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Around the Jewish World Attempt to Revitalize School in Prague Leads to Teacher Exodus

July 4, 2006
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When 12 out of 24 teachers at a school quit after a change in administration, it’s not just typical turnover. Welcome to Prague, which has the Czech Republic’s only Jewish school, one that has gone through great turmoil in recent years and one that the community and principal are trying to rebuild.

“We want this to be a Jewish school with a great reputation, and we want highly qualified teachers, and we want not to waste money as it seems was going on before,” said Katerina Dejmalova, principal of the Ronald S. Lauder Elementary and High School in Prague.

The mass teacher exodus comes at a time when the school and Prague Jewish community of some 1,500 are still trying to heal from bruising political partisanship that split the community over leadership, rabbinical authority and how money should be allocated.

The school is perhaps the last frontier of this battle, as a new community board, through Dejmalova, seeks to professionalize the teaching staff following a period of what she and current board members characterize as gross mismanagement.

In addition to 12 teachers who quit last Friday, some of whom did not like their work reassignments or reduced hours, two teachers were given notice. Four more are reportedly looking for other jobs.

Although the teachers criticized Dejmalova’s changes as a form of “bullying,” administrators say that the school will emerge with a better staff and a sounder budget.

Dejmalova was appointed earlier this year by a newly created school board who liked her promises of cost-cutting, performance-based pay and improvement of teacher credentials.

David Kostka, head of an association of Lauder parents, has an 18-year-old daughter at the school and supports Dejmalova’s vision.

“I think it’s good that the teachers are leaving. Dejmalova wants to bring a higher level of teachers to the school. I trust her as a manager,” he said.

But the departures, teachers say, were a result of the harassment they were experiencing under Dejmalova. The teachers union, which included most of the school’s educators, submitted a complaint against Dejmalova last week to the country’s Education Ministry, claiming that she was intimidating them and trying to get them to leave, demanding unnecessary qualifications or giving them inappropriate work assignments.

“She doesn’t like us because we were hired under the previous administration,” said Kristina Haylettova, an English teacher who is leaving the school. She added many teachers were hired by former principals who were endorsed by a faction of the Prague Jewish community that she claims is loathed by Dejmalova and the current leadership of the community.

The school’s political troubles erupted three years ago when pornography was found on the school’s Internet server and a popular teacher acting as principal was fired for the incident even though a former Webmaster confessed to downloading the material.

The handling of the situation was tainted by a concurrent battle for control of the Prague Jewish community, which runs the school. Teacher and student strikes followed. Since then, student enrollment declined from 194 to 130. One-third of the students are Jewish, one-third have some Jewish heritage and one-third are non-Jews.

Since its founding eight years ago with support from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which contributes 30 percent of its budget, the school has been through eight principals. But school officials such as the deputy vice principal, Lucie Soklova, say the teacher departures have nothing to do with the previous tension at the school.

“Most of those who quit did not like our new policy of paying teachers for the actual work they were doing,” she said.

Seventeen part-time teachers at the school were getting full-time pay and full-time vacation, according to Soklova, and salaries that were much higher than those offered at Czech public schools.

“We will only have to find five teachers to replace those that are leaving, and this will be no problem,” she said.

Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague as well as an advisor to the Lauder Foundation explained in an email, “I have full confidence that by the beginning of the new school year the highly qualified teaching staff will be completed Mrs. Dejmalova’s steps should be understood as purely technical and organizational measures without any personal connotation.”

Haylettova claims the new administrators created a feeling of “terror” in the school. She says, for example, that even though she has a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, she was told that her degree is insufficient, even though a Western diploma is highly prized by most administrators.

She complained that a beloved art teacher was being tormented by Dejmalova and that an experienced English teacher was told she had to teach gym.

Soklova countered that the certificate from the Czech Ministry of Education is required by law.

She added that the person asked to teach gym was not proficient in English, which JTA confirmed, and that the art teacher had been given eight years to get a bachelor’s degree but had not done so.

One parent, Neuzil Ludek, said his daughter will not continue at the school “because its level of education was not good enough,” which is the chief issue the new administration is trying to address.

Soklova looks around her office and admits the school looks dreary. “We know how the school should look. We will get there. Come back a year from now and see how different things are.”

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