Erika Szabóová, REYN Slovakia: “Our voice is stronger together”

The Atlas of Roma Communities from 2013 gives a qualified estimate of about 403 000 Roma living in Slovakia, which represents around 7,4% of the total population. Statistical estimates and sociological mappings vary. Some claim there are about 500 000 Roma living in Slovakia. Established in 2014 by Wide Open School, REYN Slovakia advocates for quality early childhood education and care services to be provided for Roma children and improves the professional development opportunities for early childhood practitioners working with Roma children. Today we interviewed REYN Slovakia coordinator Erika Szabóová and learned more about the organization’s initiatives and goals.

Erika, what are the priorities of your national REYN? What are the short-time and long-time goals?

– Both the short-term and long-term priorities of REYN Slovakia are the same. We aim to offer appropriate professional development opportunities to early childhood practitioners working with Roma children and their families, and actively continue advocating for quality early childhood education and care services for every child.

What is the current situation with young Roma children in your country, taking into consideration the COVID-19 situation?

– According to our information, the current situation is pretty stable. The summer has helped to calm people down a little. The vaccination campaign targeted specifically at Roma communities is still underway. No communities are being quarantined right now. We will see if and how the situation will change with the new school year: how many children will enroll in kindergartens, what issues will arise in different children groups (for instance, development delays, lack of interest of parents reported by school staff), whether schools will be able to function in person, whether there will be any developments or problems with compulsory preschool education, etc.

What is the recent intervention that your national REYN carried out?

– We have organized professional development activities – trainings, workshops, study visits – for 120 REYN members during the last months. We find that the newly established cooperation with the Czech network of Early childhood practitioners is very crucial, as our problems and challenges are very similar.

What is your message to the policy-makers of your country – what would you ask them or tell them if you had 1 minute to talk to them?

– I believe we learn the most when we see things, when we can listen to different people and when we work with our own hands and hearts. I would organize a short-term internship of one week in a kindergarten, school, or community center for them. No high-level meetings, just living the plain life of these vulnerable communities. Then my questions would most probably be: do all position papers and action plans match the reality? What can we all do, as humans, not only as politicians, to help in the best way we possibly can? What needs to be done on a societal level, on community levels, to help these people – children and adults?

How does your national REYN engage with the members (individual and organizational)? How many members do you have?

– We have more than 500 individual members and around 12 organizational members. The main channel we use for our communication is our Facebook page, where we post regular updates about our activities or news related to our scope of work. For targeted communication with our members, we also send out newsletters. This channel is useful, especially when we try to communicate longer texts, but also when we need to reach an audience not active on any social network. To engage with our members, we also use the channels and relevant activities of our hosting organization Škola Dokorán – Wide Open School and a close cooperating organization Open Society Foundation Bratislava.

What is the dream of your national REYN for Roma children in your country?

– Our dream is that all children in Slovakia – including Roma children, even from the most marginalized communities – have a possibility to succeed in their lives and to reach their full potential. We also dream that Roma parents become positive role models and agents of change not only for their children, but also for their communities.

Why should one join REYN, you think?

– The shortest answer would probably be: our voice is stronger together. This, we believe, is true at all times. Besides, the more members we have, the more knowledge and expertise we are able to collect, harness, and use for the wellbeing of Roma children.

Read more about REYN Slovakia and follow their Facebook page

Blog: Impact of COVID-19 on Slovak children from marginalized Roma communities

There is absolutely no doubt the COVID pandemic has been incredibly hard on all of us. As usual, difficult times hit the most vulnerable the hardest…

Over the past 12 months, marginalized people in Slovakia have become even more marginalized due to the pandemic and all phenomena related to it. The outcomes of the pandemic are quite cruel. Many previous achievements and successful work in these communities in the field of early childhood care and education, education of children and young people or parents, health care, and other important fields and areas have come undone. The pandemic pointed to/out the differences and disadvantages that different groups of people in Slovakia face in general and in education in particular.

