The odds are stacked against these children from birth; our goal has always been to help them beat the odds so they have a chance of reaching their potential in life.
When the two of us started working with poor mothers and their children in Bacau in 2001, it was easy to get the mothers to register their children for school, and it was not difficult to get even the hardened street kids into the classroom. But it soon became obvious that the parents’ best intentions to send their kids to school often flagged in the long winter months or when other issues, like putting food on the table, competed for the parents’ attention. After a few years, we observed that the children who had started school late (at 8 or 10 or sometimes even 12 years old) invariably dropped out before they completed primary school. The outcomes were pretty discouraging.
However, there was one ray of light in the data we reviewed. The younger the children had started, the earlier they entered the education system, the better they fared and the longer they stayed in school. A little research in child development explained why: in addition to the obvious disadvantages of early social isolation, children whose brains are under-stimulated in early childhood never fully recover, and when they start school behind, they stay behind, permanently.
This realization led to the 2010 creation of the Fiecare Copil în Grădiniţă program. Since then OvidiuRo has devoted itself entirely to getting impoverished children into preschool. Fortunately, Romania already had a national public preschool network, but it was accessed predominantly by working families, not the ultra-poor.
So we offered to help local authorities build and fund a system for recruiting their very poorest children. Forward-thinking school directors and mayors jumped at the offer. It was not uncommon to double the number of kindergarten children through active recruiting. Luckily, the Ministry of Education and County School Inspectorates usually supported the program when additional teachers were needed, and when that wasn’t immediately possible, OvidiuRo paid them for the first semester.
To make sure the children kept coming throughout the long rural winters, OvidiuRo gave their unemployed parents 50 lei worth of food coupons each month if the children attended every day. Consistently 70-80 percent of the eligible children showed up, despite inclement weather, traveling by foot long distances on dirt roads, and other difficulties.
Providing this small incentive turned out to be key to getting the sustained attention of poor parents who had practically no education themselves and were often intimidated by school authorities. We proved that poor uneducated parents are willing, even eager, to bring their children to gradinita with a modicum of help.
In the beginning we lost some big grant opportunities because the concept of conditional incentives was foreign to public funders. But fortunately, the Romanian corporate sector and the U.S. non-profit, The Alex Fund, made it possible for us to persevere while word-of-mouth among local authorities and school managers kept demand for the program high. During this period we were also fortunate to find champions of early education in the Ministers themselves – from Daniel Funeriu to Remus Pricopie, Sorin Campeanu, and Adrian Curaj. We are deeply grateful for their support, without which we would most certainly not have had the remarkable outcome of 2015.
Thanks to the passage of Law 248/2015, in 2016 children throughout Romania, who would be at risk of dropping out before the 5th grade, will get an early start in the education system through the national expansion of the Fiecare Copil în Grădiniţă Parent Incentive Program.
The government has allocated for this purpose €13.2 million in the 2016 state budget, and roughly the same for 2017, but this state funding will cover only one element of the FCG program–the food coupons–, and it will dramatically expand the number of participating communities – so funding will be needed on an increased scale for the other elements.
We have been given the opportunity to affect the lives of many times more children than ever before and change their educational and life outcomes for good. We welcome your involvement and support!
Maria Gheorghiu & Leslie Hawke
Co-founders, Asociatia OvidiuRo