Slovaks take first step to integrating Roma in schools

Plavecky Stvrtok (Slovakia) (AFP) - The school bell rings and 10-year-old Alenka Jankovicova and her peers race out of their classroom like any typical fourth graders, all shouts and grins.

But this school in a western Slovakian village is different -- all of its 117 students are Roma and unlikely to make it past elementary school.

Their very ethnicity is the reason why Roma children face segregation in access to education in Slovakia, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

"The parents don't want their kids to go to school with Roma," the village Mayor Ivan Slezak told AFP.

"Out of 230 schoolage children in Plavecky Stvrtok, all non-Roma kids attend school in the neighbouring town Malacky," he said.

The school was not always all-Roma. But after the fall of communism the state lifted a law requiring children to attend the school closest to home and parents of non-Roma children gradually enrolled them elsewhere.

One principal is trying to break the cycle. His small elementary school in the eastern town of Sarisske Michalany has launched an initiative to integrate its Roma students among their non-Roma peers.

"There used to be clear segregation -- Roma kids attended separate classes, they played in a separate yard, they weren't allowed in the canteen," principal Jaroslav Valastiak told AFP.

Since taking over the helm of the school in March of last year, he has worked to address the issue.

"I feel that Slovakia hasn't been dealing with this problem for 22 years since the fall of communism. It's high time we did something."

For the first time in Slovak history, a local court also ruled last year that placing Roma students in separate classes in Sarisske Michalany violated the Anti-Discrimination Act.

'The kids are happier now than before'

The case was brought by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, a non-profit group based in the eastern city of Kosice with a history of fighting for Roma rights.

"We picked Sarisske Michalany because it was a clear example of segregation albeit not the only one," the centre's Stefan Ivanco told AFP.

"From the legal point of view the court decision applies only to this school. But it sends a strong signal for other schools in Slovakia that Roma kids should not be segregated."

The court required the school to integrate students starting September.

Of the 407 students there, two thirds are Roma. Most commute from the neighbouring town of Ostrovany, which made headlines five years ago for building a concrete wall blocking off the Roma settlement.

Valastiak first integrated students in the school yard and at the canteen, before enrolling nine gifted Roma in classes previously reserved for ethnic Slovaks. He expanded the program last month.

"I can't mix all the students at once but today 30 Roma kids attend nine mixed classes and I hope more will follow soon," he said.

He admitted that not all teachers and parents were happy with the change. But a month into the new school year, he said the experiment has been working well.

"The kids are happier now than before," said Alena Pestova, whose Roma daughter and two sons joined mixed classes last month.

"They say the teachers explain the subjects in a better and more detailed way, they have non-Roma friends, they've improved their Slovak as well," she said, delighted.

No 'majority' and 'minority', just 'us'

A traditionally nomadic people, the Roma's ancestors left northwestern regions of the Indian sub-continent in the 11th century and were captured and sold as slaves before dispersing across Europe and the rest of the world.

Europe's largest and poorest minority, they are often socially excluded, including in Slovakia, where they represent around eight percent of its 5.4 million people.

Around half of Slovakia's Roma are fully integrated into society while the other half live in some 650 settlements located mostly in eastern Slovakia.

Far from the affluent capital Bratislava, they often lack electricity, sewage or running water and suffer from high joblessness and low levels of education.

According to a 2010 UN Development Programme survey, 35 percent of Roma in Slovakia failed to finish elementary school while only 15 percent graduated from high school and 0.2 percent received higher education.

Around 43 percent of Roma in mainstream schools were enrolled in ethnically segregated classes.

Schools also often segregate Roma by labelling them academically challenged and sending them to special schools, according to Slovakia's Ombudswoman Jana Dubovcova.

"Once they are placed in special schools, they practically lose any chance of getting higher education, which harms their prospect of getting a job later," she said.

With some 370,000 Slovaks now dependent on unemployment benefits, economists have also warned that failure to educate Roma spells trouble down the road.

"We want to be an example for other schools across Slovakia. I'll be retiring in two years but I have a dream that one day we won't speak about a 'majority' and 'minority' but about 'us'," Valastiak said.


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