OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC — 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. Now, there are more than 200 Romany assistant teachers across the country, with eight in the Premysl Pitter School.
With 90 percent of Roma in Ostrava unemployed, Mrs. Dudi-Koto says Balabanova gave her a rare and precious job. The Premysl Pitter School is all the more meaningful to Dudi-Koto because she remembers well what it was like going to school as a Romany child.
"My father kept me in elementary school for four years," she says. "The teachers said I belonged in special school. They called me retarded, ignored me, and harassed me, until my father finally gave in and put me in special school. I see that the same thing is happening to kids today, over and over again. Our school is often their only chance."
The Premysl Pitter School started with 17 first-grade pupils in 1993. In 1998, Balabanova became the first Czech principal to accept high-scoring Romany students from special schools. Today, the school has 250 students and 22 teachers. Next year, the first class will finish its nine years of elementary-school studies. A few advanced students have already left for secondary schools.
But Balabanova's radical approach has finally hit a wall. Six months ago, Sonia Torhoviska, the Catholic Church's representative at the Premysl Pitter School, began reporting cases of student absences and lobbying Bishop Frantisek Lobkowicz for Balabanova's dismissal.
It was a dispute over the validity of Svetlana's two-week absence from school that finally ended Balabanova's tenure. In May, Svetlana was elected to the jury of the World Children's Prize, often called the Children's Nobel Prize, an honor extended to only 15 children around the globe. With Balabanova's blessing, she traveled to Sweden to sit on the jury. Mrs. Tarhoviska argued that the jury was not an acceptable reason to miss school, and fined Svetlana's family 3,000 koruna ($78). For her part, Balabanova was asked to resign and then fired, for the second time in her career, when she refused. Tarhoviska is expected to replace her as principal.
Pavel Siuda, the bishop's spokesman, says Balabanova was fired over "high truancy and pupils' low success in entering secondary schools."
Ernest Pohlos, Balabanova's first Romany assistant teacher, says her dismissal was a "bolt from the blue." Truancy is high among Romany children all over the country, and the school has not yet had a class graduate, making the second claim hard to document. Parents of children at the Premysl Pitter School have circulated a petition in support of Balabanova, and most have threatened to boycott the school in protest.
The community center and club set up by Balabanova were evicted from the school on Aug. 31. Dudi-Koto says she expects that her contract will not be renewed this month.
In the midst of packing up the community center, Balabanova sits among boxes filled with children's dance uniforms and bags of soccer balls. "I worked through weekends and vacations for 8 years for this school, and now I don't know what will happen to it," she says. "They want to make it an elite Catholic school, like other church schools, but these kids don't fit that mold. They have a very hard time ahead of them."