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Hustling to Find Classrooms For All in a Diverse Ireland

School lets out at Bracken Educate Together, opened last month in Balbriggan, near Dublin, to serve scores of local children, most of them Irish-born children of immigrants.
School lets out at Bracken Educate Together, opened last month in Balbriggan, near Dublin, to serve scores of local children, most of them Irish-born children of immigrants. (By Martin Nolan -- Irish Independent)

"We have always been a very welcoming town, but things have happened too quickly, too fast," said May McKeon, a local government official in Balbriggan. "We have a lot of catching up to do with the social infrastructure. We're just victims of our times, really."

In August, education officials realized that Balbriggan's six schools, including one Educate Together school, were oversubscribed. Scores of children, many of them 4- and 5-year-olds just starting school, had nowhere to go.

Officials appealed to Educate Together to quickly set up an emergency school to handle the overflow. Within a month, the company had established a new school in a dormitory-style building near the seashore.

"We didn't know what we were going to do," said Florence Denti, who moved to Balbriggan last winter looking for relief from skyrocketing Dublin rents.

Denti, who migrated to Ireland from South Africa with her husband six years ago, said she dreaded the possibility of having to commute with her daughter, Shazia, 5, to the Dublin school she attended last year.

Now Shazia attends the Balbriggan school, where bright rooms are decorated with posters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and nursery rhymes.

"This is a godsend," said Michelle McKay-Nkadimeng, a South African immigrant whose daughter, Tatiana, 4, also attends the school.

Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, said the school now has 86 students from at least a dozen countries. He said 90 percent have immigrant parents and 80 percent are black.

The school's opening led to headlines across Ireland calling the country's first mostly black school an example of racism or even "apartheid." Critics said the Catholic Church was excluding children who were "not ours."

In recent interviews at the Balbriggan school, neither administrators nor parents interviewed said they believed the problem stemmed from racism. Most parents said they felt welcome in Ireland. But several said that they believed school enrollment policies favored Catholics and that the government was generally slow to provide services in areas with heavy concentrations of immigrants.

"It's not a racist issue, it's an issue of bad planning," said McKevitt, the school administrator. "But it's the immigrants who end up the most disenfranchised."

Anne McDonagh, director of education for the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, said school enrollment policies did not create the problems in Balbriggan.

The church's policy is to give first preference to Catholics and to siblings of current students, she said. But she added that Catholic schools in Dublin alone have students from 104 countries and about 30 religious faiths.

A 2004 survey of 92 schools around Dublin found that children of immigrants accounted for at least 20 percent of the student body in 11 schools. In one Balbriggan school, McDonagh said, one-third of the students are children of immigrants.

But Jean-Pierre Eyanga of Integrating Ireland, an immigrant support group, said church policies resulted in unfair treatment of the children of non-Catholic immigrants, particularly Africans and Muslims.

"They don't have a brother or sister in school, and they don't have a baptismal certificate," he said. "So they are the ones left out."

Eyanga said that what happened in Balbriggan -- and in two other overcrowded Dublin suburbs where emergency schools were opened this fall -- shows that Ireland needs both more schools and more multi-denominational schools.

"They need a broader, more coherent approach to planning," he said. "What happened in Balbriggan can happen tomorrow in other parts of Ireland."

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