For most of their childhood, Anezka Slepcikova and Josef Hedai were considered mentally retarded. They attended a Czech "special school," where the walls were decorated with simple cardboard cutout flowers, and the curriculum was based on manual labor and behavior training.
A year ago, that all changed. Now, at 17, the two teenagers take demanding classes in higher math, foreign languages, law, and social sciences.
"It's not just a miracle," Anezka says, laughing. "We had to work hard to catch up, but now we have a chance to do something with our lives."
The pair has breached a barrier of de facto segregation in Central Europe. They are Roma (Gypsies) in the Czech Republic, and they have become the first to make it out of the notorious "special schools" and into a Czech high school.
Last week, the principal of the Romany Secondary School for Law and Sociology in the Czech city of Kolin informed Anezka and Josef that they have passed their trial period and will be allowed to stay at the high school.
For the Czech Republic, this represents a historical first, and may boost efforts to win European Union membership. It is a small but telling example of how Czech aspirations for membership in the EU are starting to improve civil rights for the country's Roma minority.
For three years, annual EU reports have cited maltreatment of minorities as one of the stumbling blocks to the accession of the Czech Republic. Anezka and Josef only had the opportunity to take high school entrance exams because EU pressure prompted the Czech Parliament to drop a clause of the education law prohibiting special school students from applying to high schools
Some 300,000 Roma live in the economically depressed northern areas of the country, where many bars and restaurants have signs that read: "Gypsies not allowed." In 1999, the city of Usti nad Labem made headlines around the world by building a wall to separate a Roma community from its white neighbors. It was later removed. Last year, 18 Roma families filed a case against the Czech Republic in the European Court of Human Rights alleging discrimination in the schools.
The Czech government reports that 75 percent of Romany children are sent to special schools for the mentally disabled. Romany groups claim the figure may be as high as 90 percent and argue that this trend reveals racial discrimination in Czech schools. Some 5 percent of Czech Roma do attend high school, but no student has ever before made the transition from a special school to a high school.
Marta Tepla, Director of Special Schools at the Czech Ministry of Education denies that there's discrimination. "The special schools are right for most Romany children. They are more comfortable there...." she says. "We assume these children will not be any kind of scientists or studying types. Their calling will be the manual crafts."
The "special schools" prepare students with sub-standard test scores for manual labor such as bricklaying, construction work, cooking, and cleaning. A similar system exists in Slovakia and Hungary.
Like many Romany children here, Anezka and Josef grew up in an orphanage. At age six, they were given intelligence tests in the Czech language, although their first language was Romany. They were subsequently classified as mentally retarded and sent to the local special school.
"All of the Romany children were tested and then sent to special school. We were no exception," Josef recalls.
The two teenagers have proved the tests wrong. Last year, Anezka won a prize in a national poetry contest and Josef taught himself basic English. Now, both receive above-average marks in their high school classes.
Hana Balazova, the principal of the Jablonne Special School, defends the decision to place them in her school. "The children at our school are mentally disabled. [Anezka and Josef] were among the quicker students but they probably wouldn't have been able to handle normal schooling," she says. "The fact that so many Romany children go to special schools is not a mark of discrimination. It is a matter of intelligence."
For 10 years, Anezka and Josef didn't doubt that assessment. Then, in January 2000, the law was changed, allowing them to apply to high school.
"It was as if a door opened," Anezka says, "but they didn't take into account that at special schools we study two or three years behind the regular schools." While special school children can now apply to high schools, they are generally unprepared to pass the Czech Republic's stringent entrance exams.
Jana Pravdova, a teacher in Jablonne, encouraged Anezka and Josef to try anyway. She tutored them intensively for a year. "I had them tested again and we found that they are not disabled," Pravdova says. "In fact, they should have been in an advanced program all along."
Still, most of the high schools they approached rejected the pair immediately. But the Romany Secondary School in Kolin, the only Romany school in the country, accepted them for a one-year trial.
That year is now up and the two students are passing all subjects. "They are in fifth or sixth place among the first-year students," says Marta Severova, the deputy director of the Romany School. "That is a success but it has been very difficult for them. While the other kids are out fooling around, these two have to study constantly."
Graduates of the Romany School are expected to work as Romany assistants at state agencies or schools, but Anezka hopes she can become a full teacher, not just a Romany assistant to a Czech teacher. For that she will need to attend a university. Josef is researching law schools.
The Romany School has already accepted five more students from special schools for next year and expects another three or four to enter during the summer. "We will do whatever we can to help Romany children," says school manager Marta Tulejova, "but this is still not the whole solution. We can't take on the whole country."
An estimated 1,200 Romany children in the Czech Republic finish special schools every year, and the Romany School is the only high school in the country yet willing to consider to them as students.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor