There are many stories of unsuccessful Roma children; this one from Slovakia is about how they can be helped effectively. From Dennik N.

Nikola sits in the corner of the classroom. It’s her first day at a new school after a recent family move to the Slovak town of Levoca. The rest of the class are all Roma. They can all speak Slovak, but among themselves they speak Romani, and Nikola doesn’t understand. She’s Roma herself, and not ashamed of it, but her family doesn’t speak Romani at home. She can’t understand her classmates and they don’t understand why a Roma girl isn’t able to speak their language.

Nikola is a quiet child and tries her best, at just 10 years of age, to understand why one class contains all the Roma children and a different one has the others. She experienced nothing like this at her last school, in Velky Krtis. There, her friends and classmates all had different skin colors. When she’s older she’ll understand that what she’s experiencing has a name: segregation.

When her parents ask how her first day at the new school was, she tells them she was put in the Roma class. The next day her mother goes to the school to sort things out and from that point on, Nikola is in the same class as white children. There, too, she sits quietly in the corner. She can now understand what the children are talking about, but she isn’t accepted in this class either: she is seen as different.

Nikola had mixed experiences in Slovak schools: she was bullied, made fun of, had a learning disability misdiagnosed, and changed primary school twice; she even spent six months in the Northern Ireland education system. But today Nikola Pompova, 21 years old, is into her second year of Romani studies at Charles University in Prague.

She has been helped in her studies by stipends from the Roma Education Fund. Thanks to the fund she is now part of a community trying to get as many Roma children as possible into the highest levels of the Slovak education system.

Nikola’s story shows that it is possible to help smart children who would otherwise be crushed by the Slovak school system. She is an example of why it makes sense to intervene, and a model for how to do it.

As well as granting money, the Roma Education Fund (REF) also offers students supplementary teaching and mentoring. Mentors advise students which areas of their education they need to work on, introduce them to role models, and talk to them about relationships at school and at home; all with the aim of getting them to achieve the best results they can.

Nikola. Photo by Vladimír Simícek/Dennik N.

The REF’s programs begin in early childhood and so also cover children who haven’t yet started kindergarten. The aim is for children from Roma communities to go on to high school, and preferably to take final exams. The fund’s work with students also involves building a community of educated Roma people to address the lack of role models for Roma children. The idea of establishing the REF in Slovakia came from the Open Society Institute; the World Bank provided both funding and practical help to set up the program.

Children of parents who didn’t even complete their primary education can start to fall behind their peers at school simply because no one at home can help with their homework. Sometimes the problem comes down to what might seem a trivial issue: simply giving children the belief that they can go to high school, pass their exams, and get to university. This is where the mentors come in.

The REF stipends only go to students who improve their grades and have no unexplained absences from school. “When a Roma child from a ghetto or from one of the Roma settlements looks at how their parents live, and see that they don’t have an education, they often lose their motivation to go to school and achieve anything themselves, even when they have what it takes. They absorb what they see at home into their own lives, because even outside the home environment they don’t see examples of Roma people who have achieved anything,” Nikola says.

The fund seeks out children who have the potential to pass their high-school exams and perhaps later to get to university. The fund has been operating for 10 years, in which time, across the whole of Europe, more than 7,000 Roma people have completed a university course.

Told She Wasn’t Smart Enough

Nikola may soon join the ranks of Slovak Roma who have a university qualification. She began her schooling in Velky Krtis, where she was in a mixed class, did well and got top marks in all her exams. When she was 10 years old her family moved to Levoca; they were the first Roma family to move onto an estate inhabited by the majority Slovak community.

She joined the fourth year at the Francisci Street primary school in Levoca. “I had problems fitting in because the non-Roma children didn’t want to be friends with me. And even the Roma children didn’t want to be friends with me, because I couldn’t speak Romani and my skin was lighter.”

This was Nikola’s first experience of segregation: she didn’t know where she belonged.

“I knew I was a Roma, and we have never been ashamed of that. But we had lived our whole lives on mixed estates and I had lots of non-Roma friends,” she says.

Today Nikola speaks authoritatively about prejudice, having experienced it herself.

“When children are separated into different classes, the non-Roma children tell themselves it’s because the Roma are dirty and bad. Their parents often say the same at home. On the other hand, Roma children often envy the non-Roma children – how they live, how they dress. They don’t make friends or get to know each other because they are in separate classes,” she says.

Nikola cried at home a lot during her school days in Levoca: she wanted to go back to Velky Krtis, but her mother didn’t want to. The Roma children started to bully her.

“First they called me names, then it got worse.” Once Nikola came home with the contents of her lunch box rubbed into her hair.

