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Resistance and devotedness: learning democracy under pressure

by Kitti Baracsi

If
we imagine democratic education as entire school communities practising
participation, to what extent can schools escape the current approach taken in
the public education system? What if they encounter hostility and restrictions?
Can we learn democracy through transgressions and resistance? This article
tells the story of three school communities where participation and solidarity
are growing under pressure.[1]
Examining democratic practices on the ground and the conflicts that arise gives
us insights into what is at stake in state schools.

Having
a say, feeling part of a community

“When
your kids attend a state school, you usually just take them there and pick them
up. Nobody ever asks you how
to do things, so in return, you do
nothing
[1] .
That’s it; somehow you become too unconcerned. But this school was different.
We had to think about what was important to us”, says Katalin Walter, whose daughter attended Vadgesztenye school in Pécs-Somogy,
on the outskirts of Pécs, Hungary.[2]
This small, previously pretty much unknown state elementary school made
national news following the rise and fall of a community-based project launched
in 2017.[3]
It all began with an idea by Erika Csovcsics, who at the time ran the group of
institutions to which this small school belonged.[4]
Radical methodological changes had been introduced, e.g. working in
mixed-age groups, with some teaching done outdoors, in nature for instance.
Many of the introduced practices emphasised the
importance of the community. Accordingly, a number of middle-class families
decided to enrol their children at this school, which was already caught up in
the segregation process.[5]
They could have chosen to send their children to another school, but felt they
would get an exceptional education there. The
initiative counted on the participation of families, with working groups formed
to reach decisions about educational issues and to closely monitor what went
on at the school.

Protest, Granada, 2018 (Photo by Kathryn Palmateer)

“You
know, the principal reason for enrolling my children at this school was the organic canteen”, was something that parents of kids
attending the Gómez Moreno elementary school in Albayzín, a district of Granada
in Spain, would often say.[6]
The issues here are not simply the importance they attach to their children’s
eating habits and health, or teaching food sovereignty. Since the school
canteen has been managed by the families’ association for 17 years now, parents’ direct involvement and collective
decision-making in assemblies, like the organisation of a wide range of
programmes in addition to the canteen, give the families involved a sense of
community and agency.[7] This provided a perfect ground[2]  for initiating the
learning communities (comunidades de
aprendizaje
)  project[8]
back in 2015.[9]
This project focuses on joint educational actions designed to foster social and
educational transformation based on two key factors: interaction and community participation.  Among other things, it entails direct involvement in so-called ‘interactive groups’, lessons
where families and other volunteers play curriculum-related games with the children in small groups. According to María Dolores López López[10], the
school’s chief of studies and volunteer
coordinator over the last 4 years, this project enabled better
collaboration between the families’ association
and the school and also contributed towards the school’s significant
improvement, as reflected in the rising number of enrolled students and greater
public recognition. The families warmly welcomed the project. As she put it:
The best moment was the so-called dreaming when families talked
about the school they’d aspired for their children. It was a[3] [4] 
moment of faithfulness”.

Solidarity
in action

For
nine years, Marisa Esposito has been the head teacher at the Stefano Barbato
elementary school in the 69º teaching district in Barra, a neighbourhood of
Naples in Italy, where she has taken several initiatives aimed at enabling
families and the community as a whole to play an active role. Talking about the importance of community and the fight
against the territory’s disintegration, she mentioned a ‘time bank’, a
grandparents party, events with local artists
and a project on neighbourhood legends, in which mothers found a narrative
space to talk about their life, suffering and childhood. “We believe in
the
idea of the
[5]  educational community. Whatever we teach children, they
must find it at home, too”, she said in an
interview in 2018.[11]
According to Marisa Esposito, the neighbourhood where she was brought up has
changed over the years, turning into a place where fear and individualism
dominate due to the presence of organised crime. She therefore sees the main
purpose of the school as being to restore cohesion in the local community.
According to her, though, families do not see how education could offer their
children a better future. Still, the school is almost their only reference
point, since the neighbourhood has no other cultural spaces. Marisa’s mission
through the years has been to include Roma students. Thanks to her approach,
based on her experience as a social educator, [6] children felt free to go to her office and ask for advice or
support.[12]

