Klára Laurencíková

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-31633-Klara_Laurencikova-CZECH-REPUBLIC.jpg
This description of Klára Laurencíková's work was prepared when Klára Laurencíková was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

Klára is championing inclusive education to transform the Czech educational system. She is building a national movement engaging students, teachers, parents, alumni, principals, policymakers and other stakeholders to address the longstanding pattern of segregated classrooms and underperforming schools, in the process changing national policies and practices and creating a network of high-performing inclusive educational institutions as models for the region. Her vision is of equal access to a quality education for all students, allowing children to develop their educational potential regardless of their social, racial, economic background or health status.

The New Idea

Klara is challenging public perceptions and segregation patterns in Czech society by building up a movement of inclusion advocates and role models representing all stakeholders in education. She is orchestrating a choir of voices including educators, parents, students, policymakers, activists and more, who embrace educational inclusion, the practice of all students regardless of background or disability learning together, as the entry point to a broader school transformation endeavor. Through Klara’s leadership, these diverse groups have come together to advocate for and implement reform efforts, serving as multipliers, implementing practical pro-inclusion methods and tools in schools, teacher training institutions and in policy circles. Through these means the movement assembles a system in which every child, regardless of their social, racial, economic background or health conditions, can find a supportive and friendly environment in their local school and develop their educational potential together with other children.

Although there are a few inclusion advocates and role-models already, but they are often unheard, disconnected and therefore of little influence on the system. In order to utilize these existing networks while innovating and maximizing impact, Klara acts as a synapse central for the change towards in inclusive education in the following ways: she works on strengthening each group of advocates and role-models from all stakeholder sides, equips them with evidence that she is carefully collecting in the data hub (the first of its kind in Central Europe), ensures that the experiences and voices of children are incorporated at various levels of the movement, and weaves omnidirectional communication platforms among stakeholders. Klára creates linkages and partnerships among different interest groups, parents and teachers, alumni and students, activists and government agencies, etc. The combination of evidence-based reform proposals, broad scale (and well-orchestrated) pro-inclusion voices and skillful networking and lobbying have already yielded some significant legislation changes and are now aimed at mainstreaming those changes in their application and public perception for achieving true systems change.

The Problem

International studies reveal that Czech society, especially within the educational system, is highly selective and tends to separate people on the basis of their social, racial, economic background or health status. This serious problem is of high relevance to almost all societies of Central and Eastern Europe. As a result, success in the Czech educational system is highly dependent on pre-determined factors, such as the socio-economic background of student’s family, and the system is too often unable to provide necessary individual support tailored to children with special needs. 3% of Czech school children are still educated in separate “special” schools. There they have little opportunity to interact with other children, and they acquire stigma that will follow them for the rest of their lives, inhibiting further personal and professional development. This concerns a quite diverse group of children, among them children with various levels of physical and mental disability, but also including children from poor families, excluded neighborhoods, ethnic minorities or immigrant backgrounds (e.g. 30% of Roma children are diagnosed as having mental disabilities in the Czech system).

The consequences of this segregation are many, not only affecting those who are segregated, but those who are not as well. More broadly, society is missing out on the talents and capacities of tens of thousands of children every year, who, now additionally hindered by their “educational handicap”, cannot find proper employment. For example, one of the consequences regarding the Roma minority was mentioned in the recent World Bank report, in which it is estimated that the cost of Roma segregation in Czech society, taking into account the chain of unemployment, crime and more that stems from this policy, totals almost half a billion dollars every year. Despite several recommendations and warnings issued by the European Court on Human Rights, OECD, UN Council on the Rights of Children, and the European Commission, little has been done to implement changes in the Czech educational system. This has several systemic reasons.

If perceived at all, inclusion is in Central & Eastern European societies often mistakenly understood by the general public as simply putting all children into one room. There is no clear understanding of what a policy of inclusion entails and what role it can play in building a cohesive and adaptive social environment that creates empathetic citizens willing to collaborate and take responsibility for their society. Despite these warnings from international bodies, because inclusion is not fully understood by the public and segregation persists on various levels, there is little public demand for its furtherment, and the government has little incentive to introduce legislative changes, develop financial measures and methodological support for schools. There are no centralized efforts towards collecting and analyzing data on special needs education, which could become a foundation for further action. There is little to no collaboration between various governmental bodies working on the topic, and individual ministry officials often feel disempowered in bringing about the needed changes. With no determined national strategy on social and educational inclusion, most regional and municipal authorities lack the foundation and incentives to embed pro-inclusion measures into regional educational plans, and consequently avoid taking up initiative and responsibility for it, instead preferring to maintain the status-quo of a high number of “special” schools.

