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Thales Academy

Organized by: Slobodan Milic

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THE STORY:

Background
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores a possibility that the role of talent in personal success has been exaggerated. He visits several talent “hotbeds” only to discover that talented kids are just kids with extraordinary teachers, strong working habits and inspiring environments. Gladwell highlights KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), an experimental charter school, first launched in South Bronx, that provides these factors of success to children who come from disadvantaged families, often from single parent households and destined to be school drop-outs. He describes how these schools were able to turn around the destiny of those students who made the effort, how support, love and hard work drastically changed their projected paths.

Thales Academy, inspired by the KIPP model and the idea that education is a crucial agent of empowerment and success, aims to work with a specific group of children from the most marginalized and under-privileged ethnic group in Europe – the Roma. One in ten Roma children finishes primary school, one in fifty finishes high school and one in three hundred graduates from University. The usual explanations for such figures are cultural and orientalist – Roma are nomads, living in the outskirts of towns and cities under rules different from mainstream societies. Very often, this gives grounds for discriminatory and racist attitudes towards the Roma.

The actual reasons for these devastating statistics have much more to do with the relationship societies have with the minorities rather than any cultural pretext. Roma children look different and are often so poor that they have to go to school wearing rags. They often don't speak proper Serbian when starting school, and consequently don't fully understand their teachers. Classmates and their parents are quick to proclaim them as less intelligent, awkward and dangerous. This is just the start of a vicious circle. Parents put pressure on teachers to discourage Roma children from studying, worrying that their children are being held back. Teachers often succumb to such pressures because they have prejudices as well. Soon enough, the Roma children fail and must retake the year.

Once a child is deemed not bright enough to pass a grade, their parents usually take them out of school. After all, they would rather have them collect scrap metal or beg on the streets, as it brings money while school just brings costs. Girls get married off young, often by the age of 14. They give birth to a new generation of underprivileged children who will be deemed unfit to follow the regular school curriculum. And so the cycle goes.

The Academy wants to address this issue by offering Roma children the level of attention KIPP schools offer to underprivileged children. It would provide an inspiring environment and teachers who have time to explain things until the children understand. It would encourage a strong work ethic as well as positive praise, showing the children what they are actually capable of, and hopefully inspiring in them the desire to continue pursuing academic careers even once they are out of the Academy.

The Program
The Academy plans to offer the following courses as part of an after-school tutoring program:

1. Serbian language – This is a crucial factor, as it would improve their comprehension, allowing the kids to properly speak the language of their peers and feel like they fit in. The course will follow the regular school curriculum making sure that children are on the same page with their schoolmates.

2. English language – Children in Serbia start learning foreign languages very early, and speaking English can be a valuable asset. Good English speaking skills would also help the kids gain status among the peers.

3. Math – This is a very important subject not only for academic reasons but also for self-confidence building. Very often, children who are good in math are considered clever. One of the main goals of the Academy is to break the prejudice of Roma kids being less intelligent.

The Academy will also work with parents on getting engaged in their kids' education. Roma parents tend to be shy in the presence of other parents, rarely asking any questions about school issues. Such behavior is not uncommon among discriminated groups, and our work will also focus on overcoming such obstacles.

The Academy would have other activities aimed at educating students about social norms of the mainstream society, while maintaining their unique identities. Roma often get singled out because their social patterns differ from the mainstream, so students’ families are hesitant to welcome their Roma schoolmates into their homes. The Academy will teach them about social norms, but also work on their self-confidence, so they do not fear social interactions with the mainstream population. Meanwhile the Academy should serve as an example to the mainstream society, of promoting diversity and acceptance. The academy will also provide clean clothes, personal hygiene kits and instructions, as well as transportation to and from their living quarters.

Mode of Operation
The Academy plans on recruiting 15 students, aged seven to nine, as the first generation of students. Firstly, it will be crucial to have the parents on board. Roma in Kraljevo live on the margins of society, barely surviving through a combination of petty trade, low paid physical labor, collection of scrap materials, begging and petty crime. Kids are inevitably part of this survival strategy and the Academy will have to provide incentives for the parents to keep their kids in school - at least until they can see the benefit.

The Academy will make up for the financial loss of families that decide to keep their child in school and enroll in our program. Children of that age might bring $30-$50 a month to their families, so the Academy will create a contract with the parents whereby they will continue to receive this amount as long as their child is still at school and attending the Academy.

The Academy itself will work as an after-school activity, having kids come to classes for 3 hours after school. They would receive lunch, clean clothes, a bath if needed, and a pleasant working environment. At the end of the day they will be dropped off at their homes.

Budget
The detailed budget is attached; Expenses are divided into two groups: Initial Costs and Running Costs.

Initial Costs include the purchase of furniture and other fittings for the classroom. It also includes the purchase of books and stationary, as well as two sets of clothing for each child. Finally, the biggest expense in this category will be a 15-seat van for transportation. The estimated start-up cost is $13,000.

Running costs include paying teachers’ salaries, rent for the classroom, utilities, communication and transportation. It also includes the monthly payments to students' families. Finally, it includes food and hygienic products for students, stationary and other goods commonly used in such institutions. The projected monthly costs of the Academy are $2,890.

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Slobodan Milic

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