University students visit Roma homes to give school children private lessons

This month, a new mentoring project will be launched in the Moravian capital Brno, in which university students visit the homes of Roma schoolchildren to motivate them and help improve their grades. The Association of Roma in Moravia has earmarked some 350,000 crowns (just over 14,000 US dollars) for the project - enough for free private tutorials until the end of next year.

Michaela Cenkova is a social worker in Brno. Her office is located in one of the city's worst districts; dubbed by most residents the 'Roma, or perhaps less kindly, 'Gypsy' ghetto'. The majority of Roma people in the city were born and raised there. So why are they among the poorest?

"Before 1989, Czechs did not have to worry about employment, housing, health care and other necessities. The Communist regime took care of everything for them. Suddenly, after 1989, people were left on their own. They found themselves faced with the task of finding a job, caring for their children, having a place to stay and so on. The Roma community found it hard to adapt to this change and still fails to understand that the state will no longer give them what they fail to get themselves."

But those who do look for a job have little to offer. Only a fraction of the community has finished secondary school, is computer literate or speaks a foreign language. In order to lead a better life, says Michaela, the Roma community will have to re-think its priorities. Several dozen students from Brno's Masaryk University will be paid to visit Roma families to act as mentors, help teenagers get into secondary school, and give them lessons to help them pass their graduation exams:

"Only a small number (of Roma) integrate into the rest of society mostly because education is very low on their list of priorities. This attitude is so deeply rooted because it is handed down from generation to generation. That's why we are hoping to persuade young Romanies of the value of education. The children will be motivated by the students because most of their parents can't even read or write. They do not care whether their child comes home with a bad grade. To them other things such as caring for elderly or sick family members come first."

This is not the first such mentoring project: A few years ago, a similar but shorter-term project proved effective. The number of secondary school drop-outs decreased and some families even joined forces to convince others to accept help.