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.

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.

A U-turn from the streets

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.

While Second Chance has greater overall capacity, at one of the pilot schools deemed average by its project coordinator two-thirds of the 27 students who started the program dropped out.

Back to School reports an annual exit rate of about 15 percent. Departures are usually in the first few weeks, when students learn how tough the program is. More than two unexcused absences and a kid is out.

Last year, 17 kids made up the first 8th grade graduating class; 13 went on to high school and four to vocational school. This year, all nine who started the final year finished.

"They really have to work," says Back to School Program Coordinator Sorin Gheorghe. "It is our job to motivate, but they must have the desire to go to school, they must have a dream."

Starting out in 1997 with 15 kids in a former theater, the school has grown to 96 students.

After four moves through rented space, founder Nico Krohn, a Canadian former journalist who first came to Romania to write a story on street children, says she'll start fundraising this year to build a $1.2 million permanent facility. Ms. Krohn hopes to make the school, now subsisting on grants primarily from Dutch Christian groups, self sufficient within a few years.

Applicants far outnumber the spaces the school can afford to provide. In 2002, about 40 kids applied for 20 slots. About 80 percent of the students have lived on the streets.

"They try everything that they can to keep the child in school," says Paul Havsgaard, director of the Romanian branch of the California-based Harvest Foundation, which operates one of the 10 shelters that house Back to School students. "I think a lot of people would be prone to give up."

Smaller classes, which average 16 students - compared with public school classes which are about twice as big - help teachers add a more personal touch. Teachers and administrators help students find part-time jobs and sometimes open their own wallets to assist with medicine or rent. Staff are often in the office after midnight, planning for the next day. Students interviewed for this piece unanimously cited staff "understanding" as the main difference from public schools.

"It's one of our rules - teachers have to be involved in the daily battle," says Lili Draghiciu, who teaches math. "If I see a student is tired, I have to find out why; if he is happy, I want to be happy with him."

With this kind of personalized attention, Back to School students can imagine a future for themselves and plan for it. All nine graduates this year plan to go on to high school - no matter that their fellow students there will be several years younger - and some say they'll continue with college.

Visions for tomorrow

Last year's 8th-grade graduates include 19-year-old Christi Gavriloaia, who's working in a bakery and training to become a plumber, as well as 20-year-old Mariana Nedea, who's attending night school and working at a shoe factory. She says she's determined to become a pediatrician or a lawyer.

Ioana is working part time in a factory that makes electronic parts; she plans to finish high school and go on to electrical engineering in college. "Everything depends on me doing the best that I can," she says.

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