes of eight or so Croats and four Roma, they would learn at a faster pace, he suggests.

“It would be an additional expense, but it is more expensive not to educate children who can one day become useful members of society, but rather turn them into welfare cases,” he says.

Correction: The school in Medjimurje County referred to in the second paragraph was a preschool, not a kindergarten, as stated in the original post.

Story and photos by Barbara Matejcic, a freelance journalist in Zagreb.


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