Almost every day since March 2020, I have watched news, articles, and reports about the impact of the COVID-19 on people’s lives. I heard about children lacking proper education and access to education, struggling with online education, or suffering from the huge workload and lack of social interactions during the pandemic. However, at first, the news mainly focused on the majority population. I assumed the situation would be much worse in Roma communities. Thousands of Roma children from marginalized communities have had very scarce or no access at all to education and care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with the situation being more stable, children have returned to schools. Majority of pupils went through an „adaptation period“ when attention was put on re-creating school and class community, and relationships. Teachers and other school professionals are only now assessing the impact that previous months have had on children, their education and wellbeing. However, there have already been news about lots of children (many from Roma communities) failing their classes.

Many Roma children could not participate in online education since they do not own a computer or/and have no access to the internet. Lack of IT skills necessary for this type of education (and no family member that could help them) and with no space in their homes where they could study made the access and active participation even harder. Community centers were closed, NGO programs focused mostly on delivering material help for communities. Educational and afterschool activities targeting regular work with parents and other important adults in children’s lives stopped completely.

According to the data from the Educational Policy Institute of the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic, 52 000 children did not take part in distance learning during the pandemic. This means 7,5% of all pupils did not utilize any available way of learning. 128 000 children did not have access to online education. This means 18,5% of all pupils were learning by using worksheets, via phone calls with teachers, or TV broadcast in the first wave of the pandemic.

The situation was slightly better in pre-school education. Kindergartens were open almost the whole school year. Still, many parents from Roma communities claimed they were scared to bring their children to the facilities where they could contract the disease from other children or teachers. This situation was probably the most difficult in case the child was older – right before entering primary school. Due to the fact that pre-school education for children aged 5 and older was not compulsory yet, directors of kindergartens were in a very difficult situation when trying to persuade parents to cooperate.

Both state and NGO programs focused on working with families (e.g., home visits) had to stop due to the pandemic and introduced measures. Now the situation is improving, and programs are finally reopening after being in limbo for several months.

Those times, when longer in-person meetings with people from marginalized communities were not possible, and many communities were “sealed in quarantine,” probably also had other implications. To name just a few of them, we have noticed: decreased interest in education, school, cooperation with teachers and other professionals; reduced levels of cooperation with majority population and decreased level of mutual trust; decreased motivation to work towards goals such as finishing school, finding a job, sustaining a job etc.

A couple of years ago, UNICEF started using a claim: “For every child, education. For every child, love.” All child rights must indeed be granted for all children without any exception and under all circumstances in order for children to develop their full and unique potential. These rights are granted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this document basically says that we cannot leave any child behind. In fact, we have left many of them behind. Children from the poorest and most marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia will need years to get back on track with their lives and education after all that has been or – better said – has not been done during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that the restrictions have been somewhat lifted, REYN Slovakia is going to focus on in-person meetings with cooperating organisations and individuals to boost activities in marginalized Roma communities, build mutual trust, provide guidance and support necessary to get ready for possible new lockdowns and restictions. Our overall goal right now is to work as hard as possible to build resilient communities capable of using the resources around them.

Author: Erika Szabóová, REYN Slovakia coordinator, program manager, Open Society Foundation Bratislava

Read more about REYN Slovakia and follow their Facebook page

Education of Roma children from marginalized communities: the Slovak experience

In Slovakia, ensuring quality education for the whole population is still a problem.

By Prof. Stefan Porubsky, Skola dokoran – Wide Open School

Pupils who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds show a significant failure rate in PISA tests (OECD 2018). This is because their family background is unable to create good conditions for their home preparation for school tasks.

On the other hand, the schools are not able to use educational strategies that respect the educational needs of these pupils. Pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with a different mother tongue and a different language code than the one used at school find themselves in the position of outsiders with a high risk of school failure.

This is particularly the case for Roma pupils from marginalized communities who carry all three risk factors (socially disadvantaged environment, different mother tongue, different language code).

