“The crux is making early education of at-risk children a community priority”
Maria Gheorghiu, OvidiuRo cofounder
Between 2010 and 2015, over 6,000 children in 45 rural and semi-rural communities in eleven Romanian counties benefited from early education and better nutrition through the Fiecare Copil in Gradinita (FCG) pilot programs. The Alex Fund, an American nonprofit organization made an initial $30,000 grant to enable OvidiuRo to invite mayors to apply for support in getting their most disadvantaged 3-5 year old children in preschool.
Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță incentivized poor parents to send their 3-5 year old children to gradinita (preschool and kindergarten) by offering €11/mo in food coupons if they brought their child to gradinita every day. This small amount significantly increases the amount a destitute family has for food. In Romania, the monthly child allowance (which is unconditional) was, at the time, €10, so the food coupons represented a significant increase for families surviving on their children’s allowance.
Program participation was based solely on family income, not ethnicity. Nonetheless, the majority of families that qualified due to extreme poverty were Roma, although most did not identify as Roma on government census forms.
Teachers were required to take daily attendance at 9:00 and post the attendance chart on the classroom wall. OvidiuRo representatives conducted random spot checks of the attendance reports to ensure they were filled out correctly and on time–so parents developed the habit of bringing their children before 9:00 am.
FCG helped prevent school abandonment by:
- helping communities make early education a priority, and
- incentivizing the poorest parents to send their 3 to 5-year-old children to grădiniță.
Food coupons, conditional on children’s attendance in preschool, proved 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 regularly.
How It Worked:
• Local administration convenes an action group to customize the implementation plan to local needs;
• Local council allocates €35 a year per child for clothes and shoes for the children in FCG;
• Implementation team (preschool teachers, social worker, and school mediator) carry out the daily FCG program.
• Allocates €11 in food coupons per month to parents who take their children to preschool every day;
• Allocates €15 per child/year so teachers can purchase school materials of their choosing;
• Provides training to the local implementation team;
• Conducts teacher training workshops in modern teaching methods.
Why Food Coupons
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).
Key elements for program success
While conditional incentives are a necessary ingredient in recruiting disadvantaged children and maintaining their regular attendance in preschool, other factors are also essential:
- The involvement and continuous support of local leaders.Where the mayor, school inspector and principal fully supported 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 pilot program demonstrated 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 understood the problems in their communities and became more motivated to go above and beyond their standard job responsibilities – thus, they became more active and involved in the life of the community.
- Door-to-door recruitment.Ensuring that all 3- to 6-year-old children were identified required 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, also, 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 had to be helped to understand that they must bring their children to preschool every day; if the child was sick or an unexpected situation arises, they needed to bring a medical note, or announce beforehand to the teacher and sign a “scutire”(medical note). This required 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 would 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 Pilot program, monthly food coupons were 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 had 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 helped teachers to better understand where their students are coming from.
- Provision by the local council of school supplies and clothes and shoes for children who were living under the poverty line.
Why it Worked
Like many of the best programs, FCG originated “bottom-up” – as a joint venture between an NGO (OvidiuRo), local authorities and neighborhood schools – to address the widespread phenomenon of early school abandonment that was rampant in many poor rural communities. The authorities knew this was a serious problem but they had neither a long-term strategy nor the resources to tackle it.
Many communities had benefited sporadically from short-term outside grants but most of these programs terminated as soon as the outside funds ran out, and therefore never lasted long enough to take root in the community or to make any measurable difference in student outcomes. Fiecare Copil in Gradinita pilot program was different from these other programs in four basic ways:
- Significant investment from the local authorities:The local council was required to provide at least €35 per child for school clothes.
- Long-term commitment from OvidiuRo: It was clear that OvR was there to help develop and sustain the programs, not just to check their invoices.
- Medium-term management transition plan: In 2014, OvR introduced a process to wean well-functioning programs from management dependence on OvR, making 13 communities “autonomous” (i.e., local coordinators made all program decisions, while still providing quarterly reports to OvR) and eight communities semi-autonomous. (OvR continued to monitor and audit attendance records but local coordinators make local day-to-day decisions.)
- Positive word of mouth: The success of the pilot programs piqued the interest of other communities and county authorities, enabling the program to grow organically in the first few years.
What parents say
“I don’t know how to read or write, but all three of my kids have been to gradinita. One day my youngest came home and wrote his name on the wall. I was speechless.”
FCG Parent, Ocolna, Amărăștii de Jos
“My older girl was also in the program, and now she’s in 2nd grade. You might not believe this, but she only gets 10’s. She told me that when she grows up she’ll go to high school in Brasov. I already picture her holding the diploma.”
FCG Parent, Budila
What teachers say
“Before FCG I’d have children in first grade who would start crying after writing one line. Adapting to primary school, without having been to preschool, is just too big a leap.”
Claudia Pop, clasa pregatitoare, Apold
“It’s so simple. I’m surprised we didn’t think of this before.”
Dullo Szilard, Araci School Principal
What social workers say
Once poor parents are integrated in the educational system, they DO bring their children to grădiniță — even if they are not eligible for the food coupons any more.” Simona Cristea, Budila social worker and program coordinator
2010-2015 cumulative results
4000+ children in 100+ kindergartens in 11 counties
3100+ high-risk children regularly attended grădiniță
9000 children age 3-14 participated in summer programs
3700+ children and family members received health care
1800 toddlers and their mothers got accustomed to grădiniță
3000+ parents participated in grădiniță activities
1000+ teachers trained in child-centered methods