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
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
Mrs. Balabanova declared the new school "open to all children,"
and Svetlana now gets top grades there and feels she has a bright
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
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
"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
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. …