Preventing segregation

The problem is that schools are not sufficiently prepared to work with this type of pupils, it is very common to place them (often right at the start of compulsory education at the age of 6) in special classes in mainstream primary schools or special schools, meant for pupils with mental disabilities.

Thus, it is not unusual that special classes in primary schools and classes in special primary schools are made up of Roma pupils only. This creates barriers that prevent the creation of an inclusive environment in schools, and the situation of Roma pupils from marginalized communities is a serious social problem in some localities. The solution requires a comprehensive approach, with changes in approach to the organization of their education.

Two areas are very important

The first area entails creating such conditions that will allow Roma children from marginalized communities to have the same starting point at the beginning of compulsory education as the children from the majority. The solution could be to enable all these children to be included in compulsory pre-school education in kindergartens.

The second area is the gradual and systematic creation of inclusive environment in primary schools to enable these pupils to participate fully in the educational process, taking into account their social and language specificity, as part of the compulsory education.

The law against segreagation

Despite the adoption of a new law introducing compulsory pre-school education from 5 year olds in 2019, which is undoubtedly a sign of progress, the issue still raises some doubts. The most important question is whether the state will create sufficient capacity in kindergartens to train the whole population and, in particular, whether it will create conditions for taking into account the specifics of Roma children from marginalized communities in the process.

Will the preschools have sufficient support staff, such as teacher assistants with Roma language, and will the teaching staff be able to respond in a pedagogically suitable way to the different habits, mother tongue and language code of these children? Besides, neither kindergartens nor primary schools currently have sufficient methodological support to teach Slovak as a second language.

It is as if the law did not expect schools that are not created explicitly for national minorities (for example, the Hungarian national minority in Slovakia, but not the Roma) to teach children whose communication language is not Slovak. These challenges of introducing compulsory pre-school education require not only financial and staffing capacity but also time. It was therefore decided that the Act would not enter into force until January 2021.

Best practices

An even more complex problem than the introduction of compulsory pre-school education is the challenge of creating an inclusive environment in schools to enable Roma children from marginalized communities to be fully integrated into the educational process, taking into account their social, cultural, linguistic, and personal needs. There are many examples of good practice in Slovakia as regards to the creation of inclusive environments in schools, especially in locations with a high concentration of Roma living in disadvantaged social conditions and segregated communities.

One of the successful civil society organizations is the non-profit organization Wide Open School, which has been operating in the field for 25 years. Its activities and programs are targeting Roma children and their families in marginalized Roma communities. A model example of good practice is the cooperation between Wide Open School and the school in Spišský Hrhov .

The municipality of Spišský Hrhov is a model in solving the problems of marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia. It has a comprehensive program that includes the creation of equal opportunities in education. The joint programs of the local elementary school and kindergarten create better conditions for Roma children and pupils and these children achieve better school results. The teachers participate in trainings and workshops to be able to implement educational strategies that respect the cultural, social, linguistic and individual characteristics of this group of children and pupils.

The creation of the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in the school has strengthened the school’s non-formal activities. The Play Hub provides socially disadvantaged families with the opportunity to borrow toys and games that they could not afford otherwise. Parents of Roma children have the opportunity to experience and understand the function of play in the personal development of their children and learn which games and toys are suitable for their children. At the same time, the barriers between the school and the pupils and families are overcome. Both the children and their parents are gradually getting the feeling of becoming full-fledged members of the school community. 

Positive stories from the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs: Elina

Elina is cheerful and friendly.  She is a great girl and everyone accepts her, her friends told me. Elina loves to come to the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia). This has helped her ability to communicate with others. She is also a good student and would like to become an educator. 

By Peter Strážik, Headmaster of the Elementary School in Spišský Hrhov.

Elina, 12, is the eldest of four children, has two younger sisters and a small brother. Elina is a Roma. She lives in Spišský Hrhov, in a district where more than 98% of the local Roma are based.

