Helena Balabanova

Ashoka Fellow
Czech Republic
Fellow Since 1998
Founder of Cirkevni Skola Premysla Pittra
This description of Helena Balabanova's work was prepared when Helena Balabanova was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Helena has designed a solution to educating Roma children and adults that impacts the entire area of race relations in the Czech Republic. Her innovative educational programs are unique and comprehensive and benefit both the Roma and non-Roma populations by improving mutual understanding and cooperation. This reinforces the values of an integrated and diverse society, new concepts for the democratizing Czech Republic.

The New Idea

Helena's conviction is that the necessary precondition for success and self- confidence building in the Czech Roma community is to build bridges between the Roma and non-Roma populations. Her innovative educational programs target predominantly Roma schools, called special or "drop out" schools for social misfits. She has created an entirely new educational model that Roma (and other) children consider to be friendly. It thus contrasts directly with the existing system, which persistently tends to apply rigid methods and to exclude and label as mentally handicapped those kids who do not fit the rules: this practice has been extensively applied to Roma children. Helena's model is a multi-dimensional system of services and programs targeted at different groups, including parents, students and teachers. An essential element to her approach is that Roma and Czech pedagogical workers train and work together to create optimal conditions for children who have been considered incapable of reaching educational levels equal to "normal" or non-Roma children. Helena has introduced the practice of incorporating Roma adults as teaching assistants in the classroom. Though this is common in other parts of the world, the idea of teaching assistants is an innovation in the Czech education system which has adhered to a school and classroom structure established in the nineteenth century this is true of all schools, not just those for Roma children. The Roma assistants, who are sometimes parents of students, are handpicked for their competence, dedication and moral authority in the Roma community. Helena's work started from but is not limited to education. She also creates a new model of social work through community centers that are affiliated with the schools. The pedagogical assistants work in the centers as "social assistants" besides participating actively with the schools they serve as a bridge with other public institutions such as the police. In this way, Helena tackles and solves several problems at once. Communication develops between the school and community, and a mutual learning process between groups of teachers breaks the mental stereotypes between non-Roma teacher and Roma child. This creates a family, community atmosphere both in the classroom and in the community centers. Other attempts in Czech Republic to address this issue have failed either because they were chaotic and disorganized (Often on the part of Roma Activists) or because they were designed by political interests that were unequipped to deal with the underlying needs. Helena's idea of confronting racism through educational and cultural training and interaction is unique in the Czech Republic not only in its content and methodology, but because it works.

The Problem

The violation of Roma human rights is an everyday occurrence in East and Central Europe, but the situation in Czech Republic is even more critical than in other countries in the region today. This is because after World War II the communist regime forced the removal of Roma populations from their traditional homes in Slovakia to the Czech Lands and Bohemia. This provided the cheap source of labor (often described as slave labor) required by the industrial development of the Czech Lands under communism. Roma villages were uprooted to the large unfamiliar cities where they formed ghettos. In this way the government destroyed all natural family, community and cultural links to a much greater extent than in other countries in the region. This also created a mutual animosity and distrust between the Roma and majority populations. Roma were seen as outsiders and blamed for all problems. Roma viewed the non-Roma population with distrust as alien and dangerous adversaries.

Today low estimates concur that there are over 300,000 Roma in Czech Republic, out of a population of 10 million, making them the largest ethnic minority in the country. Most of them live in the large industrial centers. Incidents of racial violence have increased since the changes in 1989 as a result of the increased social tensions created by economic reforms and because Roma were traditionally discriminated against. During the past seven years 800 acts of racial violence have been recorded, but the number of attacks is substantially higher than reported statistics reveal. It has become such a pervasive andsevere social problem that there was a massive Roma exodus from the Czech Republic to primarily Canada and Great Britain. This received extensive international press coverage and greatly embarrassed parts of the Czech government. Yet, official conservative governmental policy, which revealed ignorance, clumsiness and helplessness, contributed to the public's feeling of social insecurity and xenophobia. The Roma issue has became politicized in Czech Republic as no where else.

