“The crux is making early education of at-risk children a community priority.” Maria Gheorghiu, OvR cofounder.
In 2001, Maria Gheorghiu, a Romanian teacher, and Leslie Hawke, an American Peace Corp volunteer, started working with poor mothers and their children in Bacău. Three years later, in 2004, they founded Asociația OvidiuRo (OvR) and expanded the program to Bucharest’s Sector 5. Ever since, they have been working with the Romanian education system to try to narrow the knowledge gap between the poorest children and the rest of Romania’s children.
In 2009, after reviewing the outcomes of children in Fiecare Copil în Școală (Every Child in School) program, Maria and Leslie realized that the outcomes were dramatically better for children who started in the education system early – and the earlier the better; that when poor children did attend preschool and kindergarten, their social skills were more advanced and they performed better academically.
As a result, in 2010, OvidiuRo designed and developed, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță (FCG) program, designed to bring the poorest children to kindergarten. Ever since, OvidiuRo’s mission is to make quality early education available to every poor child so they have a chance to become active contributing members of Romanian society. The essence of the program was to make early education a local community priority and
to provide an incentive of 50 lei food coupons (per month) to poor parents who bring their 3-5 year old children to grădiniță every day.
The pilot program proved to be so successful at increasing the attendance and outcomes at high-risk children that in 2015, the Romanian Parliament passed legislation financing a national program based on the Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță model.
Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță, a program that inspired a national law
Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță pilot program incentivized poor parents to send their 3-5 year old children to preschool and kindergarten (grădiniță). It targeted the poorest children – those living in overcrowded, inadequate housing in isolated areas without normal access to potable water, heating or health care, and where, in the winter, the unemployment rate was close to 100% due to the reduced need for unskilled labor, the low education level of the adults and their relative geographic isolation.
From the beginning, communities saw enrollment grow and attendance skyrocket to 70-80% with the program. This initial success made FCG very attractive to local authorities who were concerned about their high dropout rates. The program grew from 13 to 43 rural communities and over 98 separate kindergartens by September of 2015.
Food coupons, conditioned 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 grădiniță regularly.
At the end of 2015, the success of the FCG Pilot Program led the Romanian Parliament to pass the “Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță Law” (#248/2015) adopting the central mechanism OvidiuRo’s FCG pilot program: giving poor families (households where the monthly income is under 284 lei per family member) the opportunity to receive €11 per month (allocated from the state budget) in food coupons if they bring their 3-to-5-year-old children to grădiniță (preschool and kindergarten) every day.
The “FCG Law” reflected the government’s recognition that early education is crucial for Romania’s most disadvantaged children if they are to have a chance to succeed in school – and thus to work their way out of multi-generational poverty.
The Agency for Early Education
The Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță Law was a major step forward for Romanian education and social equity at the grassroots level. But it was just the first step.
After a full year (2016) of helping local authorities and school staff all around the country translate the “Fiecare Copil în Grădiniță Law” into practice, it was clear to us that – as the absence of books and educational materials was a common problem across all poor, rural communities – we needed to step in with projects focused on quality education.
Maria Gheorghiu, OvidiuRo Cofounder:
“It is an established axiom of child development that the number of words a child hears and when and how they are introduced fuel their cognitive development in the first five years of life. The way parents talk to their children and how much conversation occurs regularly in their households contribute not only to the brain’s development and to a rich vocabulary, but also develop skills that can better prepare children for school. Children coming from families with functionally illiterate parents are generally not exposed to intellectually enriching experiences at home. Studies show that, in the first years, poor children hear three times fewer words than their peers. This translates into an educational gap that is hard to overcome and which all too often leads to early school leaving and life-long functional illiteracy. That’s why it’s so important for our poorest children to have access to gradiniță and to quality early education! And quality programs require highly qualified, committed teachers with good teaching tools”.
Today, as the Agency for Early Education, OvidiuRo mobilizes public and private resources to improve the quality of early education available to Romania’s poorest children. OvidiuRo now focuses on providing the highest quality education materials, training teachers in child-centered and literacy development methods, to optimize these new resources, and helping disadvantaged communities open new kindergarten groups so that no child is turned away due to lack of space.
Leslie Hawke notes that:
“Socially responsible companies are saving these children by making up for the government’s inadequate investment in early education.”
Carrefour Foundation, Dedeman, NN-Romania, and Raiffeisen Bank are supporting large-scale projects, bringing thousands of picture books, educational kits, teacher trainings and other needed resources into the most disadvantaged rural villages.
Hawke continues: “Most people would be astonished by how many Romanian entrepreneurs are generously supporting innovative educational initiatives right now. They know it is the key to making Romania more competitive in the coming decades.”
Any individual or company that wants to help bring quality education to children living in rural Romania should visit the How to help section on OvidiuRo’s website: www.ovid.ro.