Elina is cheerful and friendly.  She is a great girl and everyone accepts her, her friends told me. That is how it should be always and everywhere.

Not long ago Elina has become the star of the Play Hub.  Thanks to her appearance in the Toy for Inclusion promotional video, her smile and her communication talent. In the video, she described why she likes to come to the Play Hub and what activities she is involved in. We all enjoyed watching the video on social networks.

Elina, with her siblings and parents live in a new brick house with running water, heating, bathroom and internet connection. Every member of the family has a smartphone and they actively use internet.

They have their accounts on social media and they use them to communicate with me regularly. On Sundays, Elina‘s family goes for a walk in the local park, which is a rarity. Roma families usually prefer to stay in their community, at home or on the street. Elina‘s family also attends different events in the village, such as concerts, theater performances and art exhibitions. They do their best to integrate in Spišský Hrhov. We like them!

I met the family when Elina enrolled in school after finishing kindergarten and came to visit the school with her parents. Since then, the parents have been regularly communicating with the school, showing interest in the performance and attendance not only of Elina but also of her two younger sisters. They regularly visit parents’ meetings, while honestly, most of the Roma parents in the village do not.  

It seems to me that, at least is some cases, they fear criticism about their children having a lower attendance and grades than other children. Comprehensibly, who would want to listen to their children being criticized in front of other parents? Roma families often prefer personal meetings. with the teacher.

Elina’s parents are an exception. We became closer since they started visiting the Play Hub. Nowadays, we meet weekly for a wide range of activities.

I am very glad that the school has a place like the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub. This enables us to have informal talks with the parents during extra-curricular activities. We have time to talk about their family situation, drink a coffee together, things that I do not have the occasion to do during the school hours.

Intergenerational activities

Elina’s parents got used to their regular visits and enjoy them. They engage in activities and games with the children, her mum even volunteers at the Play Hub, often helping to prepare activities with Elina. They also borrow games they do not have at home, always returning them in perfect shape, and this is a success, it helps build the children’s trust and responsibility. Another positive thing is that they play together at home, not many parents nowadays have time and space to play with their children.

Her teacher says

We also noticed that visiting the Toy for Inclusion Play Hub has helped Elina expand her ability to communicate; according to her literature teacher, she is more eloquent, active and likes to describe the texts she reads. This makes us all very happy! Her effort and hard work have helped her to be accepted by the majority, I know that all the children in her class consider her a good friend. She says that she would like to work as a kindergarten teacher in the future, and I am sure that if she continues with her pace and trend, she will succeed.

Roma children‘s Christmas wishes confirm poverty gap

School Principal Peter Strážik asked children in his school what they wanted for Christmas. Over 50% of the children in the school are Roma. The difference of wishes between Roma and non Roma children reflect the hard reality.

As a headmaster of the only elementary school in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia), I often do various surveys that provide me with precious feedback. Sometimes I check the satisfaction of parents, sometimes I send surveys to the school staff to find out what to improve and how to move forward.  Most often and very gladly, I ask questions to the children. It helps me to understand their world better. The children are usually open and truthful, they leave me in amazement, or even shock me.

I ask the children

In the past, I have asked children about the quality of school lunches, the severity or benevolence of the teachers, workload and bullying. Sometimes I also focus on inclusion, that’s because 52% of pupils in our school come from the marginalized Roma communities. The school Inspectorate monitors the respect of human rights, integration and acceptance of differences. I do not exaggerate if I say that the results show a high level of acceptance of Roma, and there are friendships between the children, who sit together without bringing up their differences.

Last week, I wanted to study something unusual, something not so important for the life of the school, but very important for the headmaster who wants to be a friend of all the pupils of the school. The only question I was interested in was what the children wanted for Christmas.

Inspired by my sons

I was motivated by a situation at home where I asked my two sons to write a letter to Santa Claus with a list of wishes and gifts. My older son (16) refused to do it, he said that he has everything and needed nothing. (He’s modest like his father). The younger son (12) took the paper and pen without hesitation and brought me a not so modest list. He asked for several gifts which had a total value of 1,500 euros. Fortunately, besides material gifts, he also wished for peace, health, happiness, or good election results.