Similarly,
the changes introduced at the Vadgesztenye school were drawn from extensive
experience and seemed to work, transforming it from an establishment with few,
mainly underprivileged pupils into a place where middle-class pupils and poor,
mostly Roma children met.[13]
“I guess there’s no need to explain how important it is to reduce social
inequalities and raise underprivileged children by educating them in Pécs.
Likewise, it’s unnecessary to say why it is important for well-fed middle-class
children to learn how to communicate with them and be sensitive to their needs.
Because as adults, they will live together”, writes Judit Szentendrei, a
mother whose children went to this school.[14] She
explains that her family, along with others, consciously decided to face this
challenge, taking tiny steps and facing many failures along the way. The families
treat the school and local environment as a place in which to act for
solidarity. Indeed, according to Judit Szentendrei, the biggest success story
has been that her children learned how to live alongside others.

Vadgesztenye, Pécs, 2018 (Photo Antal Szentendrei)

Learning
how to live together is also a central issue in the Gómez Moreno school, which
has children of approximately 25 different nationalities, some from foreign
middle-class families (referred to as guiris
by the locals), and others from local foster homes, with very diverse
backgrounds. The learning communities include participation in classroom
activities and decision-making, among other things. The work on participatory
processes and solidarity seems less deliberate than
it is in Vadgesztenye, but encountering different people and other realities is
part of everyday life for the children and their families. A transformation is
under way, but progress is slow. This project, as in Barra, crucially hinges on
the presence of teachers previously trained in specific methods as well as on the
dedication of the school’s management team.

Encountering
hostility

The school canteen in Gómez Moreno is the only organic one run by an
association of families in
Andalusia. So
its struggle is also symbolic. Unlike some other
regions in Spain, in Andalusia there is no law giving priority to family-run
organisations, so they have to compete in the
same tenders with huge catering companies offering lower prices but also
inferior quality, since they do not operate a kitchen on site (e.g. use
local ingredients), but transport food over fairly
large distances. In 2018, this prompted families −
and not for the first time − to take to the streets, shouting ¡No me toques la olla! (Don’t touch my
cooking pot!) and then barricade themselves inside the school for a week in a
display of resistance. A major caterer won
the tender, which was published and closed earlier
than usual, without the association being informed or
invited to take part in it.[15]
But their protest was successful, and the catering company decided to hand over
its contract to the association. However, their victory was only partial,
because for two school years the association have t[7] o
run the canteen for the price set in the tender whilst at the same time trying to
adhere to their organic and environmentally friendly principles.[16] The association of families, along with other associations
and platforms[17],
is now calling for a change in the regulations,
Clara Bermúdez Tamayo explained.[18]
That said, the demonstrations seem to have helped to build a sense of
community, one mother, Raquel Hernández Benítez, describing them as
“exercising a collective struggle, teaching children through first-hand
experience that when something is not right, we organise ourselves to fight it.
This is fundamental to active, critical and intelligent citizenship”.

In the case of Barra, as explained above, it is the
overall context that makes change difficult to achieve, especially introducing
the idea of Roma inclusion. Even those who agreed that Roma children also need
an education did not defend the head teacher when other parents attacked her
views.[19]
As she went on to point out, people are more prejudiced against Roma than
against criminals, to whom they have become more accustomed. After many
years of collaboration between the school and the Association N:EA[20], families seem to be accepting the presence of Roma children,
admittedly with a degree of resignation, but as something increasingly commonplace[8] . Also, thanks to Roma inclusion projects[21] introduced in a few classes, Roma and non-Roma children have access to improved teaching methods [9] and are
involved in a wider range of activities. For instance, some teachers have been
trained in cooperative learning. In this regard,
notwithstanding their genuinely problematic aspects[22], these
projects benefit the entire school community, partly due to the head teacher’s commitment to use them to realise her vision.

is lentejas me las dejas! (Hands off my lentils!) Protest, Granada, 8 May 2018 (Photo Kathryn Palmateer)

