Smoothing the Transition of Roma Children from the Trailer Park to School
In the city of Leuven, Belgium, many initiatives have been taken over the years to increase the participation of children of the Rom Traveller families in the nearby schools. The efforts of different welfare organizations ensured that by September of 2021 90% of the Rom children were present by the start of the new school year. Various efforts contributed to this success, including exchange visits organized by REYN Belgium and providing insights and inspiration from the REYN network. The strength of the experience in Leuven is that different social organizations work together towards the same purpose: to ensure that Roma children attend school regularly and feel comfortable there, and that there is good school-parent cooperation.
At the residential trailer park in Leuven, 30 Rom Traveller families are living permanently. The city of Leuven has made a conscious decision to invest in the establishment of social support services for the Rom families. In concrete terms, this means that two employees of the city are responsible for the entire functioning of the trailer park in consultation with the Rom families. As the employees of the city of Leuven are regularly present at the trailer park, trust has been formed between the families and them over time. Two staff members are the Roma families’ point of contact for support questions in different areas of life. Because of the diversity of questions, there was the need to start a broader network of social professionals. This network – the so-called ROL team – consists of staff from Agency Child and Family, staff from the family support organization ‘De Mobil’ and social workers from the public centre for social welfare . With this group, two times a week they organize on-site consultations. In this way, they can take concrete action with regard to the families’ requests for support on different life domains, each on the basis of their own expertise. They work together with partners on housing, health, leisure activities for the youngsters. More and more parents by now are convinced that these services might be beneficial for them and their children and are willing to make contact.
Involving parents in the transition
These partners are also involved in creating smooth and warm transitions from home to the schools in the neighborhoud, and they do it by motivating and reassuring families along the process.
A couple of years ago, members from the family support organization ‘De Mobil’ started to regularly organize a play-and-meet-moment for young parents and their young children (0-5 years). These pre-school activities are still going on where children can play with toys and games, while parents chat and discuss topics on education and family life. Parents can work out a picture book on their families, as a starting point for conversation. In the future, they will be able to lend the toys for a certain period.
In organizing these activities on a regular basis, the professionals of ‘De Mobil’ have built a strong relationship with the families and have gained their trust. They also support the conversations between the parents themselves. One of the topics is going to school. Parents have many questions: how does it work, a school day? What do children there? How will the teachers react on children’s needs?
The staff of the local Agency Child an Family, who are also members of the ‘ROL team’ are involved in motivating and reassuring the families for school.
“While parents come to our consultation office for the medical check-up of their babies and toddlers, we talk about schooling. At first they think it’s too early for their child, but later they change their mind. We provide information on how to register, when school starts etc. Because they are not familiar with our education system, you’ve got to give them time.”Hanne, nurse from Child and Family Agency
To put further trust in going to school and as an action due to the pandemic, two schools in Leuven took the initiative to organize temporarily ‘homeschooling’. Two teachers came to the trailer park with lots of toys and playing-learning materials that are usually present in a toddler’s classroom.
“Parents have many concerns about the school: ‘What if my child is hungry or thirsty? Will somebody notice it and take care?’ By showing in their own environment how a toddler’s class is organized – with lots of toys and playful learning moments – they get acquainted with the benefits of schooling: ‘Look, it seems that he is just playing with little boxes, but he’s learning to count at the same time!’”Lies, homeschooling teacher
Homeschooling had a positive effect. Parents and children got a better idea of what happens at school. They started to foster the idea of sending their children to school more regular and were more and more reassured that early school participation was important and an added value.
“The homeschooling period was a very good warming up, building positive experiences and gaining more trust in ‘the real thing’. Because of the support of many services and people, this was successful. Other practical problems still remain, such transportation to the school.”Tim, social worker, city of Leuven
Due to these actions, the school supporting part of the project has been very successful: 90% of the children of the trailer park were attending school on September 1st, 2021. This is the result of many persistent actions of the ROL-team, two homeschooling teachers, other school teachers and directors.
“In August I went to visit all the families at the trailer park. You can call it a ‘motivation visit’. I wanted to prepare them that the first school day is coming. That helps a lot. On the first school days it is important to take away the worries of parents. We send them pictures and texts to show them that their child is happy here and he’s got a lot of friends. Many parents can’t imagine their children sitting next to non-Travellers-children…”Annick, school director
Thanks to the efforts of many, the transition from the trailer park to school is now much better. Still, it remains a precarious process, partly due to the corona pandemic, but there is much motivation among all partners to keep up the efforts when children talk about their experiences at school positively.
 Rom is one of the three groups of Roma population in Belgium. The other two are Travellers and Manouches/Sinti.