The situation didn’t improve and her parents sent her to a new school. She got good marks and was accepted into a state gymnazium – a school for academically gifted students – where she was the school’s first Roma girl. Even on registration day she sensed people were pointing at her and talking about her behind her back. It took her fellow students a while to get used to her. “They could see that I could speak Slovak, and that I wore clean clothes; eventually everything worked out fine and I’m still in contact with some of them today,” she says.

She made friends, but then started having problems with math. She couldn’t work out simple arithmetic without using her fingers or a pen and paper. Her teacher sent her for psychological testing, which concluded that she didn’t have the ability to study at gymnazium level.

A New School, Dyscalculia and Graduation

At the end of the school year the family moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland, where Nikola’s father was working long-term as a plasterer. She was 12 years old and was able to experience a school environment where she suffered no discrimination. She wanted to stay, but her mother couldn’t settle. They returned to Slovakia and Nikola entered a different gymnazium in Levoca. This time she wasn’t the school’s only Roma girl, and the classes were mixed.

She went for more tests to find out why she was having trouble with math. The results showed she has a learning disability known as dyscalculia, which prevents the sufferer from doing arithmetic. She is unable to imagine numbers in the abstract. “The condition also means I have spatial awareness issues: I get my left and right mixed up and find it difficult to read maps,” Nikola says.

But she had no problems with school and for that reason was recommended for what turned out to be the first of several REF stipends. She used the money to buy study materials, and also paid for her school leaving party with it.

She was awarded the stipend even though her mother was receiving maternity pay and her father held a job. This is because REF stipends are awarded not as welfare payments, but on the basis of educational merit; the children of working parents are also eligible to receive them. Despite having work, parents often cannot afford to buy their children books and study materials or to cover their transport costs.

Because stipends are awarded purely on educational merit, and only children achieving the best school results receive them, the REF does not provide help for children with average or below-average grades. So the fund is not a universal solution to improve the performance of all children from marginalized environments. It only helps those getting good marks – the ones that have a higher chance of getting the grades to go on to study at university.

Nikola did well at school. She passed high school exams in civics, Slovak, English, and biology and wanted to study medicine, but was rejected by medical schools in Bratislava and Kosice. Two years later she received offers for Roma studies in Prague and English in Kosice. She chose Prague. She is one of eight students, half of whom are Roma.

“I’m enjoying it at the moment, though I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’ve completed my studies. We are learning about the history of the Roma and about the different ethnic groups. And I’ve learned to speak Romani.”

These days, aside from her studies, Nikola also gets involved in the other activities the Roma Education Fund carries out in addition to awarding stipends. This involves trying to create a community of educated Roma people to help younger students. Among other things, Nikola has co-founded a reading club and led reading sessions with younger pupils.

A Mentor Who Teaches Parents Too

Jozef Demeter is another beneficiary of the REF’s stipends and for the last five years has acted as a mentor for the fund, helping young female pupils to prepare for and study at secondary school and university. Jozef is a specialist in pedagogy and has been teaching for 17 years. He originally studied to be a cook and a waiter. He comes from a Roma settlement and still lives there today. “I’m not ashamed. I’m proud to be Roma,” he says.

Jozef Demeter on his graduation day.

“I used to cycle to the bus station and then catch a bus to school every day. I told myself that maybe one day I would teach at that school,” he says about his childhood dreams. Since then he has graduated from high school, gone to university, undertaken various training courses and today is continuing his studies at Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, specializing in the education of children from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Jozef is 38 years old and says segregation has increased markedly since he was a pupil himself, in a mixed class. “We may have had to sit at the back, but it wasn’t like it is today,” he says. He excelled at primary school, loved his studies and never went out to play until he had done all his homework. “I enjoyed school,” he says. Today he works in a primary school in Slovenske Nove Mesto, as the tutor for a special needs class.

“When I ask children what they want to be in life, those from the majority ethnic group have dreams: they want to be doctors, car mechanics, firefighters; but the Roma children often don’t know where they want to work. It took a long time for the children to realize that they didn’t have to limit themselves to community service work,” he says.

The reason for this is that they often have no role models at home, and the only adults they see around them are unemployed and often under-educated. Jozef says this is where the Roma Education Fund stipends come in.

Demeter’s role as a mentor also involves working with parents. “For the children to get good results, they have to have support at home,” he says. The parents of students from marginalized communities often didn’t complete secondary school themselves, Jozef says, and can’t envisage their children being able to go beyond primary school.

“They haven’t understood that higher levels of education open doors to other kinds of work and bring experience and higher levels of pay.”