In 2018, Erika Csovcsics’s application to become[10]  the head
teacher at the Vadgesztenye school was
unsuccessful, and the new head teacher’s arrival has
changed everything, returning to the ‘traditional’ approach despite the
families’ efforts to reach an agreement. When families started to protest, they
were accused of wanting a school where studying was unnecessary and told
that administrative failings were the reason for bringing in a new principal. In the end, the families
managed to find a semi-private solution: learning groups were formed with the
children enrolled in a school in a nearby village, based on a special
agreement. “For me, the main achievements were that we managed to find a way
out and succeeded in keeping the group together. You know, we were the very
families who could have looked for another school, but we resisted for a really
long time because we didn’t want to leave others behind who might have had no other option”, added Katalin Walter. However, this arrangement only ended up lasting a year.[23]

This was no isolated case. Many alternative schools and learning
group initiatives are not exactly welcomed by the
Hungarian government. The recent amendment of the public education law[24]
introduced changes in how home schooled status
can be obtained
[11]  and
to curriculum requirements affecting private alternative
schools.[25]
The teachers and families see this as an attempt to
restrict projects that go beyond the centrally imposed agenda and have hitherto
been a refuge for families who did not want to comply with it.

Resistance
and devotedness

The
examples described above feature different agents of resistance, but power
relations within communities are another important aspect to consider. In the
case of the Vadgesztenye school, reversing the spiral into segregation by
bringing in middle-class families seemed the only way of
saving the school. A similar situation began to take shape at the Gómez Moreno
school, which had also seen fewer pupils enrolling over a number of years.
However, in the Albayzín district, the presence of Spanish and foreign
middle-class families in the school must be seen within the overall local
context, characterised by gentrification and the conflicts deriving from it.[26]

Still, the stories in this article show how resistance by a school community, albeit fleeting in some cases, and devotedness, can change children’s education. The three examples depicted here show that transgressing the dominant bureaucratic, methodological or ideological approach can prove effective for a while, though repressive dynamics kick in again when conflicts emerge. Flexibility and initiative are key factors in enabling such projects. But hostility on the part of the public administration also seems to inspire families and activists to some extent to take control of their kids’ education and call for change in the state education system. These initiatives are often tolerated and sometimes even supported (co-financed or recognised) by the authorities, but when it comes to conflicts of interests, bureaucratic arguments take precedence. Still, resistance enables these communities to create, learn and relearn democratic processes, think about their local context and take action based on their conclusions. A situated pedagogy works with critical interventions that incorporate the particularity of a place: it understands and combats structures of oppression with reference to the immediate context.[12] [13]  (Gruenewald 2003, Kitchens 2009). After all, thinking in these terms, what better way could there be of learning democratic resistance through first-hand experiences than fighting for local initiatives and adopting a solidarity-based approach?


References

Gruenewald, D. (2003).
Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious
Education, in: American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 619–654.

Kitchens, J. (2009).
Situated Pedagogy and the Situationist International: Countering a Pedagogy of
Placelessness, in: Educational Studies. 45(3) Critical Geographies in/of
Education, 240–261.

INCLUD-ED Strategies for
inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from education. Final report, (2012)
Available at:    https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es/uploads/materials/13/7a62b64132b4508ba1da8cbcc2043ac6.pdf  Final report. 2012.

Zolnay,
J. (2018). Commuting to segregation. The role of pupil commuting in a Hungarian
city: between school segregation and inequality, in: Review of Sociology 28(4),
133–151. Available at: http://szociologia.hu/dynamic/szociologia_2018_04_133_151_oldal.pdf.


[1] The author carried out
research projects at each of the described schools. See for instance Fare rione, fare scuola, a project run by the Orangotango
Collective under the Schools of Tomorrow programme of the House of the World’s
Cultures (HKW) in Berlin. The author is also involved in
the learning communities at the Gómez Moreno
school.

[2] The interview for this
article was conducted in September 2019.

