When Svetlana Krostanova first entered school five years ago in the Czech town of Ostrava, teachers and social workers said she was retarded. They sent her to a "special school" for the mentally disabled, where almost all the students were Roma (or Gypsies) like her. All the elementary schools in her town refused to accept Romany children.
All, that is, except one.
In 1993, the Premysl Pitter Elementary School was founded by Helena Balabanova, a Czech teacher who had taught at one of the "special schools" - where Roma are relegated in a system of de- facto racial segregation. She was fired for being "soft" on Romany kids.
Mrs. Balabanova declared the new school "open to all children," and Svetlana now gets top grades there and feels she has a bright future.
Balabanova, who had studied educational methods in London, hired Romany assistant teachers and organized a community center and after-school club for Romany children. Her techniques, considered revolutionary by local standards, met with suspicion from Czech educators and politicians and eventually caused her downfall.
Even so, Romany families have flocked to the school from Ostrava's poorest neighborhoods, and Balabanova's name is spoken with admiration in Romany communities across the country. "Mrs. Balabanova is a different kind of Czech teacher from what we are used to," says Vera Dudi-Koto, a Romany assistant at the Premysl Pitter School. "She doesn't believe the stereotypes that Roma are stupid, and she made the Roma in this town trust a white school for the first time."
Balabanova says she had plenty of prejudices against the Roma when she started teaching. She finished a university degree in special education 12 years ago, and entered a school system where at least 75 percent of Romany children are sent to "special schools."
Marta Tepla, who oversees these schools at the Czech Ministry of Education, has repeatedly declared, "Special schools are good enough for Romany children. They are not predisposed to study."
Balabanova retorts: "The special school where I first worked was more like a prison than a school.... I felt a tangible hatred between the teachers and the Romany kids, and I knew it was impossible to teach them anything in that atmosphere."
Hoping to change her pupils' negative attitude, Balabanova began visiting their parents and grandparents, and found herself changed instead. "They were incredibly hospitable." she says. "I found that they would give you their last crust of bread if you needed it. Slowly they taught me to get rid of my prejudices, and then things started to change at school."
Attendance rose in Balabanova's class, and parents began dropping by to ask her advice. But in 1992, Balabanova and three teachers who followed her example were dismissed because of controversial methods. Together, they founded the Premysl Pitter School and asked the local Roman Catholic bishop to oversee the school to avoid legal problems.
"The system of special schools is clearly racial segregation," Balabanova says. "We founded this school to break the cursed cycle of poverty that results from discrimination against Romany children."
Balabanova quickly racked up a record of firsts. She employed the first Romany assistant teachers in the Czech Republic as interpreters, tutors, and school liaisons to the Romany community. …