And here lies one of the fund’s limitations: the parents of children from the poorest backgrounds are often without work and see no prospects in education. They can’t act as educational role models for their children, and role models are also often lacking in their wider circle.

When Jozef began working with Vanesa, her parents were unemployed and her mother was doing community service work. “I had to motivate the parents more than I did the student,” he says. “They gradually discovered that when they worked, they had a lot more money.” Over the four years that Demeter has worked with them, both parents have found work, repaired their house, and bought a car. “Vanessa’s father did a welding course and now earns twice as much as I do,” he laughs.

Jozef says often just talking things through with the parents and explaining why education is important for their children is enough to have an impact. “When I speak to them, I talk to them at their level; I don’t puff myself up, I don’t make a show of having a higher level of education. That’s important,” he says. Sometimes just chatting for a couple of minutes changes the parents’ attitude.

Jozef changes the attitudes not only of his students’ parents, but also of his own siblings. He has eight of them, and all are in work and continuing their education. “They’re not getting any younger, but they’re still learning: finishing off their secondary education, preparing for exams. My sister wants to go into social work,” he says about how his family has changed the way it looks at education under his influence.

Demeter himself receives a stipend from the fund and is constantly learning. So far his mentoring has seen him work with three girls – one is now at university in Levoca and the other two are finishing off their studies at the private Deutsch-Slowakische Akademien (DSA) secondary school in Trebisov. They’re preparing to go to university, and choosing their clothes for the high school leaving party, to which they’ve invited their mentor. They are all studying teaching.

Jozef Demeter and Vanesa. Photo courtesy of Demeter.

Outside his work for the fund Jozef has also mentored two boys who are now car mechanics. Another of his students graduated from high school and is preparing to do a course to work in the private security sector. Jozef has also been helping parents to further their education, and five of them are now coming to the end of part-time courses in catering.

Few Settlement Children Finish High School

“They all come from marginalized Roma communities, where only a very few children make it to secondary school or university. I’m very happy for them,” Demeter says.

He gives as an example one of his students, Melinda, whom he has known since she was in the first year of his school. “She was so small – even her bag was bigger than her. I had to give her money for the bus so she wouldn’t have to carry it home,” he says. Today Melinda is in her second year at university in Levoca, studying nursery school teaching with the support of a REF stipend.

Jozef is in touch with his students at least twice a week; they talk not just about their studies, but about what else is happening in school, whether they are in a relationship, how things are going with boys. “When I sense that a student is lacking motivation and things are getting them down, I offer them support. I tell them they can manage it, that they have to have a goal that they can gradually work towards. And then, when they regain motivation, we can go through specific subjects that are causing them problems,” he says. He tries to help them achieve those goals: with his help they have started to work on getting driving licenses, for example. This is not common among Roma girls, he says: it’s often only the boys who drive.

Demeter encountered an additional problem with the girls he mentors: they didn’t believe in themselves. They left primary school with the notion that they didn’t have what it takes to finish secondary school or to go to university. “At secondary school they were a hair’s breadth away from dropping out in the first year,” he says.

Melinda was told at primary school that she should become a pastry cook because she would come to nothing.

“When she finished high school I called the teacher to tell her she had graduated from the private DSA school in Trebisov and had got a place at university. She was speechless for a minute and then congratulated the student,” Demeter says.

When another two of Jozef’s students found they were constantly being told to repeat their homework, a telephone call came to their rescue. Jozef called the teacher and asked what the problem was. He explained he was from the Roma Education Fund – something that often changes the attitude of the teachers, he says, because they realize that someone is looking out for the students, and also because the fund has a good reputation. Demeter says the teachers’ approach to the pupils then changed.

Jozef gives pupils extra classes himself at home, in his kitchen. “My wife laughs at me, she says I have one school at school and another school at home. We have often still been up studying when my wife and child are already asleep in the room next door.”

Motivation to Stay in School

What does Jozef think are the main problems in the Slovak school system? One is attendance levels; many students don’t have support at home and so don’t go to school. He would like to see a stricter approach to attendance, because if children don’t go to school regularly, they can’t get what they need to get on in life.

But Jozef was young himself once, and knows that at that age children will get up to mischief. And he also knows that some students stop going to school because they are being subjected to humiliating treatment, because they are made to feel bad, or because they are being hurt by others.

Students who want a stipend from the Roma Education Fund have to keep their attendance levels up. Demeter says this is a great motivator. Indeed, the question of attendance is another factor limiting the fund’s reach, because children who have missed a lot of classes cannot receive a stipend and so don’t have access to a mentor.

To get support from the fund, students must have no more than 15 unauthorized absences from class in a school year. The fund also asks questions when a student’s record shows lots of authorized absences. “It’s happened to me many times that a girl has dropped out of school and I worried whether she would come back. But I kept at them for long enough that they didn’t give up,” Demeter says.