[3] For instance: https://index.hu/belfold/2019/01/02/pecs-somogy_vadgesztenye_altalanos_iskola_csovcsics_erika_tankerulet_klik_pava_peter_hatranyos_helyzetu/

[4] Erika Csovcsics previously ran the Gandhi High School in
Pécs, the first Romani high school, founded in 1992.

[5] The segregation process referred to
here entailed non-Roma families starting to send their children to other
schools, other families doing the same and the number of new enrolments
dwindling. To learn more about the situation in Pécs, see a recent study on
commuting and segregation (Zolnay J., 2018).

[6] http://www.easp.es/blogmsp/2018/06/04/el-comedor-ecologico-gomez-moreno-un-espacio-de-promocion-de-la-salud-infantil/.

[7] AMPA Gómez Moreno Amigos de una Escuela Mejor
https://ampagomezmoreno.wordpress.com/

[8]  For more information about the learning
communities project in this particular school: https://www.observatoriodelainfancia.es/participanda/proyecto-comunidades-de-aprendizaje-del-ceip-gomez-moreno/

Information and methodological support in Spanish:  http://comunidadesdeaprendizaje.net/,  Actuaciones Educativas de Éxito https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es, or the report of the
INCLUD-ED project https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es/uploads/materials/13/7a62b64132b4508ba1da8cbcc2043ac6.pdf

[9] The project was devised by a group of
teachers in collaboration with the head teacher, Isabel López.

[10] The interview was
conducted in September 2019 for this article. María Dolores López López continued to work as a
volunteer coordinator under new leadership starting from the 2019/2020 school
year.

[11] The interview was
conducted by Paola Piscitelli in 2018.

[12] She worked as a maestra di strada (social educator).

[13] The number of newly
enrolled pupils rose from five in 2014 to 25 in 2018.

[14] From the open letter to
Péter Páva (head of the Pécs school district), written by Judit Szentendrei,
one of the mothers. Date: 12 December 2019. Translated by the author.

[15] https://www.ideal.es/granada/ceip-gomez-moreno-20180605194140-nt.html

[16]  https://www.elsaltodiario.com/educacion/familias-gomez-moreno-recuperan-comedor-acuerdo-empresa

[17] Plataforma por una
Alimentación Responsable en la Escuela (Comedores responsables), Escuelas de
Calor AMPA de Sevilla, Confederación Andaluza de AMPAs, FAMPA Granada

[18] Interview conducted in
September 2019 for this article.

[19]An hepatitis A epidemic triggered a violent
conflict between some families and the head teacher. The families accused the
Roma pupils of being the source of infection, while the head teacher defended
her position on including Roma children. https://ponticelli.napolitoday.it/barra/epatite-scuola-genitori-accusano-rom.html

[20] Associazione N:EA (Napoli: Europa Africa)

[21] The school is one of a number taking part in the ministerial project Progetto per l’inclusione di bambini e
adolescenti rom, sinti e caminanti
(Project for the inclusion of Roma,
Sinti and Caminanti children and adolescents).

[22] Such projects have
been criticised by professionals and researchers,
among others, for the discontinuity of their funding and for focusing on intervening at
the level of education without offering real solutions for Roma people’s
exclusion from the labour market and housing, thereby sustaining their
long-term marginalisation.

[23] When another head teacher
was appointed to run the village school, there was no way of maintaining the
former agreement, so children had to start the current school year dispersed across various schools.

[24] 2019/LXX, amending national public
education law 2011/CXC.

[25] Until recently, this status had
offered a way of participating in small, hitherto non-institutionalised
learning groups, while staying within the state education system.

[26] To learn more about the
neighbourhood’s problems, as seen by the children and other habitants, see the information on the  Albayzín, Human
Heritage project, involving collaborative
ethnographic research carried out in the school since 2018 by Kitti Baracsi,
Gloria Calabresi, Dario Ranocchiari and many other volunteers committed to the
learning communities project. http://lefthandrotation.com/museodesplazados/ficha_ceipgomezmoreno.html https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpZzLK42XzjdMaeXVzPi0Lw/videos


Kitti Baracsi is an educator, researcher and activist specializing in collaborative methodologies and critical pedagogy.