What to know about the Czech eight-year gymnázium system

Selecting a school, open house days and entrance exams

Although the school year is only a few months underway, for some rising 5th graders in Czech schools, pressure is on to obtain a spot in the competitive Czech gymnázium system. Gymnasiums provide the cream-of-the-crop students with an accelerated education during their upper years of grammar school and secondary school. Study at a gymnasium can begin as early as the 6th grade and lasts through the 13th grade.

In order to understand the significance of gymnasiums, it is important to know the structure of the Czech educational system. When you translate the Czech word gymnázium into English you get a range of answers, including “secondary school,” “high school,” “grammar school” and “gymnasium.” As the system works in the Czech Republic, it encompasses a bit of everything.

In the Czech Republic, grammar school is divided into the first level (1-5 grades) and the second (6-9 grades). After graduating from the 9th grade, a student can apply to a four-year gymnasium from 10th to 13th grades. In addition to study at a gymnasium, the Czech secondary school educational system is also comprised of specialized střední školy, schools which provide a targeted four-year education toward a skilled profession (IT technology, building and design, hotel management, communication and media, business, etc.) There is also another level of vocational or trade schools which provide practical training in professions such as culinary, auto mechanics, carpentry. Education at a conservatory is possible for students studying dance, music or other fine arts.

In the past, eight-year gymnasiums didn't exist – the earliest a student could apply to a gymnasium was after the 7th grade for a six-year program, although most students entered after the 9thgrade. In difference to specialized schools, trade schools or conservatories, gymnasiums do not give students a specific information base or a skill set to start work after graduation. Instead, studying at a gymnasium prepares students for further study at a university.

For students entering gymnasium after 5th grade, a gymnasium education is a fast-tracked route, perhaps similar to a magnet school in the US and is considered suitable only for serious students.

The national trend in rising birth rate which started about ten years ago means that today more students than ever are applying for spots in eight-year gymnasiums. In addition to having a larger pool of younger applicants, the increasingly high expectations of modern day parents, anxious for their children to get a leg-up in their education, have contributed to today’s competitive eight-year gymnasium environment.

But how do you convince a ten-year old that he wants to dedicate the next eight years of his life (and then another four at university) to his studies? Moreover, why should you?

Parental opinion runs the gamut. For many parents getting their child into a gymnasium from the 5th grade takes the pressure off making further decisions about their child’s education for the next eight years. At that point, the child will be 18 years old and has a clearer idea about his or her own future plans. Other parents say they'll send their child to a gymnasium because they know it'll keep him or her out of trouble during the tumultuous years of puberty. Some parents want their child to benefit from a wider selection of foreign languages or a more sophisticated science and mathematics curriculum that gymnasiums offer.

Still others say they'll let their child make the decision for him or herself. Although, at first, this sounds like the most sound-minded way to approach a very personal decision; herein lies the power of peer pressure. A students with friends who are applying to a gymnasium tends to want to go too, while a student with friends who want to stay in basic school wants to stay there together with his friends.

Once a child has made the decision to apply to a gymnasium (whether alone or with a parent's help), it is important to do some research and select one or two particular gymnasiums your child would like to attend. Most gymnasiums open one or two classes of up to 30 students for each entrance year. Some eight-year programs have a mathematics and physics emphasis while others concentrate more on languages or humanities. A complete list of gymnasiums in Prague linked to a map can help you find gymnasiums in your general vicinity.

Looking at an individual school's web page and visiting the den otevřených dveří (open house) can give you and your child a feel for which type of gymnasium is most appropriate. Most open houses are held in November, December and January. Check school websites for specific dates and times. Visit more than one school in order for your child to meet students and teachers and to get a better overview of how the different gymnasiums work.

For the 2015/2016 school year, the prestigious Gymnázium Jana Keplera in Prague 6 received 170 applications for 30 spots in its eight-year program. Another Prague 6 gymnasium, Nad Alejí, had 389 children apply for 60 spots. With stiff competition for a spot in an eight-year gymnasium program, particularly in densely populated neighborhoods in Prague, as well as other larger cities in the Czech Republic, preparing for entrance exams has become a year-long pastime.

Entrance to an eight-year gymnasium is based on the results of a standardized entrance exam as well as a student’s grades in their final two semesters of school (end of 4th grade, mid-term 5th grade). Students can apply to up to two gymnasiums, but they are required to take a different entrance exam for each school. Applications must be submitted by mid-March. Entrance exams are held during a two-day state-wide exam process in April.

The entrance exams are three fold. One section tests knowledge of Czech language and grammar, the second section tests mathematics and the third section is either a series of logic questions from Czech and math (obecných studijnich předpokladů - OSP) or a series of general knowledge questions from Czech literature, history, sport and social sciences (všeobecných znalostí - VSP). The format of the tests differ. While some gymnasiums offer a standardized SCIO-type test with ABCDE multiple choice answers, others use a CERMAT format of open-ended questions with written-out answers.

When preparing for the entrance exam, it is important to know which form of test the gymnasium you have chosen uses as well as which particular sections will be tested. Some schools have an English-language test in addition to the three basic sections. Often you can find old versions of entrance exams for a particular school online, which can help focus preparation efforts. There are also websites for both types of practice tests which can be bought online.

With the tough current level of competition, it is becoming popular for some gymnasiums to offer year-long weekly preparatory courses. The Gymnázium Na Zatlance offers Friday evening and Saturday afternoon practice tests as well as specific preparatory courses in Czech or math from October to April. It's kind of like sending your ten-year-old to Kaplan’s SAT prep classes, but the website claims the children like it.

When I spoke with Czech parents, opinions were varied on the benefits and downsides of an eight-year gymnasium education. Applying to a gymnasium requires taking a standardized test, which means for most students several months of preparation, either at home or at a test-prep course. After acceptance to a gymnasium, rising 6th grade students must then be prepared to maintain a heavy-work load for the next eight-years. And, still have enthusiasm for studying on at university. Most parents admit that education at a gymnasium isn't appropriate for all children.

However, for students like my friend's son, who felt out place in his first years of grammar school because he liked studying, getting accepted to an eight-year gymnasium program has improved not only his academic but his social life. Now that he's in school with students who are equally high-achieving, he's finding friends easier and fitting in better.

If you're the parent of an ambitious 5th grader, now's the time to start visiting open houses and talking to your child about the possibly of going to gymnasium. Even if it turns out that your child decides not to apply this year, at least he or she will have a better idea of educational possibilities for the future.

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