The Open Day Experience
After I compiled a list of open days, it was time to start visiting. At some schools, there were a mere 45 minutes of open-ness; in others, the whole day. The open day experience was very different from one school to the next.
The first one, at ZŠ Hanspaulka, was very encouraging. The entire school was converted into an interactive, educational experience. Each classroom was “staffed” by students, who welcomed you and showed off their projects – each representative of a different field of study. I entered a class devoted to astronomy, and saw student-built models of the solar system. Another room was a battle arena for robots the kids had made. These kids seemed confident, well-informed, and happy to share their learnings. One of my concerns about Czech schools was: can they teach good presentation skills? This is so important to success, and even today Czech students are on the shy side. But these kids were future leaders and I was impressed. Even the exit procedure was progressive: place a sticker somewhere on this poster to indicate how you felt while here: good, not so good, or terrible. We put our stickers right on “great!”
The next school was ZŠ Pod Marjánkou, recommended for its focus on language learning, and favored by me for its exchange program with a school in Denmark (where I’m from). At the entrance, an administrator assigned me a student guide who led me around, pointing out which room was designated for which purpose. That was about it. It seemed acceptable, if a bit out of our way, but I was willing to register anyway. Until I saw the administrator read over my exit questionnaire; her head-shaking and muttering prompted me to ask if there was an issue. “Yes,” she replied. “If this child can’t speak Czech, she would surely have a problem.” Or was it “be a problem?” I couldn’t tell, thanks to my bad Czech. But I got the clear impression foreigners were not welcome.
The next school I visited bolstered my hopes again. At ZŠ Náměstí Svobody, open day began with the principal leading our group into an auditorium. She was a good communicator and I learned a lot from her effective presentation. She then answered all our questions. When I asked how non-Czech-speaking kids would be handled, she said they had many foreign kids at the school already, and this was not a problem for them. Another mom asked about the acceptance rate, and the principal said that while she could make no guarantees, last year everyone who applied got in.
By this time, I had feedback from other parents on their quests – some described their open day experience as being a complete non-event: no one there to welcome them, no specific information given out, and no structure. They were left to wander the halls, peeking into this room and that – and I agreed with them that this wasn’t enough to get a sense of how a school really is.
A few days before Christmas, my kids I took part in an open day at Nebušice’s lesser-known school – the public school. This was less of an informational tour for prospective parents, and more about holiday crafts for families already enrolled. In one room, we made a snowman greeting card; in another, we rolled candles out of beeswax. The science room was exciting – students wowed us with their potion-making and laboratory demonstrations. Through our own curiosity, we poked around the entire building – which had some lovely spaces in the newly reconstructed attic. But the event itself was clearly intended more as a community event for people who already knew the school. No one was on hand to “sell” the school to us, though there was an informative exhibit on the role of carp in Czech history.
During our final open day, at ZŠ Emy Destinnové, something clicked. At the appointed hour, parents and would-be students gathered in the cloakroom, where the principal greeted us and took us to the gym. He described the school, which clearly had a lot to offer, and answered our many questions. From this session, I learned that while Emy Destinnové begins English instruction already in the first grade, they also offer Czech lessons for children who need them. This was a far cry from the “foreigners not welcome” feeling I’d gotten elsewhere. There were other details I liked about the school. The first and second grades are housed in a separate building. The kids seemed lively and happy. They sang songs in English. There were interactive whiteboards in each classroom. There was a dedicated computer lab. My husband, daughter, and I felt that we had found our first choice school.
Will You Get In?
Choosing the school you want is not enough. There’s a hierarchy that determines who is accepted, and these are decided by the district. Prague 6 publishes its criteria here.
