Can Europe Make It?

Educating Romani children: why Europe must make it a priority

Can education be the answer to the "Roma issue" in central and eastern Europe? A look at the challenges in one Roma majority school in Romania.

Petre Florin Manole Cristian Delcea
24 October 2013

We’ve been discussing the “Roma issue” for two decades. Why are the Roma different? Why are there so many problems integrating this minority and what can be done?

All answers lead to education. All questions have the same answer: because they do not have an education. A quarter of Romania’s illiterate population is Roma and the majority of Romani students leave school by the eighth grade, with only 0.5% of Roma graduating from university.

Roma aren’t outcasts because they’re Roma: they’re outcasts because they don’t have an education due to the extreme poverty in which they live. Poverty and books do not mix. I sometimes see stories about students studying by candlelight. They are the exceptions, which is why we see them on the news. But the rule is rather this: those who live in poverty today will perpetuate in misery forever.

I recently attended the official start of the school year in a village in Dâmboviţa County where the living conditions are very poor – a village where the proportion of Roma is over 95 percent. I wanted to see if education could succeed in such a place and how it works. Do Roma parents actually send their children to attend school?

I found a primary school for grades one to four and entered it. It was the only one in the village.

Many children attend school from St. Demetrius Day to Labor Day

Romanian non-governmental organizations, in concert with the Spanish government, have invested in the school building in Iazu village, which is located in Cojasca commune in Dâmboviţa County. The school is well-lit and well-heated, with toilets inside, a security system, and computers. But some students come to school on their own seasonal schedule, the first day of school starting on the day of St. Demetrius (October 26) and the last day ending on Labor Day (May 1). Everything that does not fit into this range is no longer school and the first priority remains work here. As soon as they are able, children are taken to the fields in Iazu. This often starts at the age of ten, but in some cases boys are as young as seven. Upon turning 14, boys can begin working in construction and girls can marry and reproduce.

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Roma children and the difficult legacy. The boy’s hat says, "We fix what they broke."

We spoke with a Romanian teacher who has taught Roma children for many years at the village school. “Being a poor village, parents didn’t always succeed in enrolling their children into kindergarten or school. The deadline for enrolling children was June 1 but parents were not present at registration. I went to their homes to find them but many were not there. Many go to work during the day in other places from May 1 to October 26. Therefore, when we meet with parents we schedule the meetings during non-agricultural seasons. Otherwise, the parents do not often come to school but offer to help when needed – for example, cleaning up at the end of the week or when we had to build a school fence with bricks. We also have a group of students who come to school after St. Demetrius day and are working hard to ensure that they learn what they had previously missed.” says teacher, Ion Gheorghe.

Ion Gheorghe is 62 years old. He’s from Arges but during the reign of Ceausescu he was placed at a primary school in Dâmboviţa. In 1990, he came to the school in Iazu at the age of 39. He settled in the village, brought his wife and two children, and decided that they would all live in this small Roma village. Today, he has three years until he reaches retirement age and he realizes, with regret, that this is the last generation that he will teach.

I joined a fourth grade math class while he was reviewing the knowledge that they had acquired the previous year. “5,876 divided by 4,” he says to Alina, a student standing in front of the blackboard. He speaks with the gentle authority that only old teachers have. “Come on, how many times does 4 go into 5? Say it out loud, it’s not just for you.” He realizes that over the summer his students have forgotten their multiplication tables. “For tomorrow, everyone go over the multiplication table and learn it properly,” commands the teacher.

In the quarter of a century that he has spent among students in Iazu, Gheorghe has formed some beliefs about them. So how are Roma students?

Roma children are very dependent on their families

“I only had problems with those in first grade. The students needed to be accompanied by their parents for a month or more at the beginning of the school year. A family member had to stay with them. They are very dependent on the family and would always cry if they were alone. So I bought chairs and sat them with their children. It isn’t like that anymore because we now have a kindergarten in the village and the children become accustomed to being without their families there."

On the school walls are posters of European projects implemented by non-governmental organizations in Iazu. A black and gold plaque commemorates those responsible for the kindergarten in Iazu: Ayuntamiento de Madrid. The Romanian government only sends it some supplies every year.

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“The school was built thanks to the contribution of the City of Madrid” at the entrance to the school in Iazu.

They must profit rapidly

Since it was inaugurated in 1978, the school in Iazu has produced some polytechnic and even medical graduates. “They have left the village for good. If they come here, they feel marginalized.” What future can you build for yourself in this village? The vast majority of students attending school in Iazu do not finish high school or vocational school. Why?

Firstly, because the arts and crafts school was disbanded in 2009, along with all the vocational schools in the country. Children from Iazo and its neighboring villages of Fantanaele and Cojasca only have the option of attending high school in Targoviste and Titu – at least 30 kilometers away. The journey is too far and expensive for most of them.

Gheorghe thinks that one Roma-specific reason is “they want an income immediately. They want to receive a paycheck daily, if possible. I came to this conclusion after 20 years of teaching here. Therefore, they’re turning to activities that provide immediate financial returns. Most go to work in construction or agricultural work.”

The last census shows that there are 67,480 illiterate Roma in the country, meaning that one quarter of the illiterate population of Romania is Roma. To put this in another way: for every nine Roma that I meet on the street, one is illiterate.

What to do with Roma children?

Many social programs for the Roma exist: all by NGOs. The state is involved here in the same way that it is involved in economy, culture and sport: not at all. An effort should be made to motivate children to finish 12th grade. Funding is also an issue. For example, Norway, as a part of the European Economic Area, will allocate more than EUR 300 million to the Romanian government for sustainable development. Ten percent of this money will be allocated to support and integrate Roma in Romania. In other words, Norway finances Romania to integrate the Roma so they do not invade the West. What will the government do with the money? How will the money become useful to Roma communities?

Around Ion Gheorghe’s classroom are 13 new computers. They remain off, of course, because in this school, a computer science program does not exist. Who can teach children how to use a computer given that some of them do not have electricity at home? “Nobody,” says Gheorghe, “because we are not allowed to hire a science teacher.” The computers have come to the school through a government program from people who probably have never stepped foot in the village. It’s good to have computers in schools, but some schools need to start with an abacus.

Family feuds

A quarter of the students in Gheorghe’s class come from single-parent families. Parents often break up and their children are raised by their grandparents as the parents rebuild their lives. “Over half of the students come from families living below the poverty line. Their only income is the per child allowance of between 180 – 220 lei. Otherwise, they are working as day laborers in Lunguletu and Bâltana.”

Life in a Nutshell

Romania’s integration into the European Union did not bring a library to the school in Iazu. Nonetheless, they opened one only two years ago. “We managed to make a small collection of books. Children are eager to learn, but the families are very poor. There are families that don’t even have a single book or a magazine. That fact is that until 100 years ago, these families only spoke Romanes. These kids have a very poor vocabulary, operating with only a few words. Therefore, we must be careful what message we transmit, for example, when we read Ion Creangă. We have to ensure that the words are understood.”

The Roma of Iazu speak only Romanian. They do not know Romanes and do not want to learn it. “Instead of teaching Romanes, the Roma prefer to bring in a French teacher from Targoviste to teach the children French,” says the teacher.

The Roma children of Iazu attend school but at the completion of eight grade, then what? Can they get a job? In 2013, Dambovita Country reported a total of 3,950 unemployed people with a secondary education or higher.

This article was originally published in Romanian here.

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