It’s so simple. I’m surprised we didn’t think of this before.”
Dullo Szilard, Araci School Principal
Once poor parents are integrated in the educational system, they DO bring rheir children to grădiniță — even if they are not eligible for the food coupons any more.” Simona Cristea, Budila social worker and program coordinator
Food coupons, conditional on children’s attendance in preschool, have proven to be a highly effective and efficient tool to stimulate destitute, functionally illiterate parents (with an average of four years of schooling) to bring their young children to gradinita every day.
All programs that advocate for early education recommend proactively enrolling children at risk, communicating with parents, and helping alleviate ‘hidden costs’ by providing clothes and school materials. But extreme poverty results in people having a very different set of daily priorities than working families have. Food coupons address the very first priority for these families: feeding everyone today!
Information and mediation are important but it is the conditional incentives that move significant numbers of poor parents to act on a daily basis – and dramatically increase poor children’s attendance. To receive the coupons, children must attend preschool every day or have an officially excused absence and parents must attend a monthly parent-teacher meeting. While $11 per month in any form is an inducement to destitute jobless parents, the payment method – food coupons (tichete sociale) – is its own positive factor. The vouchers, accepted virtually everywhere, are better than cash because they are:
- More acceptable to other members of the community as a form of social aid;
- Easier to manage distribution and track;
- Less fungible (purchase of cigarettes and alcohol are excluded);
- Directly targeted to children’s nutritional needs.
In Romania, hot meals at school are out of the question because rural kindergartens have neither the facilities for food preparation nor access to registered suppliers. Nor is cash a viable option because small rural villages do not have bank branches (and people subsisting under the poverty line rarely have bank accounts).
Are food coupons enough?
The crux is making early education of at-risk children a community priority” Maria Gheorghiu, OvR cofounder
ABSOLUTELY NOT! While conditional incentives are a necessary ingredient in recruiting disadvantaged children and maintaining their regular attendance in preschool, other factors are also essential for permanent change.
Key Elements of a successful program:
- The involvement and continuous support of local leaders. Where the mayor, school inspector, principal and school inspector fully support the program, its impact is huge. This is not only a consequence of funding and human resource allocation. When early education becomes a community priority, creative solutions follow. The teams implementing. Fiecare Copil in Gradinita are proof that by continually bringing early education issues to local attention, holding regular Local Action Group meetings, and circulating the initial positive results, the community starts to believe change is not only possible, but that THEY are making it. Working in FCG, the members of local and county teams better understand the problems in their communities and become more motivated to go above and beyond their standard job responsibilities – thus, they become more active and involved in the life of the community.
- Door-to-door recruitment. Ensuring that all 3- to 6-year-old children are identified requires the mediator, social worker and teacher teams to knock on doors in the poorest enclaves and talk to parents about the benefits of preschool for their child often more than once. Many uneducated parents neglect enrolling their children for quite logical reasons: grădinița is not mandatory, it involves costs (like school clothes and shoes; they do not realize its important for their children’s development and personal discomfort in dealing with the school authorities based on their own past experience).
- Strict attendance monitoring. Incentives only work when the rules are meticulously followed. In the beginning parents have to be helped to understand that they must bring their children to preschool every day; if the child is sick or an unexpected situation arises, they must bring a medical note, or announce beforehand to the teacher and sign a “scutire”(medical note). This requires teachers to consistently take daily attendance, only excuse documented absences, and make no concessions or special cases. The first couple of months are always turbulent, as some parents will always want to see how far they can bend the rules. Strict interpretation in the beginning will pay off in the long run.
- Parent involvement. In the FCG Prime program, monthly food coupons are conditional on two factors: (1) children’s daily attendance, and (2) parents participation in a monthly Parent Day activity plus five mornings spent as a teacher’s assistant. These interactions with teachers in the school environment have far-reaching consequences on impoverished parents’ comfort level with the teachers and the education system in general. They increase parents’ appreciation of the teachers and their awareness of their child’s progression in school. It also helps teachers to better understand where their students are coming from.
- Provision of school supplies and clothes and shoes for children who are living under the poverty line by the local council.