Herbert Heuss
Teacher Assistants and de-segregation

All over Europe education systems are in rapid transition. This is caused not only by the sheer quantity of knowledge students have to learn – and teachers to teach, but also by the quality of knowledge needed in rapidly developing economics and sciences. Therefore the introduction of self-organised learning processes are overdue, and it is common knowledge that learning doesn’t end with school or university exams.

At the same time we can observe a growing social distance between large parts of the Roma population and the elites; a phenomenon that came into view with the end of the socialist period in the Eastern and Southeastern European countries. One wonders to what extent this phenomenon is a result of the transition period which brought forth the unemployment of a vast number of Roma, groups which had been integrated into the working class during the socialist period, or is it the overture to a broader social tendency which will concern other strata of society in the near future? This new phenomenon which we can observe day by day is verified by growing numbers of young Roma people dropping out and by increasing numbers of analphabets among the young generations – the demographic figures show an increasing percentage of young Roma within this segment of the Bulgarian population.

This new discrimination is not a transitory obstacle that can easily be overcome by schooling. The experiences in other countries show that schooling is no longer the ticket to social integration. The integration of Roma children into mainstream education is a main feature of political programmes, both of national governments and international institutions as well as of Roma NGOs. However, it is still unclear what ‘integration’ means or could mean, especially if we take into account the different developments in the societies of Western and Eastern Europe.

This is the background of every discussion on Roma inclusion and access to education. The RPI project with its core activity on training of 100 young Roma to become teacher assistants triggered off a discussion on the development of the education system concerning Roma children. The political preference of de-segregation is obviously favoured by governments and a number of Roma NGOs. De-segregation is being presented as an explicitly political concept, pprimarily focussing on special schools for disabled children, and on neighbourhood schools in Roma quarters. To what extent is this solely a political question ? The other important topic is, how to improve the quality of education for Roma children, and for children in general. Here, teacher assistant may play a role in the introduction of new methods and in implementing multi-cultural education.

De-segregation as a political concept only is not sufficient. De-segragation also needs a pedagogical concept to evoke positive long term results. This includes frequent teacher training on intercultural education, understanding of the characteristics of children with bi-lingual background, and the introduction of new methods in the education process – including the position of the teacher assistant supporting the education process inside and outside the classroom.

De-segregation is not a general solution for all ‘Roma schools’ or all locations either. Even in places where de-segregation projects run, representatives of Roma communities state that they do not want their neighbourhood school to be closed down. Many reasons are given for that position : not all children will participate in the de-segregation project; not all parents agree to send their children out of the neighbourhood; the schools around the neighbourhood do not have the capacity to enrol all the children; bussing and support for Roma children only causes tensions with Bulgarian parents; some children do not feel welcome in the mainstream schools – a number of children return to the neighbourhood schools; the Roma school arrived at some success as long as the school received reasonable support from the Ministry of Education and Science and the municipality; the ongoing de-segregation projects produce a new dependency for the children and the parents on NGOs and external financing.
However, most of the children from the neighbourhood schools stay in these schools. The support for these schools is poor, and the political concept of de-segregation excludes these children – with the effect that these children are losers twice over. They stay in the underprivileged schools, and projects and programmes forget about them. It is obvious that the concept of de-segregation has to deal with this situation, too.

It is worth considering that de-segregation has to include the mainstreaming and improvement of neighbourhood schools. It needs to be underlined that this is not a general solution but an option for communities, based on an analysis of the local situation, especially in neighbourhoods where de-segregation projects cannot reach all children, for various reasons. The neighbourhood schools in Bulgaria are legally ‘normal’ mainstream schools, with the same curriculum as any other school. Their position is weak because of a lack of funding by the municipalities, often because of less qualified teachers, poor equipment, etc. However, they are - in legal terms - not more special schools than Jewish or Armenian schools. (dieser Satz is tmir völlig unklar geblieben, sorry).
‘Model schools’ in specific neighbourhoods may follow the concept of language schools in Bulgaria : the schools may put an emphasis on music, on languages including Romani, etc. The model schools should develop new approaches to attract teachers, parents, students. This needs proper environment, equipment, new teachers, new and interactive methods, and curriculum development. However, the idea is to mainstream the neighbourhood schools to meet national and international standards. The improvement of neighbourhood schools should be a complementary alternative to de-segregation initiatives; it is not intended to replace de-segregation projects.

Teacher assistants - trained at universities and qualified to support the education process in the schools and to bridge the gap between schools and the communities - may contribute to the improvement of the quality of education. The RPI project has proven the positive role teacher assistants fulfil in their position. The experiences gained include the setting up of groups for drop-outs in order to bring them back to school and catch up with the level of the classes; the support for teachers in addressing children with bi-lingual background ; the individual support for children in the classroom, whenever difficulties in the education process show up; addressing children in their mother tongue and expressing thus respect for the culture of their community.
All this contributes substantially to the wellbeing of the children in the schools, no matter whether they visit neighbourhood schools or so-called mixed schools outside. If parents feel that the mother tongue is taken care of in school, they take it as a sign that the school is accepting Roma, that the institution estimates their background and will safeguard the continuation of the Roma community. This is of major importance to the Roma communities, it helps them to associate with the majority and to experience empowerment with school and the education of their children.
The teacher assistants succeeded in establishing bridges between school/society and Roma homes and clearly promoted the integration and interest in educational matters in general among the Roma. This outcome can not be estimated highly enough. The teacher assistants` competence in the children’s mother tongue gives the children a greater chance to develop their language skills in both languages, and to improve their Bulgarian skills properly.

Last but not least, the training for the teacher assistants fulfilled the expectations in other aspects as well : of the 92 trainees who passed the final examination successfully, more than forty applied for university studies, and 32 of them passed the exams. However, only 15 have been accepted at the Veliko Turnovo University because vacant places were limited. The training obviously can open doors for higher education – before the training only one participant was enrolled at university, although all the trainees had secondary education.

For the Bulgarian education system therefore the position of the teacher assistant should be introduces to all schools which identify the need . Opportunities for higher education teachers in the field of minority education with a special focus on Roma need to be provided in an adequate number in order to meet the interest of young Roma who want to become teachers.

Published in Hristo Kychukow : "Desesgregation and Quality Education", Veliko Tarnovo 2005 (in Bulgarian language)