Exacerbating social tensions is the fact that Roma are unable to effectively organize to defend their interests. This is due, in part, to their generally low level of education. State authorities perceive Roma education as a marginal issue and overlook its implications for the entire society. The Roma perception of the state-run school system is negative. It is perceived as an impersonal and unjust institution that is not based on their needs, cultural sensitivities or traditions. Teachers interpret the Roma reaction as hostile and problematic. Many Roma children are simply labeled as "mentally retarded" and shipped to schools for the disabled. The non-Roma population of Czech Republic is decreasing, while the Roma birthrate is 14 times higher than the rest of the population. This suggests that the future of the Czech Republic will be more diverse as far as ethnic groups and cultures. This comparatively large increase in the Roma population will need to be confronted. Students need to be taught. The existing discrimination in education and in the rearing of Roma children, reinforced by social pressure, reveals a systemic problem in education and society for the whole Czech Republic and undermines progress in the consolidation of democracy.

The problem of how to deal with multiculturalism within Czech society has begun to expand beyond just the issue of Roma to include Asian immigrants who are flocking to Czech Republic from China and Vietnam in search of greater economic opportunity and greater freedom.

The Strategy

Helena began to implement her new ideas in her own school in Ostrava which piloted and tested her strategies for confronting this severe social problem. This school has since become the living laboratory for her innovative approaches to multi-cultural education in Czech Republic. New textbooks and teaching materials are produced which widen the curriculum to include Roma studies - history, music, culture. Roma teaching assistants work there more than just as tutors: they become mentors for children, helping them to better focus on success in the classroom by encouraging and supporting individual development. This has proven successful because Roma teaching assistants become, first of all, important role models, and also because since they are Roma they are more immediately accepted and trusted by Roma parents and children.

The second part of Helena's strategy consists of developing an Information and Education Center (IEC) for Roma adults. The Pilot center in Ostrava was the first of its kind in the Czech Republic. The Center operates separately from the school and targets the whole community. It provides job counseling and training and provides assistance with such needs as filling out papers or interacting with government offices. It offers cultural programs and high school equivalency certification. A Roma art center also operates on the premises. Helena has recently established a cultural foundation called "Jehketane" Together which facilitates various cultural festivals, meetings and concerts which bring together gypsy music and theatre groups from all over Czech Republic. This gives the chance for gypsy culture to gain public visibility. All of these programs serve to educate Roma and non-Roma to respect and recognize the validity of Roma culture and identity in a concerted effort to redefine race relations in Czech Republic. As well as these training centers, Helena saw the need for a crisis center that now provides immediate support for children in need.

Helena is now at work on spreading her methods, materials and programs to more and more communities. She has trained the directors of twenty elementary schools in places through out the Czech Republic, including Prague, Brno, Most, and Pilsen to use her teaching methodology to train teachers, teaching assistants and social workers. They carry her idea further so that she no longer has to look after each school herself and also form a lobby to further influence the educational system to incorporate the changes she has introduced. Thanks to her campaign through such training courses and the attention she has received from the media, the society has begun to recognize the value of classroom assistants. She has created a course on Romaology which has been adopted as part of the teacher training curriculum at the Charles University in Prague, the leading university in the country. This will ensure the further education of teachers who are able to teach Roma culture and history.

After beginning in one school in 1993, her programs now effect 20% of all Roma children in the Czech Republic. Her target of 100% of Roma children seems achievable in the not too distant future: since the Czech Ministry of Education has decided to implement Helena's program nationwide in elementary schools. Helena recently resigned from the directorship of the school in Ostrava in order to concentrate on spreading her idea and methods throughout the region and in Europe.

The Person

Helena has an advanced degree in special education, but was not allowed to teach before 1989 because of the "political unreliability" of her family which includes priests and poets. She was finally employed in the special school in Ostrava because that is where the communist regime sent people who had been expelled from the Communist party. It was considered a hardship post and a punishment because this school was similar to a prison, for teachers and students alike. There was a high proportion of Roma children in

the school and a high crime rate. Many of the children suffered from serious psychological disorders. From the beginning, Helena refused to accept the school as a penal institution. She identified several children who really didn't belong there and contacted their parents. The other teachers did not appreciate her efforts, because they were jealous and threatened by her dedication and new approach. Soon she and several other like-minded colleagues were fired from the school, but by that time Helena had worked out her model for educational and social reform and was ready to take off with it. In 1991, Charita, an international aid association, began to support Helena's project. The result was the creation of a community school for 17 Roma children. The school curriculum included social programs which involved the Roma parents. Helena found that Roma parents also needed help and began comprehensive programs for them to develop life strategies and skills. Helena believes that her commitment to the cause of developing a peaceful, multi-cultural educational environment for Roma and non-Roma in Czech Republic is the direct result of the influence of her compassionate parents.