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Montenegro Focuses on Education Reform - 2002-10-24

As the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro works to emerge from decades of communism and years of Balkan wars, one key element is its education system. The republic faces challenges as it tries to strengthen and modernize its education system.

Before last week's elections, the Montenegrin parliament was working on a package of education reforms. Now, experts hope, the new parliament will adopt those reforms quickly.

Long-time Balkans watcher Peter Palmer of the International Crisis Group, who is based in Podgorica, says the reforms are urgently needed.

"In terms of developing the personnel capacity in Montenegro and having people who are running a functioning, modern state, education is certainly key," he said. "Montenegro is underdeveloped. It has a high proportion of illiterate people by European standards, even by Balkan standards."

Officials put Montenegro's illiteracy rate at around six percent, but outside analysts say it could be much higher.

Groups like the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, and the private group Children's Horizon are working with Montenegro's Education Ministry to change that, and also to usher in other reforms. Among the goals is more ethnic tolerance.

The Balkan wars, large numbers of Albanian refugees, and Roma migrants have stirred religious and ethnic sentiments.

New textbooks are being introduced that are free of ideology. Interactive learning, encouraging problem solving, is emphasized rather than memorization of facts. And children participate in workshops promoting understanding and appreciation of ethnic diversity.

At the Bozidar Vukovic School in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Podgorica, 13-year-olds learn about their rights, including freedom of religion and expression, protection from sexual abuse and the right to education.

Student Ferizaj Mirsada, who is a Roma or gypsy, says she is happy to know what rights she and others have and to be able to talk about them with her classmates.

Her Montenegrin friend Marija Milic agrees.

"It is very important to learn about freedom, to be a free person, to think about our future," she says. "And also these kinds of workshops give us a good opportunity to discuss and see how other people think."

Ethnic-Albanian student Nermin Radivojevic says he is now more interested in making friends with people from different backgrounds.

"I think it is good for us. We meet some other people who are not like us," he says. "We learn about them and they learn about us."

The school's principal says the workshops are having an impact. Roma and Albanian students are doing just as well academically as the native Montenegrin students and they are successfully integrating into the school.

UNICEF official Branka Kovacevic says the initial changes made in Montenegro's educational system are motivating both students and teachers to learn.

"They like the new approach in education. They don't feel embarassed to respond," she says. "They rely on the teacher's role as advisor but not as a traditional teacher. They are more open to communication, to presenting ideas."

Ms. Kovacevic says teachers report that students are working more closely together and are learning ways to cooperate, which are important skills in nation and community building.

But analyst Peter Palmer of the International Crisis Group cautions that small steps in education will take a long time to have any impact on how Montenegro is run.

"This is a long haul. It is not going to happen perhaps so easily," he says. "And far too many people who are now in public administration are of the old Communist mind-set. Far too many of the bright young educated people have been snapped up by international NGOs where they can earn far more money."

Ms. Kovacevic of UNICEF says one problem is that cash-strapped Montenegro lacks sufficient funds to develop more programs like the one at Bozidar Vukovic School.