Roma kids are no longer separate and unequal, but integration doesn't exactly make them feel welcomed

The World
A group of young Roma students goof off in the hallway of Šarišské Michaľany elementary school.

Šarišské Michaľany is a quaint Slovak village, nestled in the rolling hills of the country’s northeast. There are no traffic lights here, and sheep graze in the front yard of the local church. It’s an unlikely setting for a radical social experiment, but at the village school, that’s exactly what’s taking place.

Until recently, and like most other schools in the country, the junior-elementary school in Šarišské Michaľany had segregated classrooms. Advanced classes were reserved for white students only, and remedial classes were for Roma — or ‘Gypsy’ — children. But last year, a federal court ruled that the segregation here violated Slovakia's anti-discrimination laws. It was a landmark ruling: both unprecedented and controversial. Now, for the first time in Slovakia’s history, a school is being forced to integrate Roma and non-Roma students.

Jaroslav Valastiak was hired as principal at Šarišské Michaľany about a year ago, after the court’s ruling. Standing in the middle of the busy cafeteria he contemplates how much the school has changed since he first arrived.

“We had to teach the youngest ones to use cutlery,” he says, motioning to the first-grade Roma students seated nearby. “They didn’t know how.”

Before Valastiak started, Roma students weren’t allowed in the school’s cafeteria. They received a cold, dry "lunch" of cereal and juice each morning at 7:30, while non-Roma students ate freshly served hot meals in the lunchroom.

Roma and non-Roma students spent recess in segregated yards and were taught in separate classes, on different floors of the school. Valastiak says non-Roma students received more thorough lessons, while Roma classes were rudimentary.

“The teachers were more patient with non-Roma students,” he admits. “They had higher expectations, I guess.”

Segregation in education is a growing trend in Slovakia. In the early 1990s, just 7 percent of Roma students were taught in segregated classrooms or schools. Today, the United Nations Development Program estimates that number hovers around 40 percent.

Prior to the lawsuit, nothing about Šarišské Michaľany’s school was especially unique. In fact, Slovakia’s Center for Civil and Human Rights chose to take this particular school to court because it was so typical. The lawsuit was never intended to create any real or long-term change; lawyers and activists simply wanted to raise awareness about a growing taboo. Their goal with the suit was to get politicians and the media talking.

This past September, 16 Roma students were integrated into classes that were previously white only. Valastiak admits that, in a school of 400, this seems like a relatively small step. But he says they need to move slowly and carefully, with a long-term focus in mind.

“A lot of Roma children are unkempt and they don’t speak Slovak,” he says, “mainly the kids from the lower grades. And I simply had to do integration in the classrooms gradually, for the child to feel more natural and for him or her to keep up with the schoolwork more easily. I wanted to prevent us from losing more than gaining,” he explains.

The majority of Šarišské Michaľany’s classrooms remain segregated, including Vladimir Savov’s all-Roma, sixth-grade English class. He invited me in with reluctance.

“You’ll see,” he whispered knowingly. “These kids have no discipline.”

Savov’s perspective on his Roma pupils is reflective of a widespread attitude in Slovakia.

“It’s not easy to teach these children anything,” he says. “Roma children come very often from very poor families with [a] high unemployment rate, a lack of money, a lack of educated parents. Their parents themselves can’t deal with children."

The Roma minority face marginalization and exclusion across Europe, but activists commonly note the situation for Slovakian Roma as one of the worst. Only 20 percent of Roma men in the country have jobs. Their life expectancy is 15 years below the national average, and a third of their children will not finish primary school.

The divide between Roma and non-Roma Slovak citizens isn’t apparent only in socio-economic terms. Roma are darker-skinner than the majority population. They commonly refer to native Slovaks as ‘White."

Valastiak says that non-Roma parents often worry about the spread of disease. For this reason, the bathrooms at Šarišské Michaľany remain segregated.

“It’s a very sensitive issue,” he says. “One we’re not properly equipped to address at this point.”

When asked what the government has done to help his school with the integration process, in terms of providing guidance or resources, Valasitak’s answer is terse. “Nothing,” he says. “They’ve done nothing.”

Four-hundred miles away, in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, Peter Pollak knows that Valastiak isn’t pleased.

Pollak is Slovakia’s first Roma-elected Member of Parliament, and he calls the situation in Šarišské Michaľany “complex and unsatisfying.”

He sees parallels between the case in Šarišské Michaľany and the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. While Pollak believes the court has ultimately made the right decision, he says there are very practical challenges that make it difficult for the government to intervene or support the integration effort.

“The approach the state takes in teaching Roma children in Slovakia needs to change, [but] this court ruling in the Šarišské Michaľany case didn't give any concrete or specific recommendations for what the school should do,” he says. “That’s the same in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.”

Pollak says the lack of early childhood education in the country is the biggest setback for young Roma, and that’s not something the government is able to fix easily.

“Roma children start school very unprepared. Often they don't have the basic skills that other kids have to be able to go through the education system. [For instance,] many of these children don’t speak Slovak — the official language of state schools.”

He says the government is working on building pre-primary education facilities in Roma communities, but admits that there is little political will to move quickly. He’s not optimistic.

Most of the students at Šarišské Michaľany seem oblivious to how significant and systemic the segregation is. The school’s new "spirit choir" meets for practice in a bright and cheery classroom during an afternoon break. Among the students is 16-year-old Faro Duzdova, who was transferred into a mixed ninth-grade class in September. He admits he was hesitant at first, but is ultimately glad he made the switch.

“When they asked me if I wanted to go into a mixed class, I didn’t want to go, because I thought I would be lonely,” he says. “But now that I’m here, I really like it. I have Roma friends and I have non-Roma friends. I think it’s better that we are now united and that we are not two separate groups.”

The choir has changed the lyrics of the Abba song, "Mama Mia." Together, they sing in both Slovak and Romani: We share a common world, so let’s hold hands and take down prejudices, because today belongs to us all.

The future of this school remains uncertain. But for this moment in time, these students seem to believe the words that they’re singing.

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