Photo by Courtney Pedroza / Cronkite Borderlands Project

High drop-out rate is a vicious cycle for the Roma

By Sarah Jarvis / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Published July 11, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Around 5 p.m. every weekday, parents bring their children to an old bridal gown shop that’s been converted for an unlikely purpose.

The sparkly pink walls and floor-length mirrors are partially covered with drawings and English flashcards. The shelves that once held shoes and accessories are now stocked with books and board games.

The children are members of the Roma population, Hungary’s largest ethnic minority, and they’re here to learn how to learn.

Among the activities are games to help youngsters with letter recognition and basic reading — lessons the program’s coordinator says the schools have largely failed to teach them. The program, called Invisible Study Hall, is one of many attempts to compensate for an education system that critics say has left Roma youth neglected and overlooked, like the gown shop where they play.

“This country teaches people very fast where they belong,” director Bea Baloghy said.

Pejoratively called gypsies, the Roma people are a traditionally nomadic group that has faced discrimination across Europe for generations. According to a 2011 survey, 55 percent of Roma students in Hungary dropped out before the age of 16 compared with 32 percent for their non-Roma counterparts.

Unemployment among the Roma is staggeringly high — the estimates range from 60 percent to a U.S. State Department figure of 85 to 90 percent in 2011. That has left many Roma families dependent on welfare and living in ramshackle rural communities with as many as 20 extended family members living in tiny makeshift houses.

Roma make up about 3 percent of Hungary’s population, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, but many scholars think the total Roma population is at least 7 percent, with fear of discrimination causing lower self-reported numbers. Central European University professor Adam Kullmann said for more rural areas in Hungary, Roma may make up more than a third of the children born last year.

János Orsós is a Roma man who helped establish an Amnesty International-backed alternative high school in the remote village of Sajókaza. He said the lack of education among Roma throughout the country is setting up a massive socio-economic crisis for Hungary, particularly since the country is aging and the Roma, who have higher birth rates than the general population, will be counted on to make up an increasing percentage of the workforce.

“If, in 18 years, we have one-third of the Hungarian population that hasn’t finished high school, that is no longer a minority issue, that is a national catastrophe,” Orsós said.

Still segregated

Baloghy, of Invisible Study Hall, said her program’s volunteers work with Roma parents and try to persuade them to send their children to integrated schools. Hungary has a system that allows parents to enroll their kids in schools outside of their home districts. But she said social, geographic and economic barriers have helped preserve school segregation.

Baloghy said many public school administrators arrange students into groups designated as A, B, C and D, and that they intentionally place Roma kids together in the C group for “cigány” — the Hungarian word for “gypsy.”

The government has made attempts to encourage integration, including an amendment to the Public Education Act in 2002 which set benchmarks for school diversity and a 2003 measure allocating additional funding to schools for each socially disadvantaged child they enrolled.

Recent court rulings, however, have been mixed. In 2008, Hungary’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Roma youth advocacy group Chance for Children after the organization said the northeastern town of Hajdúhadház illegally segregated Roma students. But the court failed to require the non-Roma schools to integrate. The Supreme Court also ruled last year that parochial schools can continue to segregate their students.

Researchers have drawn parallels between Hungary’s Roma population and the United States’ Native American population because of the variety of languages and religions within the groups, which make it more difficult for wide, cohesive civil rights movements to take hold.

Students walk into a primary school. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)
Students walk into the Dr. Ambedkar School, where they attend secondary school. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

Mediation programs in schools that sprung up in the mid-2000s tried to curb social tensions that arose with integration by providing social workers to help Roma families. But their effectiveness has been limited.

Eva Deak is the director of the group Partners Hungary, which organizes social tolerance programs. Deak was involved with a European Union program that implemented Roma mediation in about 40 schools, but she said there are no such school-sponsored programs and that the momentum for them has largely died down.

Deak said the recent centralization of the Hungarian school system under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stalled what was a great opportunity to improve both the inclusion of Roma students and the quality of education they receive. The likelihood that mediation programs will resurge in schools is low under the current government, she said.

“This government supports segregation, and believes in segregation,” she said.

But Katalin Victor Langerné, Hungary’s Deputy Secretary of Social Inclusion within the Ministry of Human Resources, disputes that contention. Langerné heads a preschool program called Rainbow Children’s House, which aims to acquaint Roma students and parents with the education system before kindergarten.

The main goals of the program are to convince Roma parents that education is important and that Roma students can be educated even if their parents aren’t.

“Those parents that can’t write and read. They can’t imagine, themselves, that their children could go further in education, and they can’t imagine that they can help their children,” she said. “This is the purpose of this house, to convince the parents about the importance of schooling.”

An alternative approach

Some alternative schools in Hungary attack the problem of Roma education inequality through curriculum rather than mediation.

The Dr. Ambedkar School in the northeastern village of Sajókaza, a private school funded by Amnesty International and the Jai Bhim community of Romani Buddhist activists, employs international teachers and a civil rights-focused curriculum in the largely Roma village of about 3,000 people.

The bright blue house that serves as the school stands out in the fog enveloping the town on a day in March. And a scene outside the school shows some of the challenges the community faces: children no more than 8 years old stand in clusters outside smoking cigarettes in the 37 degree weather.

