Principal Jaroslav Valastiak stands in the middle of the Šarišské Michaľany junior-elementary school cafeteria.

“In the beginning, we had to teach the youngest ones to use cutlery,” he says, shaking his head.

“The youngest ones didn’t know how.”

 Šarišské Michaľany school

Šarišské Michaľany junior-elementary school in Slovakia was forced in a landmark court ruling to integrate its Roma and non-Roma students. (Tanya Springer/CBC)

​Šarišské Michaľany is a quaint Slovak village nestled in the rolling hills of the country’s north-east. It’s an unlikely venue for a radical social experiment. But here at the local public school, that’s exactly what’s taking place.

Valastiak was hired as principal at Šarišské Michaľany roughly one year ago, after a landmark court ruling mandated this school integrate its Roma and non-Roma students. 

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

Before the court ruling 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.”

The growing trend of segregation

The segregation of Roma and non-Roma students is a common and growing practice in Slovakia. In the early 1990s just 7 per cent of Roma students were taught in segregated classrooms or schools. Today, the United Nations Development Program estimates that number hovers around 40 per cent.

Jaroslav Valastiak

Jaroslav Valastiak, principal of the Šarišské Michaľany junior-elementary school, says he has been doing the integration of classrooms gradually, "for the child to feel more natural and for him or her to keep up with the school work more easily. I wanted to prevent us from losing more than gaining.” (Tanya Springer/CBC)

Looking to spark dialogue and take a symbolic stand, the country’s Center for Civil and Human Rights contacted a local Roma parent who was disgruntled about the segregation, and took the school in Šarišské Michaľany to court.  It wasn’t chosen because it was unique in any way. In fact, the school was chosen because the school’s make-up and size were completely typical by Slovak standards.

After a long and contentious legal battle, it was deemed that the segregation violated the country’s anti-discrimination laws, and the school was mandated to integrate students. It was a landmark ruling: both unprecedented and controversial.

In September of 2013, 16 of the brightest Roma students in Šarišské Michaľany were integrated into classes that were previously white only.

Principal Valastiak explains that integration needs to happen slowly, 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.”

A persistent discrimination

For the time being, most of Šarišské Michaľany’s classrooms remain segregated, including Vladimir Savov’s all-Roma Sixth Grade English class.

Roma settlement

This settlement outside Plavecký Štvrtok is home to some 700 Roma. Only 20 per cent of Roma men in Slovakia have jobs, their life expectancy is 15 years below the national average, and one-third of their children will not finish primary school. (Tanya Springer/CBC)

“It’s not easy to teach these children anything,” says Savov, gesturing to the 15 young Roma scribbling in their workbooks. “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.

“What can you do?” Savov asks, shrugging his shoulders.

“When these children finish school time they will go back. They go back to the same situation as they came from before school.”

His perspective reflects a widespread attitude in Slovakia.

While the Roma minority faces marginalization and exclusion across Europe, activists commonly note the situation in Slovakia as the worst. Only 20 per cent of Roma men in the country have jobs. Their life expectancy is 15 years below the national average, and one-third of their children will not finish primary school.

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

“You have to pick and choose your battles,” he says.

Valastiak says his school has received no government funding or support since the ruling came down one year ago.  He says he doesn’t expect any.

In the absence of government support

Peter Pollak is Slovakia’s first Roma-elected Member of Parliament. He calls the situation in Šarišské Michaľany “complex and unsatisfying,” citing parallels between this and the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling: Brown v. Board of Education.

Roma at school

"Roma children come very often from very poor families with a high unemployment rate, a lack of money, a lack of educated parents," says Grade Six teacher Vladimir Savov. (Tanya Springer/CBC)

​Pollak believes the court has ultimately made the right decision, but admits that there are very practical challenges that make it difficult for the government to 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.

In Slovakia parents are free to place their children in schools outside of their neighbourhood districts, so long as they obtain approval from that school’s principal. This has led to the growing phenomenon of “White Flight” across the country. Non-Roma parents who live in districts with a significant Roma minority will pull their children from the local school, in favour of a school that’s further away in districts that are Roma-free.

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In the Bratislava suburb of Plavecký Štvrtok, this has resulted in an entirely Roma school in a district that has an evenly mixed population of both Roma and non-Roma residents.Pollak agrees this is a problem.

“One recommendation I want to mention would be to set up school districts so people would not be free to choose their schools. So when they live in a district they would necessarily have to place their children in that district,” he says. 

But he admits there is little political appetite to push for that reform. He says it’s more likely that changes will come in the area of early childhood education, aimed at better preparing Roma children for success in primary school.

“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,” he says. “[For instance] many of these children don’t speak Slovak - the official language of state schools.” 

Pollak 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.

An unlikely success story

Valastiak admits that while the staff and students at Šarišské Michaľany didn’t ask for the change that’s been thrust upon them, they have benefited and come to appreciate the new dynamic.

Faro Duzdova

Faro Duzdova, a 16-year-old Roma student at the Šarišské Michaľany junior-elementary school, says his non-segregated classes have gotten harder, but he adds that teachers have more patience and greater respect for him and his Roma classmates. (Tanya Springer/CBC)

“It may be a paradox that I’m saying this, seeing as the school lost this lawsuit, but I would really want to thank the Center for Civil and Human Rights for filing it – because without doing so we wouldn’t have seen this change,” he says.   

16-year old Roma student Faro Duzdova says he is no longer scared of the white students who have recently become his peers.

“When they asked me if I wanted to go into a mixed class, at first I said I did want [to], but then I changed my mind ... I thought I would be lonely. But now I really like it. I have Roma friends and I have non-Roma friends. I think we get along well.”

Faro admits that his classes have gotten harder, but says that teachers have more patience and greater respect for him and his Roma classmates.

“I think we should be the example for the other schools – for them to start changes as well,” he says.

His friend Peter, a fellow Roma, is less enthusiastic.

Peter admits that he misses his Roma-only class. “I felt more comfortable,” he says.

“Most of the Roma from my settlement want their children to [be in] Roma only classes,” he says. “I guess they see it from the side that if the white parents don’t want their kids to go to classes with Roma, then we don’t want our kids to go to class with the white kids either.”