Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The politics of nursery school

Yesterday was registration day at the local nursery school in our neighborhood. Our babysitter decided we needed to make a good first impression, so she dressed Caroline up in her favorite dress (navy blue top over a green plaid skirt), pink sweater, brilliantly white tights, and Sunday shoes. Then all three of us: babysitter, Will and myself, herded Caroline to the little skolka that is just across the street from our flat.

When we walked in we realized there was a crowd of people ahead of us. Czechs are expert at self-regulating lines though, so we just had to ask to find out who we would go after, how many families were in front of us (four), and how long the wait might be (an hour). We spent the hour entertaining Caroline, chatting with the other waiting parents, and trying to figure out just why it took twenty minutes to sign a three year old into a public nursery school program.

Our best guess is that the filtering system so obvious in middle to high school education in Europe gets its start with 3 year olds, and that these meetings are designed in part for the director to check out the parents and child and decide if she wants to see them again. It’s a guess only because we didn’t get a chance to hear the regular spiel.

Instead, as we sat down for our meeting, the director said, “Aha, you are the foreigners who visited during open house. I’m so sorry to tell you but because you are not EU citizens, your daughter probably cannot go to this school.“

It turns out that the government doesn’t pay schools a stipend for children who are either not Czech or non-EU. In the past, schools have gotten around this problem by charging foreigners a certain amount a month, but then a story appeared in the Czech press about a town where the elementary school was funded mostly by the Vietnamese families who sent their children there. Although what the school was doing was technically legal, the story created a stir around the country, and so some schools now have decided it is just easier to not accept foreigners until the laws are straightened out.

We spent most of the meeting listening to the director explain all of this, and then in the end, she asked us what we did and if the laws get worked out, if we could afford the stipend. She didn’t care a whit that I had my own company (only question, when will your next child be born?) but when she found out that Will works in the educational sector and what he does, her hands started trembling and she began to randomly apologize (for spelling his name wrong on the application form, for the bother of the whole thing). It amused me at the time, but when we got home and started talking about the meeting, we both thought - do we really want Caroline to go to a school that didn’t want her until they found out what her father does?

So now I am looking into private schools for Caroline. Some place in Prague 2, 4 or 10 that doesn’t charge outrageous prices for children to get to together and play. Some place where Czech kids go but a kid from another country could fit in happily too. Suggestions welcomed.


tuckova said...

i am too angry to offer practical advice (because seriously? she was wearing the brilliant white tights and they didn't take her on sight? what is their DEAL?) but i will tell you a thing that i am only recently figuring out. there are two potential attitudes you can have to this type of situation, and one is, "if you do not treat me right, i will take my business elsewhere," and the other is "no, you have to do this because it's your job," and i have found that the first attitude rarely has the desired effect here. i also do not like needing to pull strings in order to get what i want (and should rightfully have), but there is often a prejudice in the system (SOMETIMES justified: foreign kids often need more help and that takes time, they are not always going to stay long enough for that time investment to pay off, it's disturbing to the class when people come and go, etc.) and if you have an advantage that will balance that prejudice (will's job) and you don't use it, then you're allowing the system to be unbalanced. instead, persuade them to take caroline so that they can see that their prejudice was unfounded.

unless there's a good alternative. i looked and looked for kein and then i stood and fought the good fight. it stank. i am sorry to hear that it still stinks.

Julia said...

Foreign kids (but maybe even more their parents) are definitely scary to the public schools here because communicating can be so tricky. Our babysitter promised the director she'd be there in case they needed someone to call in Czech, otherwise I think we would have been out the door without even a discussion. Have you ever written about your experiences getting Kein in school when he first started? I'd be interested to read those blog posts!