Hejőkeresztúr: Hungary’s wonder-village


There is a tiny village in Borsod County, Hungary, which has been in the news for its out-of-the-ordinary activities for years. This is a village with one thousand people, which is continuously developing, renewing and utilizing the locals’ intellectual and physical resources to the fullest. Education is the key to its success.

Until 2006, Hejőkeresztúr had a usual village life course, a certain lack of interest in school activities among children, and a community spirit that was waiting to be awakened.

However, the village has become recently famous for its two ‘miracles’: the outstanding school results of the local children and the Pro Ratatouille programme, a vegetable cultivation programme based on community gardening. We asked the two ‘leaders’ of the village to share with us their secrets: Mrs. Enikő Zeleni (E.Z.) was elected mayor in 2006, while Mrs. Emese Nagy (E.N.) has been managing the IV. Béla Elementary School of Hejőkeresztúr since 2000. They share the same goal: to create a better life in their village.

The village has come into the spotlight when it turned out that the level of aggression and school absenteeism decreased, the cooperation with the parents became stronger and, last but not least, the students started performing better in the elementary school, which has been using the so-called ‘Hejőkeresztúr model’. What is actually your method?

E.N.: Everything started when we realized that the children were not very keen on attending classes where they did not get a chance to express themselves. We adapted one of the methods of the Stanford University, based on several pillars: we use the Program for Complex Instruction built on teamwork during lessons, and we use board games to make the best out of the free time. The dialogue between different generations is also important (for example the involvement of parents), and a fourth element was added a while ago: we managed to inspire to the children the pleasure of reading. We realised that the number of books that are lent from the county library to the library in Hejőkeresztúr (which serves also as the library of the school) is one hundred times bigger compared to other villages!

What is the reason for this?

E.N.: Our children can and like to read. For example, in classes they can make recommendations for books which they have read for pleasure. Board games are another source of feeling a sense of achievement. We have created our programme for groups that are heterogeneous in terms of level of knowledge and socialization. We have super-talented children in our school. They won five gold medals in the last GO competition and another five at the checkers competition (two board games – editor’s note).

E.Z.: The emphasis is not on competing. The point is that the teachers take the children to events where they can challenge themselves in activities they like and have a talent for. This can be dancing, music, fine arts, history, languages or board games.

E.N.: That’s right. The success of the method is due to the fact that we are able to address each and every child’s needs. Today’s pupils grow up in an environment that is full of distraction factors. I realized that I needed to change activities every 8-10 minutes during the lessons, otherwise children lose their attention. Listen to teachers who speak for 45 minutes – this is something that just doesn’t work these days! In our school, fortunately, children keep telling us that they want to learn because they have favourite classes.

E.N.: We teach all children to play board games. The teacher keeps a careful watch on who is talented enough to be selected for competitions. But the doors are open to everybody: they will be developed in what they like and are skilled at.

E.N.: We try to create a calm atmosphere, so that children can perform without stress. That is why they like school. The teachers keep telling me that this is exactly why it is worth teaching here. The greatest motivation for our teachers is that they are satisfied with their work when they leave the classroom. Other schools usually don’t believe it, but this is the truth.

What is the connection between the method used at school and the community gardening?

E.Z.: The school was a good example for the village. We thought that if children with various skills can learn together in a group, why wouldn’t this work with adults as well? The Pro Ratatouille programme was established for a reason. We were looking for activities that people from the village had a talent for. This was horticulture. The point is the same as in the school: the members of the community should help one another. Why wouldn’t community building principles that we successfully use in a school work in an adult group as well?

Today, more and more people in Hungary know that Hejőkeresztúr is a successful village. Are there villages that would like to get an insight into your model? Can you share your knowledge?

E.N.: There are fifteen schools in the country which have asked for our help because they would like to adopt our methods. The programme is already working in these places and we are currently training another eleven institutions in Miskolc and its surroundings. Not a single week passes without us having to refuse schools, because we do not have the capacity to support even more institutions.

What is actually your goal with all these activities?

E.Z.: We would like to keep young people in the village, to transform it into a place where it is good to live. In order to reach this goal, the people need to feel good about living here. We are proud that our school has made Hejőkeresztúr famous. There is no doubt that we have to make the most out of it. If a village is very good at something, then it is a good place to start from and the experience can be further utilized.

Does it mean that this method can work anywhere in Hungary and ‘only’ an innovative leader is needed?

E.N.: Absolutely. Our aim is to become an example to others, because we see that this works. One of Miskolc’s best secondary schools visited us recently, saying that they want to introduce this method from September. This will be the third secondary school that has joined us.

E.Z.: This programme prepares people for innovative thinking. The children now have vision and goals. This is what really matters. And although we are able to handle only a part of today’s social problems, what is most important is that children should be successful and happy in life and find their place on the job market.

E.N.: That’s right. We are not able to solve all the problems of society, but it is certain that we have an impact on families. The first sign is that the children keep attending the school. The most important thing is that we need to ‘give them ammunition’, so that they can find their place in the adult world and believe that they can do anything. Last week, the rector of one of the higher education institutions visited us and told us that they would like to include this method in their teacher training programmes. The University of Miskolc is already training its students according to this method. What more can we expect?

Mayor Enikő Zeleni changed her career as a teacher for a town leading position in 2006. Dr. Emese Nagy has a degree in engineering. Besides managing an institute, she is an associate professor at the Teacher Training Institute of the University of Miskolc where she carries out research on the Hejőkeresztúr method.

Through its Pro Ratatouille programme, Pro-Cserehát Association is developing bio-gardens and is organising trainings about gardening for inhabitants of remote villages and disadvantaged regions in Eastern Hungary. The organisation is trying to solve the acute problem of, firstly, lack of basic food stock and, secondly, lack of agricultural knowledge, in order to increase savings and incomes in communities. The programme was first launched in Hejőszalonta in 2012, and introduced in in Hejőkeresztúr in 2014.
Pro Ratatouille is supported within the
ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership.

 Interview by Borbála Bíró and originally published in Hungarian on civilzona.nlcafe.hu.