Tacoma District Offers Classes For Gypsy Children

TACOMA - A new school-district program is tailored to 22 students, ages 6 to 12, who have never been to school before.

Their parents feared a mainstream education would cost them their Gypsy culture.

But times have changed, and after a start marked by extreme anxiety for students' mothers, First STEP - for Systematic Training and Early Prevention - is looking ahead to its first anniversary in February.

"The Gypsies still want to be private people but . . . if they are to live in today's society, you've got to have an education," says Kaiser Stevens, 49, son of Tacoma Gypsy king Miller Stevens.

Kaiser Stevens, who is serving as community liaison for the program, rides the bus with the children and occasionally offers encouragement in Romany, the Gypsy language.

He says he now regrets his own family's lack of education, recalling his decision to leave school after sixth grade.

He - and his children - felt more education was not required to help with the family used-car business.

"It's the wrong attitude," Stevens said. "I'm not proud to say I don't believe there's a Gypsy in the Northwest that's graduated from high school."

He estimates between 150 and 200 Gypsy families live in the Tacoma area.

Children yearning

Some of the children yearned for the keys to the mysteries of reading and math.

Stanley, 9, taught to write his name by an older girl, once begged his parents for a tutor.

But after a year and a half of negotiations with area Gypsy parents, the district launched the program that promised him access to the world of public education.

"The important thing right now is to get them able to read so they can go into a classroom and not stick out like a sore thumb," said Sherry Hunt, assistant superintendent for elementary schools.

Ideally, First STEP, an experimental program that got $81,263 in federal money for its first two years, will provide Gypsy youngsters with the basics so they can go on to public schools.

A similar program at Seattle's Bagley Elementary School has been operating for 25 years. It has 15 students, ages 5 through 12. Older children usually drop out, said Principal Maribeth Phair.

Portland had a program in the mid-1970s, but it was shut down due to a lack of students.

"You're fighting hundreds of years of culture," said Maurie Caba, director of grants management for that city's schools.

First STEP, the only Tacoma district program tailored to a particular ethnic group, is designed mainly for students who've never been to school, Hunt says.

The fact they are Gypsies is secondary.

Many entered the program unable to write their names, the alphabet or numbers.

Now they can do all those things, and this fall 25 percent were reading at first-grade level or better.

"It's remarkable they've come so far in so little time," said their teacher, Rebecca Boglione.

Cultural adjustment

She had no experience with Gypsies when First STEP began and quickly became aware there were special circumstances.

Attendance fluctuates because of Gypsy family activities.

Eleven absences recently were attributed to a funeral in the region, Boglione said.

And when the program first began, she says, anxious mothers accompanied their children, for weeks lining the walls of the classroom and watching the class at work.

Calls came in constantly from concerned families.

In time, though, things settled down.

Boglione says her class operates like a one-room school, the older kids pitching in to help the younger ones.

"Flexibility is the key," she said.

Recently, Stanley gravely taught 7-year-old Joey to write his numbers from 1 to 100.

"You know what to do now," he said seriously after the boys' pencil-and-paper drill.

Sometimes the other kids look to him for answers, said Stanley, who like the other children, at Stevens' request, did not divulge his last name.

"My teacher, Rebecca, always says, `Don't tell them the answer. They've got to learn for themselves so when they grow up, they don't have to depend on you."