The survey

Going back to the survey, the results show way too much. Although I never do it, this time I asked the children to write their names on the lists. I had a reason for it. Are you wondering what I found? You should be.

Slovak children had roughly the same wishes my younger son has: mobile phones, tablets, computers, play stations… etc. The lists of Roma children also showed unity. However, a diametrically different one. Some might not believe it, others might be saddened by it. I offer the results of the survey to you, you are welcome to come and see the questionnaires in my office, with a cup of quality coffee.

More than half of the Roma children wanted sweets and cakes, and for their father to be at home with the family at Christmas. About 30% of the children wanted a jacket or a sweater; girls preferred shoes and scarfs. A few respondents wanted toys, with a book here and there. There were also bizarre wishes including chainsaws, axes and knives. Out of the total number of children in this group, only two wished for a cell phone.

What conclusion can we make?

The everyday reality of children from excluded communities has remained unchained for a long time. It is marked by poverty but on the other hand by strong social bonds: the need for a family, (grand)parents, siblings and neighbors. They stick to their habits and traditions and still have respect, something, which has become a thing of the past in the majority community. Roma do have things to teach us. Trust me!

By Peter Strážik, Principal of the primary school of Spišský Hrhov, Slovakia.

The children’s gift to Pope Francis

- News

Pope Francis appreciated receiving the decorations prepared by the children of our Play Hub in Slovakia. “The pope urged parents to find time for their children… he wants them to “play together”.” The Slovak President Andrej Kiska said.

The President of the Slovak Republic, Andrej Kiska visited Pope Francis in the Vatican and presented him with the Christmas tree ball prepared by the children of the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov.

During their meeting at the Vatican, last Friday, the two had the chance to talk about inclusion and integration among other things. Mr. Kiska informed the pope about the work done in Spišský Hrhov.

According to Mr. Kiska, much of their discussion centered on the family. He recalled how the pope urged parents to find time for their children. But not only with technology; he wants them to “play together.”

The balls will be hanging on the Christmas tree in the House of St. Martha, where Francis will serve mass every day until Christmas.

The Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov is situated in the local school and kindergarten. “Our children talk about the Play Hub during the day and plan meetings there after school. In this way, meetings among Roma and non-Roma families become part of the education system”, says Peter Strážik, school principal and local team coordinator.

Over the past months, the TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Slovakia has been receiving appraisals by high level politicians, families and children.

What children say about TOY for Inclusion in Slovakia

- News

The TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Slovakia keeps receiving appraisals! Recently we reported about Thorbjørn Jagland, the Council of Europe Secretary General and other high level politicians who applauded the project. Today we are happy to share some cheerful quotes that children who attend the Play Hub have told us!

The TOY for Inclusion Play Hub in Spišský Hrhov (Slovakia) is placed in the local kindergarten and school and it’s visited every day by dozens of children.

This is what they say.

“I was amazed to see the colors of the room… We don’t play at home because we don’t have such modern and new toys. My father left us when I was a baby, so my mom takes care of me on her own. Last time before going home, Tatiana [a volunteer], told my mom we could take some toys with us at home. I could not simply believe that! We took a Lego set home and I spent long time constructing it until I fell asleep.” Zuzana, 8 years old.

“We come in and make ourselves comfortable. There is no day without Play Hub, I can’t wait to come again tomorrow!” Sonia, 6 years old.

What parents say

“A unique place for us Roma mothers. I have never seen a place where so many different children play together like in our Play Hub.” Monika, mother of 4 children.

“I have never felt so welcome and respected before. My boys are happy to play with other children of the village and nobody treats them any different. They even have the chance to use books and toys I could not afford. What a perfect place!” Anna Dirdova, Roma mother of six children.

Learn more about the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs here.