Most Czech schools do not have the capacity to integrate children of different backgrounds and with special needs into mainstream classes, often due to the prevailing style of learning emphasizing encyclopedic knowledge, rote memorization rather than developing key competencies or critical thinking. Potential reasons for this lack of capacity can be found in the way current teachers are prepared, but also in the fact that only very few schools have access to professional supervision, mentoring and consulting while undergoing such a proposed transformation. Parents of children with special educational needs or different backgrounds are often at the whim of “expert decisions” about their children, and are rarely viewed as important partners by the educational system. Individual initiatives of active parents exist, but are fragmented and do not represent a significant power. The voice, experience and knowledge of children who went or are going through separated special education are not formulated clearly enough and are not heard by the public.

The Strategy

With the goal of becoming a central junction and main motor towards inclusive education, Klara founded ČOSIV (Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education) in 2011, and started engaging and empowering various education stakeholders individually, while also building bridges between them multilaterally. The first part of her strategy is to work with each stakeholder group (principals and teachers willing to embark on the inclusive education path, parents of children with special needs, alumni and present students of “special” schools) individually, facilitating regular member meetings (every 6-12 weeks), where they can get to know each other, share best practices, and develop long-standing relationships and trust, all in the interest of making them a strong interest group. In parallel, ČOSIV works on identifying entrapreneurial changemakers within public administration, raises awareness about the importance of inclusive education and prepares the ground for regular multistakeholder dialogue and working groups with the aim of bringing about concrete changes in schools and providing know-how for each interest group. ČOSIV underpins all the aforementioned work with large-scale awareness-raising campaigns and collection of evidence-based argumentation for inclusive education.

In order to showcase existing examples of inclusive schools, and to praise, provide support and a collegial feeling, Klara is mapping out a network of flagship inclusive schools and enlightened teachers and directors. Today this network includes 25 model schools working with over 7,500 children. Through quarterly in-person group meetings and facilitated best practice exchange, the pairing up of school principals with advanced business and philanthropic leaders, representatives from academia and public administration, the goal of collaborative design and implementation of changes towards inclusive education is becoming a reality, and bridges between sectors ensures the attractiveness and natural growth of the inclusive school network. Participating school principals and teachers affirm that such determined work towards inclusive education and the cross-sector support network help them significantly improve the quality of education, and that the resulting climate at their schools and makes education lively, creative and purposeful. The move to inclusive education is resulting in a host of related educational reforms that place children at the center of their educational experience, changing the way teachers teach, what skills and competencies are emphasized and how student progress is measured. The results are not just educational, but social as well, e.g. with teachers and principals mentioning that certain changes managed to decrease the rate of bullying in their schools, while improving relationships between teachers, parents, children and principals. Klara’s short-term goal is to have a minimum of 5 role-model schools in each of the 14 regions in the Czech Republic, with the long-term goal that proven models become a norm in society with all Czech schools gradually adopting best practices, and Central European neighbors following suit.

Working bilaterally with parents, Klara initiated the establishment of Alliance of Parents for Inclusion, which managed to unify a dozen previously fragmented initiatives. Organizing regular in-person meetings and best-practice exchange, building bridges between parents’ initiatives and financial supporters of the topic, actively building the capacity of these groups in the theoretical foundation of inclusion and advocacy has helped Klara gradually build up a natural network of regional ambassadors, skilled negotiators and partners to the educational system in the transformation process. Parents note that, thanks to the Alliance, they no longer feel isolated, and that they have a safe space to share experiences and join forces to address bureaucratic obstacles on the way to their children’s quality education. They feel their voice is now heard and their frustration with the system is being transformed into creative energy.

Realizing the picture would be incomplete without taking into consideration the voices of children themselves, Klara initiated the creation of a network of “special school” alumni, so that, for the first time, their opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of separate education for their personal and professional development are taken into consideration and serve as a foundation for legislative proposals and regional educational plans. Children who are still in different kinds of “special schools” are encouraged to voice their opinions as well, and formats are organized for them to transmit their opinions directly to decision-makers.

