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Expanding access to quality education

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Expanding access to quality education

© UNICEF Kosovo
The literacy classes are now available in 19 municipalities throughout Kosovo. To make it easier for women to attend, UNICEF provides day care to their young children while classes are under way.

One day last April, Mustafe Kasapi watched 22 boys race up and down a football pitch in southwestern Kosovo, slipping an occasional shot past the opposing goalkeeper. It was the kind of match children all over the world play each day, with one big difference: the boys on the visiting team were ethnic Albanians, while their victorious hosts were ethnic Serbs.

Ethnic and religious differences still haunt Kosovo, where 2 million inhabitants are slowly mending the damage wrought by a decade of unrest and war.Now an autonomous province of Serbia, it has been administered by the United Nations since the war ended in 1999. Talks are under way to resolve its formal status, but whatever their outcome, lingering tensions between the Albanian and Serb populations raise questions about what kind of place Kosovo will be.

Kasapi, a Kosovar Albanian who directs a primary school in Rahovec/Orahovac, holds out hope for apeaceful, pluralist society. The football match played last spring in a nearby Serb community reaffirmed optimism. “I noticed there was a Serbian girl who approached my son afterward,”he says. “They talked for a while and she wrote down his name and phone number. The children do not have prejudices.”

Not yet, anyway. But like people everywhere, some are sure to adopt the biases of their parents and peers as they grow older. Education is often the best antidote to such stereotypes, yet 45 percent of Kosovo’s schools were destroyed or severely damaged during the war. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of displaced families have put a strain on urban schools, leaving some rural ones undersubscribed. Moreover, outmoded curricula and antiquated teaching methods have discouraged creativity, critical thinking and openness to cultural differences.

With support from the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, children throughout Kosovo are now gaining access to quality education regardless of their ethnicity, religion or gender. Led by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), this six year campaign has rehabilitated 116 schools and rebuilt 22 others from the ground up. It has also helped retrain teachers, boost parental involvement and reform education policy and planning at the state level. Over time, these revitalized schools could greatly reduce illiteracy and poverty, aid reintegration of displaced families and curb discrimination - keys to a secure future for all Kosovars.

Efforts to restore access to education began soon after the war ended. First, UNICEF conducted a rapid assessment to gauge the condition of school infrastructure and identify large population shifts fueled by the conflict. It then rebuilt the schools that suffered the worst damage and supplied many others with basic learning materials, furniture, and upgraded water and sanitation systems.Years of disinvestment and strife took a toll on lesson plans and teaching methods, too. For nearly a decade, the Serb minority attended state-run schools while the Albanian majority cobbled together a parallel system-often holding classes in private homes. Now the situation is largely reversed: most Serb schoolchildren opt out of the mainstream schools, attending classes paid for by the Serbian government in Belgrade and taught, in many cases, in private homes.

In the 1990’s, both systems pushed nationalist curricula that played up old grievances. To bring educators up to date, UNICEF is working closely with more than 150 Albanian and Serb schools throughout Kosovo. In partnership with national and international aid groups, it has trained nearly 1,000 teachers to replace lectures with interactive discussions and group learning and organized 60 parent-teacher associations to foster community participation.

UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to modernize the school system in other important ways. Its guidance and technical support helped the ministry introduce standards for preschool education and develop subject curricula for primary and secondary schools. Given the high drop-out rate for girls, the campaign also launched 180 local initiatives to promote women’s literacy and advised the ministry on the design of a formal curriculum for such programmes.

The toughest challenge is creating multiethnic schools. Language barriers are one factor. Residential patterns are another, as Albanian and Serb populations gravitate to separate neighborhoods. Until the political climate improves, allowing the school systems to be unified, UNICEF is making sure its campaign reaches students of every ethnicity. “Our presence here in the north is an entry point into the community,” says Momcilo Arlov, a UNICEF field officer in the Mitrovicë/Mitrovica region, home to many Kosovar Serbs. “We need to show that we’re not ignoring them-that we treat all entities equally and run the same programmes here as in the majority community.”
Down in Rahovec/Orahovac, most students are Albanians. But because of a concerted outreach effort, Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian children (distinct groups often lumped together as “Gypsies”) now comprise 12 percent of the student body at the school Kasapi directs. Sadly, inclusion stops there. “We’re still concerned about not having any Serb children attend,” he says. “But it’s a long process. We have to negotiate with parents, teachers, the municipality and the Serb community. But there are other issues, including political pressures and financial incentives that prevent them from attending.”

Intimidation also plays a role. Most Serbs live in enclaves and lack the freedom to travel safely. Seven years after the war ended, casual threats and sporadic waves of violence continue to traumatize many schoolchildren. In an attempt at reconciliation, some Albanian and Serb schools are organizing multiethnic events, such as art exhibitions and football matches. They are also instructing students in conflict resolution, human rights and life skills to help them regain a sense of normalcy after years of war and conflict. Through the newly formed parent-teacher associations, the training reaches adults, too.

“Our goal is a unified, integrated school system,” says Agim Rraqi, a ministry official who oversees schools in the southern region of Prizren. “Quality education is one of the preconditions for making that happen.”

-- by Christopher Reardon




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