Martin Lněnička, principal of a children’s home: The school gives children from children’s homes a head start

Martin Lněnička, principal of a children’s home: The school gives children from children’s homes a better starting position
Roman and Alica came to Open Gate from the Children’s Home in Prague-Dolní Počernice. Both have obtained grants from The Kellner Family Foundation. Martin Lněnička, the principal of the children’s home, says studying at the school has opened new opportunities for them – opportunities that are available to any gifted child regardless of their socio-economic background. Read more in our interview with the principal.

Roman likes computers and can make friends with schoolmates very quickly. He is a good student, although he often tends to leave things to the last minute. On the other hand, Alica is a responsible student who has dreamt of going to a university abroad. The school helped her to develop her versatile talents until she joined her father in the U.K. Roman and Alica come from the Children’s Home in Dolní Počernice [near Prague]. Both have obtained need-based grants from The Kellner Family Foundation at Open Gate. The home’s principal, Martin Lněnička, says that they have shown other children that the biggest determining factor in your future is your own hard work.

There are dozens of children at the Children’s Home in Dolní Počernice. How precisely did Alica and Roman become Open Gate students?
When Roman transferred to us from another children’s home some time ago, he was already an Open Gate student, and so he continues to study there, naturally. We don’t know exactly how he was admitted; they probably would tell you at his former home. Alica for her part applied from our home; it was her wish. Thus, both children wanted to attend Open Gate. Their principal motivation was that Open Gate is a highly prestigious school.

The Foundation supports talented children from children’s homes without any differences. Is it true that any child interested in attending the school can apply?
Anyone can come to Open Gate and try out the admission tests with no strings attached. Leaving such an opportunity unused would be a waste for any child with even the slightest interest in learning. We try to tell everyone about this opportunity and seek out those who have a chance at succeeding. And if they fail – never mind. At least, this is something new that the child might not experience otherwise. The ability to cope with failure is also important; after all, they will have to take some admission tests one day if they want to take their education past elementary school.

Admission tests are one thing, and a grant is another. How, then, did you first learn that “your children” could obtain funding to attend Open Gate?
We have known of the potential support since the beginning. In addition, the school invites us to its Open Day every year, and we go there with our children. When we have a child who might be able to succeed at Open Gate, we discuss this with them. Then we submit the application, and if the child is admitted we approach the Foundation. The Foundation usually awards grants to successful candidates from children’s homes. It’s like in families – sometimes the child notices the opportunity, and sometimes adults will recommend it. At any rate, I am happy that we never have to discourage them for financial reasons; as I have said, any child can try if they want to. We never hold any pre-selection rounds, as we usually do not have that many applicants.

Do Alica’s and Roman’s studies inspire other children or the home’s staff?
For our staff, this was a reward for their confidence in the students during their preparations for the admission tests. And for the children, it is a good sign, showing them that they can attend the school. In addition, they can see that this is no short-lived or one-off success like winning a contest. Once they obtain the grant, tuition is secured provided they keep their grades up.

What were the preparations for studies at home like?
Roman was already experienced, and so we did not prepare much. Alica was excited, although she was also a bit worried whether she would be able to manage it all. I have to say she was very happy to learn that she was admitted. And so were we. There are not many prestigious schools where you can obtain a grant.

Do you visit the children at school during their enrolment?
Roman lives in the dorm during the week and comes back to his family group for weekends. Colleagues keep in touch with the school regularly, asking about his results and receiving reports on his studies. If anything happens, one of us goes to the school to consult. It is similar to normal families.

What was your first impression of Open Gate?
Our group went there for a visit before the school opened. We learned what our opportunities were. But I only knew about Open Gate secondhand for a long time. It wasn’t until much later that I visited the school and my first impression was positive; it lived up to my expectations. For example, I also was impressed by the buildings, which I had previously only seen in photographs.

Do uniforms and identical equipment available to all Open Gate students help in the sense that “your children” do not feel the socio-economic differences?
Socio-economic differences between students at Open Gate are blurred out more than at other schools. The idea is excellent, and I think they do their best to implement it at the school. It works great most of the time, although as much as the teachers try, you can see sometimes that Roman is aware that his financial and, mainly, family background is different.

Can Roman have, on the contrary, an advantage over other boarding students in that he, as a child from a children’s home, is more independent?
Children from children’s homes often have to adjust to different environments faster than other children. They are therefore at an advantage in terms of independence or adjustment. We saw that Alica, who was a newcomer to the school, spoke about it as her natural environment almost right away. She found friends there and became part of the team.

Has school helped her with her present life? When she was at Open Gate, was there a visible difference between her and the other children in her age cohort at the children’s home?
I have no knowledge of how Alica is faring now. But when she was an Open Gate student and visited here, I clearly saw how the school had broadened her horizons. It gave her a new view of the world. Of course, this depends on every child’s traits and aptitude. The child has to naturally have this from the very beginning. That said, Open Gate encouraged these traits in Alica. She also had other students as competitors in and also after classes, which motivated her to improve overall. If she wanted to stay at the school, she had to try hard. You could see the difference.

Alica was – as Roman is now – a successful Open Gate student on weekdays and then returned to her family group for weekends. How did other children accept her?
As I say, every success of one child from a children’s home is huge motivation for the others. They see that their lives could be better and that all they need to do is want to do something for it. Thanks to an older schoolmate, a child begins believing they can manage the school too, and that’s the necessary beginning. A grant from The Kellner Family Foundation then provides an opportunity that would otherwise be unthinkable.

How do you, as a children’s home principal, regard the difference between a standard school and Open Gate?
The learning process is more intensive to an extent thanks to being at school around the clock. It could be likened to when a child lives at our children’s home. When a child is with us for a long time or permanently, we can inform the child easier and more efficiently, educate them and, not least, give them a good family environment, unlike when the child frequently goes back to their own family that may not be able to create such an environment for the child. Alica and Roman are spending or spent more time at school than at our home, so their friendships there are stronger. Compared to other schools, Open Gate differs in the style and content of teaching, which is higher quality.

Has the different environment changed “your children”?
They certainly have changed. To me, it is very important that they gradually learn that they should not feel either inferior or superior to others. And that they can help other children a lot in finding their own way. Set the example of proper conduct.

Allow me to ask a personal question now. With all this experience, would you let your own children attend Open Gate?
I would certainly recommend the school for academically gifted children. Neither of my daughters is fit for a grammar school, however. One has graduated from the Secondary School for Administration of the European Union and is going to enroll at the Czech Technical University; she was never interested in academic secondary education. The other is still at elementary school, so we will see.

Could it be, then, that paradoxically enough, the school may be more accessible for children from children’s homes than those from usual families?
I wouldn’t say so. It is true that a very gifted child can get into the school with no problems. And it’s not wrong that otherwise disadvantaged children can get the grant somewhat easier – after all, that’s what grants are for. Children in functional and secure families have a choice automatically. Conversely, exceptional children with complicated backgrounds would never achieve a superior education without such an opportunity.

Are there enough of such opportunities for children from children’s homes? Can these opportunities radically change their stories?
Happily, opportunities for children from homes exist and can help them. But the children have to want themselves. If the child has the predispositions, the home’s influence will usually help. The school then provides a good starting position. Many children are not, however, apt enough for prestigious schools and the home’s influence cannot change this. In addition, more than seventy percent of children came to our home aged over ten, which is quite late for a change. Having said that, I really appreciate any help, and I am thankful to organizations and individuals that make it possible for children to achieve higher goals.