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Waiting for a spot

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For the past two weeks, six and seven year-olds in the Czech Republic have been in the limelight as state primary schools get their annual school registration underway. I’ve been fretting about Anna’s educational future ever since the late fall.

Just before we went to register Anna, I read a news story about a school in Ostrava, where parents of prospective new first graders waited overnight in a line to see if their child would be granted a spot in a popular neighborhood school. Far from being annoyed that they had to wait in a line, the parents instead believed in the democracy of the process, and cited the school’s top-notch English language program as well worth waiting for. Of course, in Czech fashion, hot drinks and dance music that one of the parents brought along made for an impromptu street party. Waiting in line wasn’t necessary for families that lived in the district, for those who didn’t, the wait, even on the cold winter night, symbolized an active step toward their child’s future.

Of course, Czechs are used to waiting in lines from Communist days when everything hard-to-come-by required a wait. When I thought about waiting in a line to get Anna into a particular school, I had a nightmarish vision of my three children running wild circles around me while I cursed myself for thinking English education (or any other special opportunity) in a Czech state school was worth the wait. Truly though, I am thrilled that English is being offered to more and more Czech students from a young age.

At Anna’s preschool, the buzz in the dressing room among the students was less about where they’ll go to school and more about what types of “tasks” they might be expected to complete at the registration. Typically, during the registration process, while parents fill out necessary paperwork, each child meets with a teacher who asks various questions to demonstrate their basic abilities, including writing their own name as well as doing basic counting and shape and color recognition. Some of the other tasks we heard about included showing shoe tying proficiency as well as recognizing icons, like Krtek (the little mole), from Czech fairytales. Although none of these tasks seem particularly difficult, considering the fact that Czech preschools focus primarily on playing, it seems a bit daunting to be “tested” up front. However, Anna and her friends didn’t seem to take the “test” as seriously as their parents did.

The majority of Czech students attend the primary school that is assigned to their neighborhood or village; however, there is no requirement other than the stipulation that a student of age 6 by September of the coming school year must register somewhere. Without a particular village school to go to, I felt almost cursed with the freedom to choose. After our return from the States, Anna and I had visited three different schools and come away from them all with positive impressions. On one hand, I was relieved to see my worries about the standard of Czech education and the quality of the school facilities wouldn’t be an issue. Each of the schools that we visited seemed good enough, and in each of the schools there seemed to be at least a few examples of bilingual or multicultural families.

The decision to choose a Czech state school was both a financial and a cultural decision. Although we have friends with children enrolled in private international American and British schools, with the hefty price tags of between CZK 300 000 and CZK 400 000. In the end, it was just too much for our family to invest in a primary school education. Although we’ve heard rave reviews from families whose children are in these school systems, we’ve also heard the parents complain about the financial burden of tuition. Culturally, we wanted our children to know that they are Czech and that they belong in this country. We also felt it’d be wiser to invest any extra funds we had in a university education or an education abroad experience.

I was dismayed to read on the eve Anna’s registration about results of international testing, which shows the Czech Republic has slipped dramatically in almost all areas of learning, including literacy, mathematics and sciences. Despite a current overhaul of the educational system, which includes allocating greater funding per student than in previous years, test scores in the Czech Republic have dropped significantly behind those in other Western European countries. This year the Czech Republic scored below its European neighborhoods and was on par with countries such as Mexico, Turkey and Chile. However, it seemed that the results were most significantly lower in the upper grades, and vocational schools were cited as failing to provide their lower level students with adequate support. I was hopeful that the current changes in the system would improve the standards in the upper grades by the time our children reached such levels.

The push to learn English is so strong at the elementary level, that schools are now offering 3 or 4 hours of English instruction a week; however, there aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill the need. While courses in English are mandatory from the third class (with all the schools we visited offering it optionally from the first class), they are often taught by a classroom teacher who doesn’t have a language degree. Only one of the schools that we visited offered a native speaker to teach language courses. As an English teacher myself, I knew that because of the low pay rates, teaching at a Czech state school wouldn’t be a prime position for most foreigners.

When making our decision, we opted to choose a school with a good standard of overall education, rather than picking one with special English programs. For now, I would try to meet Anna’s English requirements at home, and I hoped to later work with her school to introduce English at a higher level or perhaps another language which might be more beneficial to her.

I had heard rumors that spots in certain schools would be hard to come by this year, due to the large volume of children enrolling. When I mentioned my fear about not finding space for Anna to our pediatrician, she said that nowadays schools are trying to fill their classrooms so that they can get maximum funding from the state. In fact, on registration day we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the school we’d chosen seemed to be rolling out the red carpet for us.

Anna’s arrival was noted with pleasure by the secretary who greeted us at the door. She directed us down the hall to a room filled with teachers where the registration was to take place. After a short wait, Anna was whisked away by a photographer who took her picture for a school calendar. While I filled out the necessary paperwork, Anna spoke with a teacher. I could see her nervous face and I desperately wanted to know what was going on at their table. However, I knew that any interference from me would be unacceptable, so I bit my tongue and waited to hear her report. After twenty minutes of examination, Anna left the room clutching a paper suitcase, backpack and her calendar, all free gifts from the school. Her trepidation about the examination was replaced by sheer delight as she examined her loot. Whether or not I was ready for her to be a first grader, there was no doubt in her mind that she was ready to begin her school career.

Now we’re waiting to receive an official letter from the school saying that Anna’s been accepted, but in Anna’s mind the decision had already been made. Now she’s on to greater tasks, like what to pack in her new backpack on her first day of school.

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