"You can't say this is segregation. It's natural selection; some students will get left behind." That's the school director speaking in Our School, a new documentary that follows the attempted integration of Roma people into a mainstream Romanian school.
The film is a frank look at separate and unequal education opportunities for Roma children throughout Eastern Europe, and it will no doubt draw comparisons to Brown v. the Board of Education and the legacy of racism still felt in U.S. schools. (In fact, one of the lawyers who argued Brown v. Board has a recent article in the Columbia Law Review, "Report on Roma Education Today: From Slavery To Segregation and Beyond," that connects these dots.)
Roma were enslaved for centuries until the mid-1800s, were subject to massive abuse and ethnic cleansing, and continue to live on the margins of mainstream society in many countries. In 2006, the European Union stepped in with "Together in School and Life," a project to integrate Roma children into mainstream schools. Our School exposes the deep cultural values that prevail over policy initiatives.
We follow Alin (pictured), Beni, and Dana—elementary, middle, and high school-aged Roma children—from the initial news that they'll be attending school in town, to their placement, and eventual shuffling to the special needs school where they practice coloring inside the lines and other crucial life skills.
Watching Our School, you get a sense of the gaps in planning for integration: How will students get to school from their neighborhoods on the outskirts of town? How will the mismatch between student age and grade level be accommodated? What will instruction in mixed-ability classrooms look like? How will social integration match academic aims? (In one scene, Roma children are shown cleaning up recess fields as their peers file back into class.)
In most cases, the integrated school fails Roma children on these issues. A couple of standout teachers give us glimpses of what the Roma children are capable of under caring, committed, and unbiased educators—but there's no continuity in their efforts. And it's clear, there's no institutional support. EU funds are channeled toward renovating the Roma-only school, in preparation for purging the Roma children from the mainstream school.
Again, outside intervention attempts to make things right. In 2007, the European Human Rights Court declares that school segregation violates human rights, and that's where school officials profiled in Our School get really crafty. They send their "problem kids"—not surprisingly, all Roma—to the "School for Deficiencies." Since the school already serves developmentally delayed Romanian children, it's technically not a segregated school.
"In many places, Eastern Europe is like the U.S. in the 1920s—there's a sense of historical lag," explained filmmaker Mona Nicoura at Our School's screening at the SilverDocs Film Festival. We're waiting for leadership on this issue, she told attendees.
"It's not just about policy, it's culture. We have not processed our own racism," she added.
In Our School, the system wins. But not before introducing us to astute and hard-working Beni and Dana, artfully mischievous Alin, parents who desperately want a way out of poverty for their children, and a couple of teachers Beni says "want us to learn."
To learn more about the movement to bring educational equity to Roma children, like Our School on Facebook and get involved at RomaDecade.org.
Nicoura says there are 2011 school-year plans to screen Our School in several high schools in Slovenia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, as well as to launch associated teacher training materials in 2012.