For Romania's dropouts, a fresh start
Beaming, Ioana Manea emerges from the crush of students jockeying to find their high-school entrance exam scores on papers taped to the school wall. She's done it. The top 8th-grade graduate, she'll be a freshman in the fall.Skip to next paragraph
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Ioana's prospects were once grim. Now 17, she missed out on three years of education, often living on the streets after her divorced mother could no longer afford to take care of her and her sister.
But then Ioana heard about Back to School - a private program that teaches grades 1 through 8 for kids who have been out of class for two years or more - a gap that legally bars them from reentering Romania's public school system. The program is emerging as a model here for giving dropouts like Ioana another chance.
"It works," says Cathy O'Grady, who has worked on education projects designed for street kids, orphans, and refugees in Eastern Europe since the mid-1990s.
"The dropout rate is very, very low, and I've never seen that in any of the similar education programs that I've worked with. It's a combination of the teaching methodologies that they use and the curriculum development that they do," says Ms. O'Grady, who has worked as a volunteer fundraiser for Back to School and is now based in Tbilisi as the regional coordinator in Georgia for War Child, a network of nongovernmental organizations that help children affected by war.
Ioana, who graduated last month, was in Back to School's second graduating class. "It changed my life," she says simply.
Ioana knows well where her former path was leading: Though she doesn't see them any more, she's heard that her old friends from the streets are homeless, on drugs, or in prison. Her mother in jail since December, Ioana lives with her grandfather.
The number of students who quit school before finishing 8th grade was 27,617 in the 2001-2002 school year - a rise of more than 50 percent from the previous year. Some, like Ioana, are victims of economic circumstances - in 2000, nearly half of the country's 22 million citizens lived in poverty. Other dropouts are runaways from the country's infamous orphanages.
It's illegal to work in Romania before either completing the 8th grade or turning 16. But many children from poor families give up early on school or a life in the mainstream, turning to begging, crime, or the shadow economy.
To try to move some of the estimated 1,500 street children off the streets, the Romanian government is working to shut down orphanages built during communism and place children with families. The number of foster caregivers nearly tripled to 9,170 last year from the previous year.
Also, over the past three and a half years, the Bucharest nongovernmental organization Center Education 2000+ has run a pilot project with the Romanian Education Ministry called Second Chance, which offered about 350 fifth-grade dropouts evening classes to complete the equivalent of the 8th grade. Most students in this program do not go on to high school, aiming instead for more vocational training or going directly into the workforce after completion. This year the government took over the program, and its future funding is uncertain.