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24.07.2018Blagoevgrad and Gabrovo - The Two Faces of Desegregation or Whether Sisyphus Could Turn the Stone from a Burden into a Leverage

We do not enrol children from Roma ethnicity! This post on the facebook page of the Ninth Primary School "Peyo Yavorov" - Blagoevgrad is not written by mistake, nor is an accidental idea of the principal V. Velichkova. It is a diagnosis of one of the most serious problems the Bulgarian school and our society as a whole face: (educational) segregation! It is also a diagnosis of lack of an appropriate solutions or rather the courage to deal with this problem throughout the system. Does the so-called "secondary segregation" exist in Blagoevgrad only? Do we see the range of the problem? Are there any solutions and what they are?

The sentence We do not enrol children from Roma ethnicity is by no means a random idea. The subsequent explanations of school principal V. Velichkova has clearly showen that it is a purposeful school policy. In order to stop the "flight" of Bulgarian children (i.e. children of ethnic Bulgarians) from the school and its gradual transformation into a "secondary segregated Roma school", the principal decided not to enroll Roma students, violating Article 12 of the Preschool and School Education Act (PSEA), which guarantee the right of every parent (including Roma parents) to choose a school for their child. Mrs. Velichkova attempts to justify this act with MES policy on desegregation and even with another article of the PSEA (Article 99 (4)), which prohibits the formation of classes with students from one ethnic group in ethnically mixed schools. Of course, this rationale is "sewn with very thin threads":  Prohibiting the enrollment of Roma children, the school principal creates prerequisites for the formation of a class with students from one ethnicity. More importantly, what is beneath the post is profoundly wrong: we have a problem with the Bulgarian parents, and we stop enrolling the Roma children. The logic requires additional work with the Bulgarian parents in this case, in order not to enrol their children in other schools. This is considerably more difficult, but it is the right solution rather than limiting the right of Roma parents to enroll their children at school outside the Roma neighborhood.

However, this sentence is clearly unacceptable and discriminatory, whatever the context. The school principal should bear her responsibility, although many parents from the Alen Mak quarter might express their support for her.

At the same time, the responsibility for the overall situation with the concentration of children from Predel Mahala quarter in only 3-4 schools cannot be the sole responsibility of the school principals. Taking into control the process of the so-called "secondary segregation" can be done primarily with active action by the municipality.

Unfortunately, a process of  "secondary segregation" has started in parallel with the spontaneous or purposeful desegregation of schools in the Roma neighborhoods: Bulgarian parents stop their children from attending ethnically mixed schools, although the latter are located in neighborhoods with ethnic Bulgarians. In this way due to the "white flight" schools located outside the Roma neighborhoods quickly transfrmed into schools educating mainly Roma students (especially in primary classes). At the same time the Bulgarian students living near the school would be enrolled in more distant schools with almost no Roma students. As a result today in big cities and even in small towns, we have both "primary-segregated Roma schools" and "secondary-segregated" or schools in process of segragation. In the same cities, "ethnically-clean Bulgarian schools" have been clearly outlined. Please, excuse me for the "term" used, but it reflects the vision of their principals, as well as the vision of many of the parents who enrol their children there. In any way, they refuse to enrol Roma children, which is part of their strategy of attracting "elite" parents and students: "there are no Gypsies in our school..." Of course (and thank God), there are ethnically mixed schools, where Roma and Bulgarian children stand at one desk. But they are "between Scilla and Haribda", ie. between the threat of becoming "secondary-segregated" or "ethnically-clean" Bulgarian schools. The case of the Ninth Peyo Yavorov Primary School in Blagoevgrad clearly illustrates the challenge of preserving the ethnically mixed nature of the school.

What is the range of the disaster?

The most accurate answer is "terribly serious". At present, secondary - segregated schools are many more than they were 15 years ago. Inadequate municipal solutions often reinforce secondary segregation. The lack of a purposeful municipal strategy (what I mean is not a paper, but a consistent policy) and actions to stop secondary segregation is in fact a contribution to its development.

The case with Blagoevgrad is an example in this direction. There is no primary -segregated school in the town, as the municipality has closed reasonably some years ago First Primary school, attended only by Roma students. At the same time, Roma children from the so-called "Predel Mahala" are not welcome in most of the schools in the town. This leads to the over-concentration of Roma students in the Ninth Primary school and to their practical non-admission in some other schools. 

