A school known far and wide. Interview with Ivana Kováčová, director of the diaconal school in Merklín

IMG_0877.1Families are willing to move over 100 kilometres for this school. As one of the few in the Czech Republic, this school has long been admitting pupils with severe autism and is able to provide them with special education as well as day care. It is attended by 114 children. More than half of them have a certain form of autism, 80% of them do not speak and communicate with teachers through a so-called image exchange communication system. Nevertheless, together with the parents and the staff of the school, they form one large community, as is evident from this interview with the headteacher Ivana Kováčová.

What is the new school year like in Merklín?

We have two innovations. An outdoor school playground, where our pupils will rest and learn. Also, at the start of the school year we baptized a beautiful brand-new nine-seat minibus, with the participation of the Governor of the Pilsen Region. It serves the children for transportation to and from the school and will be also used for swimming, equine therapy and trips. Although our school has been offering transportation to children since the beginning, it has been provided by external companies until now. Today, however, we urgently need our own large vehicle. We have more and more children and the interest in our school grows. We’ve also grown. In Merklín alone we have three buildings, then detached workplaces in Sušice and Pilsen. Our own car will help us very much in our work.

Merklín school also operates a boarding school. This is not very common in special schools.

This is our specialty, which has since been adopted by some other Diakonia schools. In 1994, when our school was founded, it included a home called “Radost” (Joy), thus it offered accommodation for students. Then, however,  the two services had to be separated due to changes in law. The home “Radost” today belongs to the Diakonia of the West and is declared as one of the few homes in the Czech Republic that accepts adults with severe autism spectrum disorders. However, our school lost its accommodation facility and it is not easy for us at all. Parents wanted not only a school for their child but also some form of a residential service. When we couldn’t offer that, they placed the child elsewhere.

Why do parents want a residential service for their children?

IMG_0895To be able to dedicate time to themselves, their work, other siblings. Having a child with a severe disability in the family is extremely difficult. So, if parents want it and if we have the capacity, they can pick up the child from us for the weekends and we take care of them at school and in the dormitory during the week. We also offer after school care and clubs so the children are with us from 7am to 4pm on weekdays and parents can go to work without problems. This is not usual at all; just today, there were parents with me, whose school in Pilsen refused to take their daughter, because she has epileptic seizures and acts aggressively. But it is not possible for such a child to be locked up with her mother  right up to the age of fourteen. We agreed that we would try, and the girl will join us.

The dormitory is located in a very well renovated historic building of the old Merklin school. How did you get it?

We searched everywhere and asked in the Evangelical Parish congregation in Merklín. The parish curator Pavel Šalom just reconstructed the house and wanted to rent it, so he offered us one of the apartments. Absolutely amazing space. He had different plans for the rest of the house, but in the end, he changed them, so our dormitory for 12 people is now in his house. We opened another 12 spots last year in another renovated historic building in the chateau. We are also renting it. The building was acquired by one of our employees with the aim of expanding the boarding school. But even that’s not enough. We’re looking for more locations.

What brought you to the Merklín school?

Coincidence. I never thought I’d work with children with disabilities. I studied Czech and music education for the second and third grade, then I interrupted my studies for a maternity leave and after that I was looking for a job. Marta Mikulová, the founder of the Merklín school and the “Radost” home, is the mother of my high school classmate. She was looking for an educator and I ended up working there. I started in August 1995 and was immediately in charge of an autistic boy accompanying him on the bus journey from home to school and back. It was a baptism of fire. I didn’t know how to treat him. I was starting from scratch. I completed my education and became the headteacher only in 2004.

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What three qualities should one have to work with your school pupils?

You must like children, be able to work independently, and at the same time must be able to separate work from private life. Educating pupils with severe disabilities or autism can’t be done just for money. One must have a feel for it, otherwise it will not last long. At the same time, it is essential that you do not take your work home and be able to rest, so the next day you are full of energy. It is also necessary to have a good team; which I think we have. Our operation is very demanding, we are a big school, we could not work if we werenot willing to help.

Have you experienced any crisis during that time?

The original school was practically composed of so-called unicells. Nothing very nice. And this thing happened to us: without asking us anything, there were parents with an autistic boy who moved to Merklín because of us. Originally, they lived somewhere in Aš and when the experts recommended our school, they sold their house and moved to our region. However, when they first saw our school, they quite frankly stated that it looked terrible. That was the last impulse for us to undertake proper reconstruction and expansion. After all, we could hardly fit into the original school. We wrote the project, relying on European funds, but they were just put on hold at that time because of suspicions of corruption. The intricately drafted project went to waste. In the end, Diakonie headquarters with the then director David Šourek and the HEKS Switzerland Foundation helped. We rebuilt the school. Not exactly according to the original ideas, but on the other hand it was a breakthrough that moved us further – more children began to come and today we could build more and more schools. Pupils are coming to us from all directions.

The case where the family moved from Aš due to school is the only one, or are there more such cases?

We have three such cases. We are simply famous for loving children and not rejecting even those with severe behavioural disorders or complicated manifestations of autism. Despite all the development and all the changes, we have been the same since 1994. Over all that time, the word about us has spread all around.

Adam Šůra