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Improving access to education for Greek Roma among goals of project

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The Education and Lifelong Learning Project is one component of the European Commission’s far-reaching strategy for promoting the welfare of Roma children, youth and adults.

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10/9/2012 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As Greece struggles to rebuild its shattered economy, humanitarian agencies worry about the impact that the nation’s stringent reductions in wages and social services may have on vulnerable populations such as the Roma (also known as Romani, gypsies and travelers), many of whom live in extreme poverty on society’s fringes.

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Education professors Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis are members of a project team working to improve access to education and promote social inclusion for Roma children and families in Greece. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, education professors at the University of Illinois, are members of a project team working to improve access to education and promote social inclusion for Roma children and families in Greece. Funded by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive and policymaking body, the Education and Lifelong Learning Project is one component of the commission’s far-reaching strategy for promoting the welfare of Roma children, youth and adults.

“We’re very pleased with the way this project is trying to intervene, and it’s very different from other projects,” Kalantzis said. “But it’s a big, difficult agenda for Greece and for Europe because these communities have been nomadic communities for centuries and outside of the mainstream. We did a lot of work in Australia with Aboriginal communities and that is why they valued our expertise as educators.”

Litsa Tressou and Soula Mitikido, faculty members at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, are the principal investigators on the project. The $7 million euro program involves more than 80 professionals – including education scholars such as Cope and Kalantzis as well as social workers and psychologists – who have forged partnerships with stakeholders in the Roma communities and the schools to address the educational, cultural and social barriers that affect the Roma.

Europe’s 10-12 million Roma are its largest ethnic minority and some of its poorest and most marginalized citizens. Throughout Greece, many Roma families live in shacks constructed from rubbish that lack electricity and running water, squatting in shantytowns on public land until forcibly evicted.

“For Europe, it’s pretty disturbing,” Cope said. “It’s a very common thing in the Third World but not very common in Europe. It’s a very bad situation, so this project is trying to address this. The issues are specific and unusual, but they’re also universal.”

The European Union estimates that less than half of Roma children finish primary school, and just 10 percent attend secondary school. As many as a third of Roma children never receive any formal education, and many adults, particularly those in nomadic clans, are illiterate or functionally illiterate.

At school, Roma children often face language barriers, social rejection by peers and their families, and segregation within classrooms or schools, or incorrect assignment to special education programs that limit their learning opportunities. Poverty and nomadic lifestyles saddle Roma children with learning deficits that teachers and the educational system lack the training, time and flexibility to address.

“What this project does, which is unusual, is it takes the principals and the teachers into these communities to get to know the humanity of the Roma people,” Kalantzis said. “On common ground, it becomes a very different kind of relationship. They put a social worker/psychologist and an educator in every one of the Roma communities, and together with the community leaders organize transport of the children to school. They also give a lot of assistance to the families, especially the women, to help them value formal education and support the children in attending school.”

Social workers, in conjunction with facilitators in the Roma communities, monitor children’s progress and address obstacles that might impede their school attendance, such as transportation. Getting children to school is a significant problem for many families since Roma often live in isolated settlements, and Greece lacks both public transit and school bus systems.

The project is addressing issues of discrimination and stigmatization through cultural diversity training and professional development opportunities for teachers and school officials, including workshops on pedagogical issues, classroom management and teaching Greek as a second language. Adult Literacy Centers have been opened to help Roma youth and adults earn school certificates and tackle barriers to employment.

Cope and Kalantzis, who are marital as well as research partners, became involved early on and collaborated on the project framework. This summer, they conducted site visits at three disparate Roma communities to evaluate the initiative’s effectiveness midway through the program, gather stakeholders’ perspectives and provide critical feedback.

“The Roma men said that this project mattered to their community, and then they’d explain why in these economic terms,” Kalantzis said. “For the men it was this economic imperative – their survival in a Greece that’s now in financial collapse.”

One of the researchers’ recommendations – and their emphasis during the next project phase – will be helping teachers learn how to use multimedia tools to achieve their instructional goals, reach students who may be unable or unwilling to attend schools and offer new learning strategies.

“New technology allows you an opportunity to reach people in a way you couldn’t before,” Kalantzis said. “You’d be surprised at how many of them were able to access a computer or had a mobile phone. And if they’re not going to go to a regular school because of the prejudice and the difficulties, the new technology offers the possibility of taking learning to them and taking community to them. And funding a bunch of computers in a community resource center is a lot cheaper than building a school.”

Telling stories using video, music or other new media can strengthen children’s literacy skills by integrating their existing knowledge and life experiences in ways that seem “more dynamic, exciting and relevant” than conventional literacy activities, Cope said.

The researchers plan to return to northern Greece for site visits at other Roma communities, although a date has not been set.

“For us, as educators, every one of these sites matters,” Kalantzis added. “How do you get engagement? Teach language? Deal with prejudice? These are things that we as educators deal with all the time in different contexts. These are just the hardest of contexts, which test your expertise and can be very heartbreaking.

“We’ve been doing this work now for over 25 years. We’re committed to making a difference in the most difficult communities because if you don’t do that, it’s a blight on everybody’s aspirations.”

Cope is a faculty member in the department of education policy, organization and leadership, which is a unit in the College of Education at Illinois. Kalantzis is a faculty member in the department of curriculum and instruction as well as dean of the college.

The couple recently released both a Web-based multimedia environment for literacy activities called Scholar and a new book, titled “Literacies” (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which explores the use of new media in literacy instruction.

Editor's note: Photos of the Roma settlements and project participants taken by the researchers are available upon request. To contact Mary Kalantzis, call 217-333-0960; email kalantzi@illinois.edu. To contact Bill Cope, email billcope@illinois.edu.

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