'Velvet' change in Czech schools

Ten years after communism, new texts, language study, technology

The fall apple, pear, and plum harvests are stored away for the long Central European winter. Fields are fallow. And that means Czech children have headed back to a school year in which they'll celebrate a special landmark: the 10th anniversary of the country's Velvet Revolution, when Czechs overthrew Communist leaders without widespread violence.

"This year, the students are preparing special celebrations for the anniversary," says Karel Bican, principal of the Zakladni Skola Lhenice. In the decade since the Communist retreat, this town nestled in the Sumava foothills has carried out dramatic social, political and economic reforms. But schools have been host to some of the country's most striking changes.

In 1989, Zakladni Skola Lhenice witnessed an ideological changing-of-the-guard, like many educational institutions around the country. New principals and administrators were needed to fill the vacuum left by Communist Party members who were voted out of their positions by their respective school boards.

In December 1989, Mr. Bican was asked to manage the school, which includes Grades 1 to 9 and has 266 pupils and 17 teachers. "The new reform city council was looking for people without a history of Communist Party membership," he says, noting that many nearby families were known for their opposition to the regime. "In those times, we could not openly protest against the government, but it was generally known which families supported the regime and which families did not. My family members never joined the party," he notes.

Bican, who on this day sports a polo shirt patterned with giraffes and lions, is the antithesis of the hard-line party members who ran the school in this town of 3,000 residents. But his unassuming nature belies the hard work involved in overhauling the school. "When I arrived to take this position, the previous principal had taken all the records and this office was completely empty. We really had to start from scratch," he says.

First Bican tackled budget priorities. "We receive most of our operating budget from the central government, but since the changeover, I have had quite a lot of flexibility for how it is used," he says. "For example, we have a committee and if a teacher is doing something extra, we can budget a bonus for him or her. This would have been impossible to do legally under the previous system."

Political changes also affected curriculum. Czech language, math, social studies, and science are still required, but now art programs are encouraged. "Our program has received recognition from Germany and Austria for the children's art," he says pointing out two green pears in a nearby mural.

Textbooks, Bican notes, were a particular challenge. "Many of our history texts were inaccurate. [They] often praised the USSR for things they did not accomplish," he says. They did the reverse with Americans: Bican recalls a text that stated American GIs were never in Czechoslovakia during World War II. "The book said that the soldiers were Russians dressed up in American uniforms. We knew this was false because our parents remember welcoming the Americans."

Language study has also changed. German and English are the most popular choices, replacing the once-required Russian. Bican also explains the change in teaching styles, which has been vigorously encouraged by the community. "We used to hold an imaginary whip over the children's heads. They were expected to memorize material by rote. We did this because we worried about discipline problems," he says.

Today, the emphasis is on creativity, individualism, and choice for the students. "We are not seeing any new discipline problems and our students continue to score very well in math and science as compared to their counterparts in Western Europe and the US," he says.

The move into the 21st century would not be complete without a Web site. "Our Web site development is a school project involving all our staff, students, and parents. The students have suggested some very good ideas, including an alumni page and a link to set up pen pals," he says, clicking away with his mouse.

For Bican, it all adds up to a promising 10-year anniversary. "The revolution took many of us by surprise. I could have never imagined this progress," he says. "We still have a long way to go, but we Czechs have a tradition of working together and a sense of humor that help us overcome even the most difficult times."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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