In addition to working with and constantly getting feedback from these three networks, Klara’s organization has set up a dedicated media-monitoring and media-analysis service. She also serves on the board or advises around ten citizen sector organizations dealing with diverse manifestations of inclusion, and is therefore able to collect different streams of information and evidence from them. In turn ČOSIV becomes a unique information and evidence hub for the topic of inclusion, and ensures constant analysis and data flow towards stakeholders and general public.

Having three strong grassroots platforms behind them, concrete examples of systemic failures and proven solutions and solid analyses and evidence of the situation, ČOSIV creates formats for all the networks to meet and exchange information. One of the concrete outcomes of such exchange between school teachers, civic sector organizations, parents and universities is a unique catalogue of individual support measures for children with a variety of special needs and backgrounds, which the public school system can embed into the official curriculum and therefore allow every school to implement in everyday education. In parallel to multi-stakeholder cooperation, ČOSIV confidently enters into negotiation with public authorities on the national and regional levels, bringing along the three networks. Having chosen the role of supportive partner to the public administration, ČOSIV leverages the overview, evidence and opinions they have in order to draft and amend legislation regarding support measures for children with special needs on the national level. It directly facilitates strategic educational planning towards inclusion on the regional levels on a participatory basis, making sure regional authorities, schools and parents all take part and hear each other. Legislative successes include significant amendments to Education Law, specific paragraphs in the national Educational Strategy 2020, which is obligatory for regions, and definition of priorities in the distribution of European Social Funds. Constant multi-stakeholder dialogue and networking are maintained both individually and collectively within regularly organized world-cafes for all stakeholders in education. Recently, ČOSIV is exploring ways to expand its activities to Slovakia with a goal to scale up its impact on the regional level in further stages.

The final important element of Klara’s strategy is engaging the media. Equipping and constantly feeding key outlets with clear definitions and examples of inclusion, as well as arguments and evidence in support of it has already been proving itself as a powerful tool for changing the discourse from “those are children with handicaps and they should be educated separately” to “here are best practices of how children with special needs but also talents are educated within the mainstream system in our country for the benefit of all.”

The Person

Klara has been aware of the effects of segregation in Czech schooling since she was a young child. As a bright and diligent student, she was selected to attend gymnasium (the advanced level of high school), after completing a small town middle school. This was a privilege granted to only a few students. Despite the celebration it caused in her family, she felt that being pointed at, promoted and surrounded by particular care was unfair to the rest of the students who did not demonstrate outstanding results and therefore got different treatment, a different destiny and fewer chances for further education and employment. Growing up, Klara was witnessed more manifestations of selectivity in society and her frustration grew.

Not being very outgoing in her childhood years, Klara devoted a lot of time to reading and exploring opportunities for helping others who were not as fortunate as she was. Klara’s first long-term volunteer engagement during her school years was supporting the center of abandoned newborns, an activity, which she had to hide even from her own parents. Her ideas and initiatives rarely met support in her family, and as a child to working-class parents, she had to fight her way towards higher education most fiercely in her own family, which taught her determination and persistence. In addition, growing up in a family where she often found herself as a middleman between conflicting family members, Klara developed strong conflict mediation and diplomacy skills.

Her growing conviction that “selectivity” in Czech society is multifold and to a significant extent stems from systemic failures of education, Klara chose transforming the education system as her life purpose and started exploring the roots of the problem at the Pedagogical Faculty, Jedlickuv Ustav, the main national care institution for people with disabilities, as well as a Czech charity working with children victims of domestic violence and children discriminated against on the social-economic basis. With a passion for the topic of inclusion and a deep understanding of the problem, she soon became vice-minister of education and brought inclusive education much higher on the agenda of the ministry. Serving in the government gave Klara a clear idea about the mechanisms of systemic change in the political system, and subsequently made her a sought-after advisor or board member for about a dozen citizen sector organizations dealing with discrimination on the basis of ethnic or family background, health condition or sexual orientation. Soon Klara felt she had been accumulating a wealth of insight, and felt the urge to put her wisdom to use for systemic change. In 2011 she founded ČOSIV (Czech Professional Society for Inclusive Education) and soon thereafter found herself a parent faced with discrimination. Her three-year-old son was accused by the kindergarten of being “too lively”, and parallel to ČOSIV, Klara founded a kindergarten that provided a safe space for the development of children who were “too lively” for the system.