How a Woman Broke the Vicious Cycle of Gipsy Education in Hungary

Erika Csovcsics in 2020. Source: Facebook

Horse chestnut isn’t edible. But children like to collect them nevertheless. They are a symbol of autumn when schools restart. For some children that means seeing their friends again, for others it means experiencing prejudices – maybe for the first time in their lives.

It was 1999 in Pécs, a city in the south-west of Hungary when Erika Csovcsics created a new schedule for herself preparing for her new role as the next headmaster of the Gandhi Secondary School. She woke up early to read and to get the housework done. Her husband, János Bogdán died in a car accident that year. They had four children, the youngest one only three years old at the time. Bogdán was one of the founders and also the headmaster of the Gandhi where only gipsy children study. “It doesn’t matter where you go – Mexico, India, the USA, or Hungary – where there are regional poor cultures, where two kinds of cultures clash, that’s always going to be similar. Every place has its minorities, that’s what everyone should think about if they are to understand the gipsies’ position in Hungary,” Csovcsics explains. She was a stay-at-home mom before the accident happened and she had to “pull her head out of storybooks,” and put it into entirely different ones: books about the education of minorities and gipsy culture. “Some situations you are simply put into and you just do your thing,” she says.

“I don’t believe in teaching. I believe in learning.”

Csovcsics headed the school for ten years. In 2009, the new advisory board decided on another headmaster. The students protested but the decision was already made.

She and some of her colleagues found their new place in a primary school in Pécs. They renamed it Vadgesztenye, which means horse chestnut in Hungarian. If translated literally, it means wild chestnut, “vad” meaning “wild”. “We wanted the word ‘vad’ to be in it because we had many children with problematic behaviour,” Csovcsics adds.

The school was full of underprivileged and gipsy children. But students showed progress and enjoyed going to school – this was the feedback the new headmaster got from parents and students alike.

Csovcsics grew up in Várpalota, Hungary, among all kinds of people. Friendships were never based on who had good grades, as they rarely are among children. While most future teachers attend secondary schools before going to university, she attended a technical school. She had several classmates who weren’t good students – which is in general more unlikely in secondary schools – but became successful in life. She says her teachers focused more on how to raise good humans rather than to teach the students all the materials. At the time, she had no idea that one day she would be a teacher herself.

Children playing at the Vadgesztenye School in Pécs, Hungary. Photo provided by Erika Csovcsics.

These factors all contributed to the fact that she thinks about education very differently than most. “I don’t believe in teaching. I believe in learning,” she said during a presentation in 2018. This is an important part of her mindset that she elaborates on now as well. “Unless someone asks questions, they don’t concentrate on learning. Going into class with the idea that ‘this is something I want to teach you’ seems wrong to me,” she explains. “What I call learning is that the children ask questions and we start based on those. Most teachers are teaching the way they were taught, that’s why it’s difficult for them to change. They are just telling pieces of information. But if the leader of the staff supports the change, they are capable of shifting their mindset.”

When Csovcsics and her colleagues were doing job interviews for the possible future teachers at the Gandhi Secondary School, they had a surprising criterion. When hiring, it was a question at the job interview if the candidates had any difficulties in studying or in behaviour when they were at school. If they had some kind of trouble, that was the good thing.

“It’s a problem that most teachers were good students.”

According to Csovcsics, “It’s a problem that most teachers were good students. Good students are simply not able to put themselves in children’s shoes who aren’t good students. They can’t imagine that not everyone thinks the way they do.” She adds that they tend to be less tolerant and accepting as well. “They think that someone not being interested in something is a sin. And that needs to be punished. This approach prevents them from being innovative.”

In 2012, a new head office was formed under the Ministry of Human Capacities by the Orbán government in Hungary, called Klebesberg Centre. This became the main body responsible for education.

In 2019, the school district of Pécs, lead by the Klebesberg Centre decided that another headmaster should take over the school. Parents and children, again, were against this decision, and Csovcsics never got an explanation, just like ten years before.

When gipsy children with a poor background go to school, they are not prepared for what is expected from them at the age of 6. Csovcsics says that school has its expectations and because of their background, these children cannot fulfil them. “They can’t close the gap. It’s a vicious cycle, they end up in the same poorness. They have no steady income. An uneducated father might become the pimp of his own daughter because they need money from day to day. This is why they are more likely to be involved in crime,” she explains.

The only way out of this situation is through education. But education isn’t profitable right away. This was a big challenge for the Gandhi Secondary School. “We had a group travelling around the country, going to schools and then going to the parents. We needed them to trust us so they would let their children go to our school. We also needed them to understand that this will show a return many years later.”

And it did. Students graduating from the Gandhi became intellectuals with successful careers, many of them working in foreign countries – partly because the prejudices are still present in Hungary.

Horse chestnut isn’t edible. However, the seed extract has its benefits. But that’s something you have to work for. Csovcsics and her colleagues did the work in the shadows of the huge horse chestnut trees overlooking the school. And the valuable extract showed.

“I know what I’m doing is good,” she says. “I can always find places to help and other people to help with. So they can kick me out of everywhere, I don’t mind.”

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