Inside, the smells of home-cooked meals from the kitchen waft into the classrooms. The walls are covered with an eclectic mix of images from Botticelli's Birth of Venus to photographs of New York City.

It’s International Women’s Day and the male students at the secondary school give presentations about famous women in the form of songs, chants, poems and dances in both Hungarian and a Roma dialect. The students’ ages range from 15 to 30s, including a 33-year-old man from Slovakia who travels across the border in hopes of finishing high school. He is the only person from the Roma shantytown where he lives to ever have made it to high school at all.

János Orsós, who helped establish the school and is president of the Jai Bihm community, said those in the surrounding villages live the way they have for generations, which makes it hard to break cycles of dropping out of school.

“If no one in that community has ever finished high school, or has ever gone on to college or university, then even with the best will in the world, the parents to not know how to make that happen,” Orsós said.

A primary school age Roma boy lights a handrolled cigarette. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)
A primary school age Roma boy lights a handrolled cigarette while his friends play soccer at the Dr. Ambedkar School. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

Bianca Gallyas, 17, attended a public primary school before coming to Ambedkar. As she picks at the rhinestones on her jeans, many of which have already fallen off, she talks about how she felt separated from the non-Roma students at the public school and one of her openly bigoted teachers.

She said other students at that school would make fun of her and call her a “f------ gypsy.”

“I woke up every morning, and I really didn’t want to go to school,” Gallyas said. “But I had to finish primary school so I could go to Dr. Ambedkar, where I really wanted to go.”

She said when it came time to apply for high schools and trade schools at the end of eighth grade, many of her peers were thinking about having kids, dropping out and receiving state aid.

Gallyas said her family moved back to Sajókaza because she was accepted into Dr. Ambedkar, where she’s now become friends with her non-Roma classmates and has hopes of a more fulfilling future.

The school has competitive enrollment and has seen positive results. Orsós said that before the school was established in 2007, only two Roma students in the area had ever completed high school. Since its implementation, 35 students have passed all their high school exams with another 59 passing some, but not all.

Klaudya Bogdán, 21, is a recent graduate of Dr. Ambedkar. She plans on retaking two of her final high school exams to boost her grades for college where she wants to study to become a teacher.

The young Roma woman thought about dropping out to become a cook, which is what she attended trade school for before she came to Dr. Ambedkar. She said she could have found a job as a cook because people at restaurants don’t see who makes the food, so she wouldn’t have been discriminated against.

Bogdán said finishing school convinced her that she could stay here and “become somebody.”

“I could see myself teaching at Ambedkar, but it would feel nice to know that they aren’t the only school that would hire me, if I had the right qualifications,” Bogdán said.

A black hole

With his wispy, white hair, thick glasses and bright, patterned sweater, Principal Tibor Derdák is as eclectic as the inside of the Dr. Ambedkar School. Over the past nine years, he has become embedded in the Sajókaza community, making personal trips to the homes of his students daily to help encourage education. Derdák, who is not Roma, said the roughly 60 students the school enrolls in September generally dwindles to a few dozen by March. He said the Roma in Sajókaza get caught in the cycle of poverty, and there is no way out.

“This segregated neighborhood is really like a black hole,” Derdák said. “It attracts misery, but no one can really see what’s inside.”

More often than not, the barriers that keep Roma students isolated and uneducated determine their futures — even with the best intentions from alternative and supplementary programs.

Tibor Derdák, principal of the Dr. Ambedkar School. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)
Tibor Derdák, principal of the Dr. Ambedkar School, has taken it upon himself to visit the homes of his students to talk to families and encourage students to stay in school. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

Klaudya Cispkés, 16, attends Dr. Ambedkar. She likes to participate in after-school programs for media, drama, and IT, but she decided she’s going to drop out this fall.

She sits next to her mom, Ágnes, 49, on a bed in the roughly 30-square-foot room that is their house. Ágnes shows off one of her prized possessions — a tapestry, lined with fringe, depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Her pride becomes more apparent as she starts talking about her daughter.

Ágnes Cispkés said her older children dropped out to start working because the family needed money, but she thinks Klaudya has more potential.

“She’s really smart, and I want Klaudya to go onto better things,” Ágnes Cispkés said. “At least if the others weren’t able to do that, at the very least, Klaudya will be able to.”

Ágnes Cispkés dropped out of school after eighth grade. She has lived in Sajókaza her whole life and recently got a job with a community public health program. Though she wants her daughter to have more opportunities through higher education, she said she is not as equipped to make decisions about Klaudya’s future as Klaudya is.

And Klaudya says she has decided to leave school.

“I decided a long time ago that I wanted to drop out for trade school,” Klaudya Cispkés said.

Klaudya wants to learn how to become a cashier so she can find a job. But even with the talent and intelligence her mother said she has, her chances of finding that job will be very low. Statistics from the U.S. State Department showed the unemployment among the Roma in Hungary hovered around 85-90 percent, as of 2011.

As her mom talks Klaudya sits on the bed, staring at the ground. She’s leaning forward, elbows balancing on her lap with her head in her hands, her mind made up.


Cronkite News is the news division of Arizona PBS. The daily news products are produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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