The Gabrovo Model to Address Secondary Segregation

Although Roma in Gabrovo are few (367 Roma total in Gabrovo Municipality out of 61482 inhabitants according to the 2011 census data), they are not separated in a ghetto and live under relatively normal conditions (part of the families are poor and poorly educated, but not as marginalized as the families in a big ghetto), prejudices, non-tolerance and mistakes of some school principals have led to the transformation of Third Primary School "Tsanko Dustabanov" into a "Roma" school. It is near the center of the town, in a "Bulgarian" neighborhood, with good facilities, but it is ... secondary segregated, because the Roma children from the whole town have been directed to it, and the Bulgarian children from the district attend other schools. This situation has not happened "at once" and the teachers from Tsanko Dyustabanov School have the slightest "merit" for it. Gradually the surrounding schools "pulled out" the Bulgarian children, which went hand in hand with their refusal to enrol Roma students (even those living close to the respective school) and the unwillingness of the municipality to stop this vicious practice which is unfortunately not illegal). Thus, children of ethnic Bulgarians were enrolled in the first grade for the last time six years ago.

At the beginning of 2017/2018 academic year, 79 pupils have being educated. They all study in under-sized classes.

In the second half of 2017 the Municipality of Gabrovo together with Amalipe Center (the organization has been working in the municipality for years and has a local structure there) led the struggle for the hard decision to close the school and to distribute students into all other schools in Gabrovo, and thus to avoid the segregation of another school. Despite the fears of many - both in the Roma community and most of all among the majority and the schools, on March 29, the Municipal Council decided to close the school and enrol its students to all other schools in Gabrovo. This was the result of a public discussion held by the municipality, as well as numerous meetings with parents and especially Roma parents, who also had to support the change that aimed to give their children better chances of realization. The Order of the Minister of Education Krassimir Valchev form June 22-nd, supported the decision of the municipality and the adopted approach, by closing the Tzanko Dyustabanov Primary School and not defining a host school, ie. students were not directed to a specific single school. Thus, since September 2018, there will be no "Roma" school in Gabrovo.

What is the approach of Gabrovo Municipality, what are the main difficulties in its implementation and can it be transferred to other municipalities?

1. The approach taken to overcome the already established secondary segregation involves the closure of the segregated school;

2. The approach taken to prevent secondary segregation is by integrating Roma students into all other schools. It is crucial not to define a host school, as the option of turning it into secondary-segregated is very large. It is also important that all schools would accept Roma students;

3. It is normal to expect initial resistance from Roma parents. In the general case, they realize the low quality of segregated education and want their children to study together with Bulgarians, but they are afraid of how they will be admitted to the "Bulgarian school". The real partnership of a community-based Roma organization is the surest way to persuade Roma parents;

4. The resistance of much of the pedagogical community must also be expected;

5. Ther should be a constant work with parents of the majority to make sure that enrollment of Roma children will not lead to a decrease in the quality of education. In addition, the enrollment of Roma children in all schools is a prerequisite for reducing the "flight" of Bulgarians;

6. Political courage and leadership is needed: the decision to stop secondary segregation by enrolling Roma children in all schools or by closing school is never popular. It requires courage and strong leadership.

In the case of Gabrovo, the process would not have happened without the strong will and determiness of the Mayor Tanya Hristova and without the support of all the involved stakeholders. The support from the Regional Educational Inspectorate has been also very important. In this case, desegregation is not a one-time act of a proposal of the Mayor and respectively a decision of the Municipal Council, but a process of numerous consultations, meetings, discussions in which all institutions were actively involved.

 

Beyond Gabrovo

Universal solutions to overcome educational segregation are hardly possible. The circumstances in each municipality are different, so the decisions are individual.

The decision, made in Gabrovo is applicable in the case of a relatively gradual and irreversible process of secondary segregation. If the efforts begin at the beginning of the process, it is unlikely that school closures will be needed. Even more successful would be if they were taken in prevention. Municipalities should bear this in mind: if they do not interfere before or at the presence of secondary segregation, later they will have to take unpopular decisions.

At the same time, the approach of a relatively equal enrolment of Roma students in all schools can and should be applied in many municipalities. It is one of the prerequisites for avoiding secondary segregation.

 

The full text of the article in Bulgarian language can be found in the Publications section.

 

Author: Deyan Kolev, Amalipe Center

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