Viktor Teru and Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. Photo courtesy of Teru.

At the age of most of Jozef’s charges, they’re experiencing their first loves and relationships. “Roma girls have a completely different view of these things. I tell them it’s natural that they should have a boyfriend, but they don’t have to get married straight away. They need to have boundaries and to finish their schooling.”

A second problem is that Roma pupils can sometimes complete the compulsory number of years of education even before they finish primary school – often as early as the seventh grade. This can happen because children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often have to repeat a school year, frequently as early as the first year of primary school, but also in later years.

“If mentors were the norm in schools, the Roma community would make progress,” he says. Mentors shouldn’t just be looking after Roma children, but any child who is having problems and needs motivation or help, he says.

Jozef says the mentoring system should be extended to all schools, but the problem may be finding the money: the state doesn’t have the means even to pay for teaching assistants for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He says mentors should be employed as specialist staff members in schools, linking parents, students, teachers and specialist practitioners such as psychologists and speech therapists; whatever problem a pupil has, there should be a specialist there to help.

According to data from the Slovak Center for Scientific and Technical Information, the highest incidence of pupils dropping out of primary school is in the Banska Bystrica, Presov and Kosice regions – and it is precisely these areas that have the most segregated Roma settlements. The dropout rate in the older age groups is lower, probably because there are fewer children from the settlements in those classes.

Take the Trebisov district in eastern Slovakia’s Kosice region as an example: on the edge of the town is the country’s second biggest Roma settlement, according to the Atlas of Roma Communities. It has a population of 6,685, just less than in the well-known Lunik IX Roma estate in Kosice. Trebisov’s Roma settlement makes up a quarter of its population.

In the last school year in Trebisov, a total of 213 pupils dropped out during their first year – 18 percent of the total number of students. Three students even had to repeat the pre-primary “zero year” designed to bring them up to a sufficient level to start school. Among all students from that level to the fourth year, one in 10 had to repeat a year.

There are no accurate data on how many Roma students are studying in secondary schools and universities, a fact acknowledged by the Ministry of Education itself. This is because data are not collected by ethnicity. The only relevant data, cited by several experts, are from the EU Agency for Basic Rights, covering 2016. They indicate that 58 percent of children from marginalized Roma communities between the ages of 15 and 18 made it to secondary school. These figures are confirmed by the Slovak Government Representative for Roma Communities, Abel Ravasz. It is not clear how many of these children pass their final high school exams. Six percent go on to study for qualifications beyond high school; Ravasz says this is the same proportion as in Hungary, better than the figure in Romania, but worse than in the Czech Republic.

“The number of children that leave the Slovak education system early, without even obtaining a certificate of education, is growing, and the overwhelming majority of them are from marginalized communities,” says Viera Kalmarova, head of the National Schools Inspectorate. This is based on research on the success rates of students who go through the pre-primary zero year. No less than 92 percent of students in the zero year are from marginalized Roma communities. The zero year is supposed to enable children from a socially weaker background to catch up with their peers. Often, however, it leads to segregated Roma classes.

Research from the 2017-2018 school year has shown that less than half of students who went through the zero year successfully completed the first stage of primary school (the first four years), and only 19 percent successfully completed the ninth year of primary school without having to repeat a year.

Viktor Teru went to university thanks to the Roma Education Fund and today is an advisor to Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. “We had one student who was the only Rom at his gymnazium and it was a great help to him when he got to know other Roma in other schools. He immediately realized that he was not alone,” Teru says. Viktor and others have created a network of stipend recipients past and present. The university network has 200 members and the secondary school network over 1,000.

It is these students, who are currently studying or have finished university or gymnazium, who should be the model for younger students. One program aiming to support role models awards stipends to female students attending secondary-level schools that train future teachers. At the moment the program supports 45 students, some of whom may go on to become nursery school teachers.

Students start receiving support in the ninth year of primary school. “To give one example, we had a student in Slovenske Nove Mesto, a town on the border with Hungary. She joined our program and completed secondary teacher training college and then went to the pedagogical faculty in Levoca. They speak very well of her at the university and her marks are among the highest there,” Teru says.

Slovakia needs Roma teachers, he says. “Wider society, including the Roma community, thinks that Roma teachers should only be for Roma children. That’s one way of seeing things. But our idea is that non-Roma children should also be exposed to Roma teachers,” Teru explains. But this just won’t happen without role models among the Roma, he says.

