At age 8, Abel Bot is starting school a bit late. The past few weeks have been a crash course in how to be a schoolboy: how to hold a pencil, to raise a hand in class, to simply sit still.
Abel's fortunes have turned around since French police charged into his Gypsy squatter camp in the Paris suburb of Choisy-le-Roi and evicted everyone as part of President Nicolas Sarkozy's crackdown on illegal shantytowns. The action attracted attention from charities, which helped eight children sign up for school. For most, it was their first time inside a classroom.
For Europe's 10 to 12 million Roma, as Gypsies are also known, a central factor in their impoverishment is poor access to education, with problems ranging from late starts to early dropouts, from segregated schools in Eastern Europe to the systematic misdiagnosis of mental disabilities.
Up to half don't finish primary school, a UNESCO conference was told last month, and many wind up in slums, trapped in multigenerational poverty.
Romanian-born and raised in France, Abel is a charmer in a glittering earring, and loves classes so far. On the school playground recently, Abel's enthusiastic teacher, Justin Lyot, ruffled his hair and told the boy's mother that he's observant, a good listener and should do well.
The Roma, thought to have reached Europe centuries ago from India, have always had it tough. Hitler exterminated more than 200,000 of them during World War II. In eastern Europe, the former communist bloc where the Roma are concentrated, many schools are tacitly segregated, and hate crimes against them are commonplace.
Rights groups say thousands of Roma children in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere are enrolled in schools for the mentally impaired, and their families are too poor to argue because these schools provide pupils with free meals, clothing and supplies.
The Roma are subjected to "undeclared apartheid," said Bernard Rorke, director of international advocacy on Roma initiatives for investor George Soros' Open Society Foundations, which have put almost $150 million (euro110 million) into the Roma cause.
"We have come across places where there's an annex to the main school building, and that's where Roma kids are sent," he said.
Stereotypes abound: Roma use their children to beg and steal, Roma live in unsanitary camps, Roma don't value schooling for girls. Now public opinion in some affluent European countries is being inflamed by fresh Roma arrivals made possible by eased border controls within the expanded European Union.
Michael Stewart of University College London, who has studied the subject, says Roma who beg are a "tiny but highly visible minority," while some very traditional families do discourage girls from staying in school after age 13 or 14.
But he says the main problem is the way Roma youngsters are treated by mainstream society: low teacher expectations, students being made to feel unwelcome, and "teachers not fighting the non-Gypsy children's hostility to the Gypsies."
"It's completely normal in a village school in Hungary to have the Gypsies all sit in the back of the class, separate from the other kids," he said.
There have been legal challenges. The European Court of Human Rights in 2007 ordered the Czech government to stop putting Roma children into special schools. The Czechs say some legal changes were made, but Amnesty International isn't satisfied.
Jack Greenberg, a Columbia Law School professor who has studied the Roma situation, says enforcement is a big problem.
"The European Court of Human Rights tells the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic presumably tells the municipality, and they presumably tell the schools. But somewhere down the line, nobody is ordering anybody to do anything," Greenberg said.
Greenberg, who helped argue the landmark 1954 desegregation case of Brown vs. Board of Education, noted that the U.S. sent troops to escort nine black students into school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 past a menacing white crowd.
"That's extreme, but it's an example of what (the U.S.) can do," he said.
The European Union has a directive on racial equality, sponsors biannual summits on the Roma's plight and funds aid projects. But critics say there is no continentwide will to fix the problem, and it took France's crackdown on the Roma _ cast as part of the conservative government's fight against crime _ to awaken mainstream European concern.
France, which has its own local Gypsies with deep roots here, also has a very small Roma population of newcomers from Eastern Europe, estimated at up to 15,000 by advocacy group Romeurope.
Since France is a big EU country that considers itself a beacon of human rights, many observers were shocked in July when Sarkozy's office described camps of Roma newcomers as sources of "illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency."
France has a long-standing policy of expelling Roma newcomers, but Sarkozy's attack, and the ensuing expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania, drew new scrutiny. On Sept. 29 the European Commission began proceedings to take France to court over the expulsions.
Meanwhile, there are signs of hope amid the gloom. A desegregation program started in the town of Vidin, Bulgaria in 2000 has expanded to reach 4,000 Roma students in 11 towns. The regimen includes busing, free textbooks for the poor and teacher training. The nongovernmental organization that started the program in Vidin says only 2 percent of Roma students drop out every year.
Leslie Hawke, who has worked with Roma in Romania for a decade, raises funds for a program in 20 Romanian communities where poor parents of any ethnicity get $16 a month in food coupons if their kids have perfect attendance at preschool.
"Suddenly, the 'cultural' obstacles to educating Roma children evaporate," said Hawke.
Choisy-le-Roi's Communist Party-run city hall has lent the Roma an empty lot by a railroad, where children's clothes dry on a fence and mothers carrying babies sip sugary coffee.
Abel's parents came to France when he was a month old, hoping to give him a better future. Now that he's in school, Abel's mother, Ahka, dreams of seeing him "grow up to be anything he wants."
Associated Press writer Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania and Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, contributed to this report.