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17.3.2017

Karin Marques: A visit to the Romani children in the Slovak schools

Karin Marques, a specialist in inclusive education with the Open Society Fund Prague, has published on the website of the foundation her impressions from a study trip to Slovakia organized by the League of Community Schools (Liga komunitních škol), which is involved in community education and inclusive education. News server Romea.cz publishes it here in full translation:

Jožka is a 22-year-old girl who works at a preschool club with Romani children. She lives with them in a Romani settlement on the outskirts of the municipality of Veľká Ida in the Košice-okolie district.

That means she lives in ruins, at a garbage dump, without running water, cut off from civilization in the mud. At the preschool club she teaches children how to hold crayons, wash their hands, and play with building blocks – but mainly, she teaches them to speak Slovak.

“Her” children speak Romanes only at home. Next year, however, they will start going to a school where the language of instruction is Slovak.

Thanks to Jožka and the preschool club, these children will be well-prepared for school. The municipality has 3 500 inhabitants, but there are just 50 places in a single nursery school for 300 preschoolers.

Previously there used to be two preschools here, but one closed years ago. Now that it is needed again, the local NGO ETP Slovakia has raised money to equip and repair it and asked the municipality to reopen it.

The local council, however, refused to do so. Two-thirds of its inhabitants are local Roma whom nobody represents.

Decisions about those people’s lives are made for them by the non-Romani inhabitants. Their thorny situation is ameliorated at least a bit by the preschool club, which has enough capacity for 25 children, where Jožka is aiding them.

Staffers at the club travel to the local primary school in the afternoon, where they assist pupils with learning and, through the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Method, lead them to better analytical thinking, concentration and problem-solving. They also offer to teach the local pedagogues the method, and one teacher has already joined them.

Eat, warm up, learn to count

A privately-run Romani school on Galaktická Street in Košice takes care of children from the sadly infamous excluded locality of the Luník IX housing estate in the southwestern part of the city. The estate itself was built in 1979 to house police officers, Romani people from a settlement that had been razed, and soldiers.

Today Romani children live there in such horrible conditions that they basically attend school in order to eat and warm up. Naturally, their parents do not pay tuition.

The school covers its operational costs through foundation donations and grants. It is sad that those costs include rent paid to the city for the use of a dilapidated, discarded school building on one of Košice’s housing estates.

We also visited a performance by the Romathan theater company in Košice. The company had prepared an excerpt for us from a production about the Romani Holocaust that made our blood run cold, and also performed traditional music selections for cembalom.

Pupils grow their wings – in separate wings of the school

From the east of Slovakia we traveled to the west and visited a primary school in the municipality of Plavecký Štvrtok, Malacky district. Housing conditions there were noticeably better.

The local Romani people, who comprise approximately one-third of the village inhabitants, have enough job opportunities in nearby Bratislava. Their homes in the settlement are clean and in good repair.

Despite that fact, the village has not extended asphalt roads or other paving into the settlement, nor has it extended the water system. There is one tap on the outskirts of the settlement for all the people living there.

The local mayor won election with a program of evicting the local Roma. Nobody, however, knows exactly where they will go.

What was once absolutely seamless coexistence between the majority-society residents and Romani ones there has greatly deteriorated in recent years. Thanks to our visit, the mayor allowed Romani children into the local House of Culture for the first time ever to demonstrate their dancing and music.

Many local non-Romani residents did not want to send their children to school together with the local Romani children, so the majority society agreed with the municipality that a private primary school could begin there. It is located in one wing of the building of the local primary school.

That part of the building is nice and well-maintained, even though just 11 non-Romani children use it. The other wing houses the public primary school, where 120 Romani pupils remain.

Thanks to the principal of the public school, Mariana Korbelová, what was once a war zone has become an inspiring, stimulating environment where one can feel that people respect and trust each other.

It is plain to see that when those in charge of a school begin to take an interest in where children live and how, when they open their hearts to them while simultaneously establishing strict rules for them, then there is no need to call the police or social workers.

The study visit to Slovakia was organized with the support of the Open Society Fund Prague by the League of Community Schools, many of which also educate Romani children in the Czech Republic and wanted to compare their experiences with those of the Slovak schools. We saw that the commitment of people like Jožka, her colleague from the preschool club in the village of Veľká Ida, and the staffers at the Romani schools in Košice and Plavecký Štvrtok is contagious and that they have achieved obvious results – for those in the Czech environment, it is important to note not just their sensitive attention to their pupils’ basic needs, but also some across-the-board solutions being offered through political decisions, such as free lunches.

Pupils whose parents receive benefits for those in material distress get free lunch at school. If more than half of the children enrolled at the school are from such backgrounds, then in order to simplify the bureaucracy, lunches are automatically given for free to all.

Karin Marques Education and Youth Program Coordinator karin.marques@osf.cz