Hidden Treasure coming to Light
By Didi Ananda Devapriya
In December 1989, the oppressive communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu fell. Soon following the revolution and the parting of the Iron Curtain that had isolated Romania from Western Europe, AMURT and AMURTEL volunteers crossed the borders to bring in humanitarian aid. After initial assessments of the situation, one of the first projects that Didi Ananda Sugata set up was a Neohumanist kindergarten in an impoverished neighbourhood in the north of Bucharest. The holistic, interactive, creative and joyful atmosphere of the kindergarten was in stark contrast to the rigid, authoritarian style of the public educational system that had developed under Communism. In fact, during that period of deep transition, a representative from the Ministry of Education had made a written request to Ananda Marga to revamp the educational system of Romania. When Dada Shambhushivananda brought the letter to Shrii P. R. Sarkar while he was in the hospital, he was very pleased and went on to say that he had much more to say about education. Shortly afterwards, he was released from the hospital and called a meeting of His workers one evening, announcing that he was scrapping the current board of education and forming a new organism called Ananda Marga Gurukula.
Meanwhile, in Romania, aid was pouring in to provide relief in the appalling and inhuman conditions that the world was shocked to discover existed in the Communist State Children’s homes. Ceaucescu’s grand schemes for a powerful Romania included increasing the population by restricting all forms of birth control and penalizing women that did not produce children. As a result, families had more children than they were able to provide for, and many families were forced by poverty and circumstances to abandon their children in these state institutions, where they believed that they would receive better conditions. However, the disturbing reality was that children were severely neglected, physically, emotionally and even sexually abused, malnourished, and otherwise traumatised in such institutions.
In 1995, with the help of the Swedish Infant Massage Association, AMURTEL opened a second kindergarten, designed to model the inclusive education of children with special needs in a mainstream setting. People with special needs had been socially marginalized and excluded from society during Communism. Communism was supposed to have solved all the society’s problems, so entire professions, such as psychiatry and psychology were disbanded, and parents of children born with disabilities received no support to raise their children but were rather pressured to abandon the child. Such children were then whisked away to special institutions in rural areas deliberately removed from contact with the rest of the population. Children’s homes for children with disabilities were know as institutions for the “Irrecoverables”, and the conditions there were the worst of the worst, resembling the horrors of concentration camps. As “Gradinita Rasarit” (Sunrise Kindergarten) was among the very first in Bucharest to integrate such children within a mainstream group, some of the parents had had literally no contact with special needs and were afraid that diseases such as cerebral palsy may be contagious and affect their own children.
I arrived in 2005, and was immediately impressed by the vision of the Didis that had previously run the projects, as they had been designed in such a way that the Didi’s role was more of an overall coordinator, rather than a micro-manager of the administrative details of a single project. I soon came to appreciate the dependable team that the Didis had formed, and learned the art of coordinating and supervising.
In the summer of 2006, I met a vibrant Croatian margii sister named Hemavati. I was fascinated as she told of her experience in Croatia, setting up a PCAP campaign that ended up winning national attention, as well as her experience in the “My First Book” program. She challenged me to expand my mind and take on a bigger target “How can you bring NHE to all of Romania?”
As I worked with our staff in projects, I soon realized that we had some very valuable jewels. We had the extraordinary gift of a talented and dedicated core staff with more than 15 years of experience that had embraced and internalized Neohumanist education in a very personal way.
However, the kindergartens were hidden treasures that only the few parents and children that had directly come into contact recognized. Although we had developed a model of inclusive education with the intention to have an impact on
the traditional system, Neohumanist education was still an invisible actor on the stage of educational reform. I began researching and contacting NGOs involved in children’s rights and early childhood education, and discovered that the issue of shifting the educational paradigm to one of social inclusion, rather than isolating special needs children in “special schools” and institutions, was still extremely relevant. Though legislation had changed in a positive way, there was remained a lack of practical examples of inclusive education.
As I further researched, I was also surprised to discover, that another NGO, called Step by Step, had entered Romania only ten years ago, with the specific objective to influence the development of the society towards democratic values and principles by focusing on child-centred early childhood education. Through their focused advocacy efforts on the national level, they had already had a significant impact on the mainstream Romanian curriculum, conducting trainings, producing materials and setting up their own model kindergarten. As a direct result, a new early childhood education curriculum had been developed, synthesizing some of the best educational practices from other European countries, and it was actually quite holistic in vision. Again, implementation remained problematic as teachers continued to be entrenched in their previous habits and due to the lack of contact with practical models and examples.
Within this context, I sensed that Neohumanist Education could have a significant role to play, especially considering the wealth of practical experience accumulated by our teachers in holistic and inclusive education. But what had prevented this from happening so far?
I realized that in order for NHE to be able to have any significant impact on education in general in Romania, it was imperative to authorize the kindergartens, so that they could enter into dialogue with other institutions, and overcome the isolation in which they had existed until then. In order to do that, we would need to have qualified staff. So the first step was to sign up two of our key teachers for a university degree in early childhood education. AMURTEL sponsored their tuitions, and in three years they finished their degrees. In the meantime, we also began the long and arduous bureaucratic process of obtaining authorization. One of the pre-requisites for authorization from the Ministry of Education was also to obtain various authorizations certifying the building as adequate as a kindergarten – which were different standards than those applied to day-care centres. This involved major renovations and restructuring of the spaces to meet all of the requirements. It also required extensive amounts of managerial plans, procedures and documentation. When the Ministry of Education arrived for the authorization inspection, the process lasted 12 hours – from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening. They systematically went through every detail of our management systems according to a checklist and after this exhaustive process, we were at last granted authorization.
The 2009-2010 school year was thus the first year in which the schools had to operate under the quality standards of authorization. We were required by the standards to hire a director with a minimum of 5 years of experience and a special “Grade 1” test. None of our staff was able to satisfy these requirements, but our new educational director, Magda proved to be another jewel – as she was able to synthesize her 30 years of experience in the state system as a director, with the intuitive resonance she felt with the NHE system. She offered valuable support and guidance for our teachers in meeting the required standards while preserving the NHE spirit.
She came together with one of our main teachers, Madhavii, to the ETC held in Holland in February 2010, and there she expressed to me “We really should authorize the NHE curriculum as an alternative curriculum- you will lose too much of its uniqueness trying to blend it with the national curriculum”. She also felt concerned that our teachers were getting frustratingly bogged down in all of the excessive documentation required by the national curriculum. In June 2010, I set aside a week, which then extended into many more, in which our core staff gathered together with Magda and myself and we began an intensive process of articulating a coherent and unique NHE curriculum that would accurately reflect NHE principles. We systematically covered everything from how to design the educational environment, a planning framework, partnership with the family, inclusive practices, etc in a document that ended up being about 55 pages long. Philosophical concepts such as Vistara, Rasa, Seva as well as Yama and Niyama are woven throughout the entire curriculum giving it depth, while maintaining a professional and accessible language that avoids sanskrit terminology.
In September we submitted the curriculum to the Ministry of Education and already received an initial response after it was analyzed by a commission of experts. The response was encouraging and positive. We have been asked to reorganize some of the chapters and further clarify our teacher training process, as well as some other details. In the meantime we have requested a temporary authorization to apply the system in our kindergartens this year, and are awaiting a response. The seed of Neohumanist Education is continuing to unfold and bloom in Romania in a beautiful and exciting way.