Czech Education, In Three Acts

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact that Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could talk for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is being done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software and hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

I start my trip by hopping on the Bratislava-Prague train, which is always a sweaty (damn my tardiness) but scenic experience: the rolling green landscape, the frozen-in-time villages, the preserved Habsburg architecture. We slice through one of my favorite Mitteleuropean cities, Brno, the massive gothic church looming from its perch on the hill. Four hours later, we’re in cobblestoned Prague, which as always is choked with tourists – even in bone-chilling winter.

Never mind, because we have little time for sightseeing: one day of lectures, three days to interview sources, gather images and produce the package, then the last day to critique.

Khanim from Azerbaijan proposed the IT story, as a gender gap is something Azeris and Czechs have in common. Joining her is Ljubica, from Macedonia, and Yulia, from Belarus, who realize the pattern exists in their country, too. (In foreign reporting, nothing sells better than a region-wide trend.)

What’s interesting about the Czech evolution is that during the Communist era, when women were expected to join male comrades in building a “worker’s paradise,” much larger numbers of women entered science, engineering and medicine. Most doctors, for example, were women.

When the chains fell from a controlled economy, it allowed greater freedom to choose a career. What also crept in was the girls-aren’t-as-good-at-math stereotype. A Czech woman who has tracked IT trends since 1994 says the ratio of females has shriveled from 22 to 7 percent.

Czech society, we were told, is one where “feminism” is a bad word, companies do little to accommodate female staff with young children, and a shortage of daycare space means that some moms are forced to stay home longer – and away from the lucrative, high-tech workforce.

The bilingual-preschool idea was hatched by Sinziana, of Romania. She drew the attention of A’Eysha from South Africa, where English vs. mother-tongue education is a source of debate.

Communism had no concept of the Western-style “bilingual preschool”; the closest was, say, a Russian-Czech preschool. The language of the Soviet occupiers, after all, was compulsory for schoolchildren. Countless East Europeans have described for me the phenomenon of being taught Russian in school, but never learning it. In protest, most youth stubbornly refused to absorb the lessons.

Then, 20 years ago, the small nations in Eastern Europe, speaking their obscure tribal tongues, emerged from decades of living behind barbed wire and watchtowers. Many still marvel at their ability to travel abroad and communicate with the outside world: in its lingua franca, English.

So, they recognize how important it is to learn – especially from a native English-speaker, instead of a musty old tape cassette. In that case, what greater “gift” to give your child – as one Czech father put it – than start them on English from the earliest possible age. If you can afford it, of course.

An ugly offshoot, though, is that sending your child to a pricy, private preschool – and mixing with the Westerners there – is one more status symbol for the nouveux riches. It also spurs anxiety for parents who, as in the West, feel pressure to keep up with the Joneses: equip your kids with the skills to better compete in the modern world, or risk having them fall behind.

Lastly, the schools for Roma, pitched by our Czech participant, Lucie. She’s long been interested in one of the greatest socio-economic challenges her country – and for Eastern Europe itself: how to lift this large, despised minority from pervasive poverty? For this, Lucie teamed with Nataliya, of Ukraine, and David, who is education editor of “The Nation” newspaper in Nairobi.

Generations of Romani children have been shunted into special schools for the “retarded,” with little encouragement from teachers or their parents to take education seriously. Moreover, a form of “white flight” sees Czechs pull their children from heavily Roma schools, fueling greater segregation into lower-quality schools.

In the late 1990s, a Czech Roma activist answered with a different kind of “special” school: one that actually looked to concentrate Roma students, to more sensitively cater to their schooling needs. This includes reliance on Romani “teaching assistants” in the classroom, who serve as a comforting bridge between the students and their Czech teachers. They also become role models.

There are now nine such schools nation-wide; our team visited two and spoke with graduates who have gone on to comprise the tiny percentage of Roma in Czech universities. Yet this situation, too, is more grey than black-and-white: as critics say, is self-imposed segregation really a long-term solution?

What a week: three stories, three snapshots of how life has changed in this corner of the globe.

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.