“The stipend program isn’t about someone getting money just because they are Roma. They get the money so they increase their motivation and are not afraid to study,” Teru says. The money often helps students pay the costs of travel to school, or to buy books, or to pay for dormitories. Even when students have working parents, their income is often so low that they can’t afford to send their child to secondary school if it’s located in a different town, for instance.

The fund organizes summer camps, training sessions, and workshops to reinforce the idea of a “healthy identity.” Teru explains that they want the students to be proud of the fact they are Roma and to show other Roma that they too can get an education.

One feature of the program is that older students help younger ones; students that want to receive a university stipend have to get involved in activities in the Roma community. In this way Roma students receiving support at university, like Jozef Demeter, can provide training to younger students who receive support from the Fund.

What Can Change

Support for students doesn’t end after high school or university. The fund also offers internships and has contacts with employers. “I worked as a field officer and as a trainer in the continuing education sector and what we observe – and this is not just true for Roma students – is that a secondary education provides the theory, but students still lack practical skills, how to write a CV or to fill in a simple questionnaire, for instance,” Teru says. This is why the fund wants the students it supports at university to provide extra training and to act as mentors and tutors to those in secondary schools.

In a project covering the period from 2018 to 2021, the fund has received European funding for 60 mentors, each of whom is responsible for three students. They are already seeing results: the students with a mentor have improved their grades and reduced the number of missed classes.

But the reach of the fund is limited. In the current Slovak education system, it isn’t realistic to expand the reach of the program to all schools, not just those with Roma pupils, given the financial restraints. Not only can many schools not afford teaching assistants for disadvantaged children, they often also lack professional practitioners such as psychologists or education specialists.

“The work of the Roma Education Fund is necessary and valuable,” says Miroslava Hapalova, an analyst at To da rozum, an educational foundation. Students from socially weaker backgrounds and marginalized areas need help to overcome the barriers they face due to a lack of money, she says.

“Even though there is a system of state-funded stipends in secondary schools, the family income ceiling is set too low and the amount of the stipend depends on the grades being achieved, without taking account of the general standard in the school or the difficulty of the subjects being studied.

“This means that many students from poorer families, and particularly those in subjects leading to a final exam, drop out for want of financial support. Our research shows that in both secondary and university education there is a priority need for other forms of support to students, not just financial. The [Roma Education] Fund helps dozens of students every year, but the figure simply isn’t high enough,” she says.

The model of stipends and support is replicable, she believes. So why doesn’t the state take up the idea and apply the system universally? Hapalova says it’s not so much a question of money as one of legislation and the way support services are structured. University students with specific needs do have a statutory right to support, if they have a disability, an illness, or a learning disability. These students also benefit from a coordinator to help them in their studies.

But the state doesn’t extend this provision to students from socially weaker backgrounds or from marginalized areas. “We are often talking about the first generation of students at university and they don’t have anyone from their social background to get advice from when they come up against a problem or face obstacles in their studies. They can’t fall back on help or experience from the family; they don’t have the necessary social capital,” Hapalova says.

Other countries have the same problem, but in contrast to Slovakia, in many countries students from socially excluded groups receive comprehensive forms of support. The money could be found for this, Hapalova says. An average of 15 million euros is allocated each year for social stipends in universities and 3 million euros for secondary schools, she says.

To make this funding more effective – and create a better return – it would help for it to be provided in parallel with other support services, such as tutoring and mentoring, to help pupils and students overcome obstacles other than merely financial ones, Hapalova believes.

Aside from the REF, other organizations have also demonstrated the success of mentoring. “The system of providing additional teaching for children in the domestic environment is something that works,” Hapalova says. An example is Jarna Street School in Zilina, which received help from the Center for Research in Ethnicity and Culture in the form of individual teaching and tutoring.

The Roma Education Fund was created to try out these and other models. It then tries to extend those that work to the whole of society. Last year the fund joined an expert team for the education of Roma at the office of the Government Representative for the Roma Community. Stipends and mentoring and extra tuition have become part of the government’s strategy to include Roma communities. The fund is currently working on a handbook on how to prepare calls for expression of interest in the stipend program.

The fund itself, however, cannot expand the stipend model into all schools. So far it has supported children in 147 secondary schools, but there are almost 800 in Slovakia.

Despite his work with the government representative, Viktor Teru sees the limitations, particularly in how the education system operates. He says the state is a passive actor and this threatens the sustainability of the activities and stipends that the fund carries out. If the state does not implement examples of good practice, there is a risk that in a few years these activities will be no more than a memory.

Veronika Folentova is a Slovak journalist who primarily covers health care and education.

This article originally appeared in the Slovak newspaper Dennik N. Research was supported by MEMO 98, Transitions, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Translated by Paul Kaye.