If the number of applicants exceeds the spaces at a school, preference will be given based on the following criteria:
1. Child who has trvalý pobyt (residence) in the immediate vicinity.
2. Child who has trvalý pobyt in Prague 6.
3. Child who has an older sibling already attending the school.
4. Child who has trvalý pobyt in a district which pays supplementary contribution to the school.*
To know whether you qualify or not, you may need to ask the school for their vicinity map. You’re either on it or you’re not. As to point #4: some districts don’t have a designated school. If so, your district allocated funds to certain schools in other districts who can accept you. Ask at your local Mestský úrad (municipal office) to find out with which schools such an arrangement exists.
Hanspaulka gave me much-needed confidence in the Czech state school system. I would have signed up then and there. But before long I learned that this sought-after school is very hard to get into. Not all Prague 6 kids make it. And we don’t even live in Prague. If they’re turning away local kids, what chance would we have? A friend who was friends with the vice principal offered to see if she could get us a spot…but I said ‘no thank you’. I was determined that whatever happened, we wanted to go through the proper channels. Not everyone will have lucky connections and I wanted to learn how the system really works – for the benefit of others in the same situation.
I then met a man who said I would have no trouble getting into any school of my choice, “if I brought an envelope along on registration day.” This really impacted me – it was my closest first-hand encounter with the shadowy world of corruption. “And what would one put in this hypothetical envelope?” I asked. “Fifty ought to do it. No one will admit it, but they all accept it.” This struck me as wrong on so many levels. If local kids are turned away due to lack of space, but suddenly one of the first graders comes in from a village in Středočeský kraj, wouldn’t that seem suspicious? Anyway, I don’t want to begin my daughter’s scholastic career with that kind of energy.
The Big Exam
The upshot of all this was that I knew I wanted my daughter in a school that wanted her, too. With Emy Destinnové, I felt that was the case. This was confirmed on “signup day”. Our family arrived and was warmly greeted. The principal was on hand to field our questions of where to go and what to do. When they realized they were dealing with a largely non-Czech speaking student, they went to the trouble of finding an English-speaking teacher to give her the exam.
Before the exam, we filled in the necessary forms using the documentation we were told to bring: her birth certificate, our Občanský průkaz (or passports), and Trvalý pobyt. We were assigned a code to enter on a website a few days later, to see whether we got in. They asked if we had a preference for any particular teacher. Not knowing any, we answered “no” but said if there was one who spoke some English, that would be nice. They assured us they had the perfect teacher. The exam itself consisted of identifying colors, basic counting, singing a song, and drawing a picture.
They gave my daughter a small booklet, and asked that she write her name. It contained three graphics: a child holding a pencil (fine motor skills); singing a song/poem (verbal skills); and cards with numbers and colors (identifying and describing). As she completed each task, the teacher stamped the book. We got to keep it – the teacher just gave a nod to a colleague who made a note. Our daughter was then given a small gift which, to this day, means a great deal to her.
To find out whether we were in or not, we needed to visit the website a few days later and enter our code. We made it – we got in to our first choice school! This was a momentous occasion, and we celebrated the milestone. Mind you, we had not applied to any other schools, because I was under the mistaken impression that this was frowned upon. The fact is, it’s not “illegal” to sign up for more than one school. Will they give preferential treatment to people who apply only to the one? Who knows. If you don’t get into your first choice, the “system” will place your child in another school, but it may not be your second choice. So perhaps it’s wise to put your second choice wishes out there.
These “signup days” (zápis) happen just once a year, and if you don’t sign up, that second school may not be aware of any interest on your part. I know in our case, the second-choice school was nowhere near the first choice, geographically. And it “needed” students, so we would probably have gotten in. So put your thoughts and preferences out there when registering.
The system is not inhumane. You may get a call from someone in administration about why you chose the school(s) you did. I’m sorry I can’t take you down the route of what to do if you don’t manage to get into your top/only school. If at least one parent speaks Czech well enough to dialogue with the school, you will surely get all the information you need, and if neither of you do – but your child is ready for school – there is still hope to be had. Emy Destinnové is not the only forward-thinking, inclusive school, and all around us things are improving as schools recognize the value of diversity. Good luck!