Dear Friends, Supporters and Inquirers,
When I came to Romania with the Peace Corps in 2000, I quickly became aware that many poor children did not attend school, dooming them to repeat the cycle of poverty. With Romanians Gabi Achihai and Maria Gheorghiu, who shared my determination to address this injustice, we approached the problem by starting a program to help older age kids catch up with missed years of education as well as a job-training and support program for their mothers (modeled after the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program in New York City). Also in 2001, with the help of Wendy Phillips Kahn, The Alex Fund was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to raise funds for our educational outreach in Romania.
Over the first decade of working with poor families it became clear that disadvantaged children who start school earlier do better – and stay in school much longer than their peers who enter the system later. This became the single goal of the organization that Maria Gheorghiu and I had started in 2004, Asociatia OvidiuRo: to get every poor child in Romania into the education system at the same age that most children from middle class families enter the system: between 3 and 5.
Most impoverished parents, regardless of their ethnicity, were not aware of the critical importance of early education. It was not hard to convince them to register their young children for kindergarten – when you offered a warm smile, a pair of shoes, a clean set of clothes, and a snack. But day in and day out, other more immediate issues, like hauling water and scrounging up a dollar for a loaf of bread, tended to take precedence over their long-term aspirations for their kids. So we developed a model whereby parents who sent their children to preschool every day received a food coupon at the end of the month. The results were remarkable: over eighty percent of these families began to bring their kids every day!
With a $30,000 allocation from The Alex Fund, the Fiecare Copil în Grădiniţă program was born in 2010 in partnership with the Romanian Ministry of Education. OvidiuRo offered to help local authorities build and finance a system for recruiting their very poorest children. Forward-thinking school directors and mayors embraced the idea. It was not uncommon in the first year to double the number of children in kindergarten 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, money raised through The Alex Fund allowed OvidiuRo to pay them for the first semester – until the cost could be folded into the local budget.
To make sure the children kept coming throughout the long rural winters, OvidiuRo gave their unemployed parents $12 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, 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. But in the beginning some big grant opportunities were lost because the concept of conditional incentives was foreign to European funders. Fortunately, the Romanian corporate sector and 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.
In October 2015, the Romanian Parliament overwhelmingly passed a law so that children throughout Romania will get an early start in the education system through the national expansion of the Fiecare Copil în Grădiniţă Parent Incentive Program.
The Romanian government allocated $13.4 million in the state budget for food coupon incentives. Families living below the poverty line receive $12 in food coupons every month in which their 3- to 5-year-old children attend preschool every day, with their attendance rigorously monitored.
This truly is a major step forward for Romanian education and social equity at the grassroots level. The legislation reflects the government’s recognition that early education is crucial to giving children of largely illiterate parents the tools to stick with school; and that staying in school is crucial to achieving basic job skills required in today’s market; and that only participation in the job market will give these children a fighting chance to become active, tax-paying citizens.
But even as this state funding dramatically expands the number of participating communities, it covers only one element of the program: food coupons – so funds are needed on an increased scale for the other essential elements of the program: school supplies, team training, and monitoring of attendance records.
As of the 2016-2017 school year, 60,000 children born into poverty are registered in gradinita. We estimate there are still another 40,000 unregistered children who qualify for the program. With your help, we can reach them, affecting the lives of many more children, helping to change their educational and life outcomes for good. We welcome your involvement and support!
The Alex Fund