This profile was prepared when Helena Balabanova was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
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.