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Teachers Forum
April, 2001

Addressing Children's Needs in Pristina, Kosovo

Greta Kacinari,
Director Elena Gjika School,
UNICEF Pilot School,
Pristina, Kosovo

Interview conducted by
Jessie Grimond
Greta Kacinari

Elena Gjika is a UNICEF Pilot School in Pristina, Kosovo. It is one of the few schools to accommodate mixed nationalities. Of its 1,304 students, most are Kosovar Albanian, some are Turkish. It also caters for a number of deaf children. Its director, Greta Kacinari, has seen the school through many changes. Her imaginative approaches to teaching make this a vibrant school and an active partner in the UNICEF Pilot Schools project.

Briefly describe the conditions that have affected schools in Kosovo over the last ten years and explain how you have dealt with them.

Answer: From 1991 the education system started to change. Until that point, the school had accommodated several nationalities of children — Serbian, Albanian, Turkish, Roma and Ashkalia. In our school, when the changes began, the different nationalities were split up — the Serbian children were taught on the first floor of the school and in the gym hall, the Albanians on the ground floor, and the Turkish children in a separate wing. We began to operate under a ‘parallel system’ of education. We split because new regulations were brought in and we were asked to accept them. Until then, all of us in Kosovo had had the same curriculum — the Kosovar curriculum. It was different from the curriculum in Serbia, from the curriculum in Croatia. But the discriminatory changes introduced led us to refuse them. Then there was discrimination in the pay lists of teachers. Albanian teachers first had their pay reduced, and then were removed from pay lists entirely for several months.

In 1992 I was asked to be the principal for the Albanian school. I used to be an English teacher.

From June 1991 the school didn’t have a penny. Up until January ’92 the whole system was broken. But people who had been fired started to get together and it became the beginning of something new. An education council at the municipal level started to work a bit. Then parents, who had been giving money, instead of giving directly, organised themselves and gave money to their council and some people from abroad gave money. We each gave 5% of our salary and 10 DM per family. It was a time when we lived one day at a time. We didn’t have the opportunity to think at the optimum. Because we were all in the same position protecting ourselves, we were very linked to each other. The first year we cried, and then we started to think, to be positive and to be optimistic. "OK, the year of crying has passed. Now we have to think what to do." We didn’t know then that it would last for so long.

After that we started to make some very small changes. For instance, in the text books. At the time there were wars going on in Slovenia, Croatia, and later in Bosnia. There was a great psychological pressure: "What’s going to happen? What’s next? What’s next?" In ’98 we started to stabilise a bit, even in those conditions. We organised many activities: for instance, we made pressed flowers and we sold them to raise funds for the school. Parents helped out. People who had a bit more money bought books for others. It was a period of helping each other.

In 1999, the war came and people started to move. Children came from all over Kosovo, many from rural areas. Sometimes we had classes of more than 60 children. Teachers were saying, "How can we teach them?" I said, "This is the greatest lesson of our lives" and it was. The teachers didn’t complain. Children would come and go, sometimes staying only two days. The human side of each teacher was primary, their knowledge secondary. On 21 March ’99 the school closed. It didn’t reopen until after the bombing.

Q: Do you notice any big differences in the attitudes of children and teachers from their attitudes a decade ago?

A: In the teachers — no, in the children — yes.

In the past children didn’t have many opportunities beyond those we offered them. Now many children have spent time as refugees. During their time away they not only saw but felt what it was like to be included in the educational system. There are many children now who know what they want, who are ambitious. They are hungry to learn and to work. There are some also who know what they want, but who still don’t dare to pursue it. We are now at the beginning of a narrow tunnel. It will take time to get out into the open. I constantly see, feel and hear how children’s emotions have changed. ‘The Family’ has changed: there are some children who have lost parents; and children both of whose parents now work so spend much of their time alone.

Q: How much influence are children having in their own education in your school?

Greta Kacinari A: The children are very involved in the running of the school. We encourage them to take on responsibilities. For instance, one group of students looks after an aquarium full of fish and must make sure they stay healthy.

We have put two computers into a classroom for 8th Grade Children and trust them not to damage them. We are giving them more freedom. There are a few teachers who still cling to the old system and are reluctant to hand over the keys for the room. But the children have already proved themselves in many ways. For instance, they have decided to put the 25DM they each earned writing for the Oxfam magazine towards waste paper baskets and CD-ROMs for the school.

Another group of 11 year old students has taken the initiative to mend damaged models of a head and a sun that stand at the bottom of the school stairs. They have even made makeshift paper curtains for the classroom where they are working.

A student council helps to decide on new school rules and regulations. Each class contributes suggestions and these are displayed on a notice board and the best ones selected.

The UNICEF Pilot Schools project is getting children more involved in the running of the school. We have set up a committee of children, parents and teachers. The children on this committee are confident and will talk. We hope others will grow in confidence from their example.

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Last revised April 1, 2001
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