Ready, Set, Go! Changing the World of Roma Children in Romania

After two years of establishing the groundwork for measurable impacts in early childhood education at 14 sites in 11 municipalities in six counties in Romania, Ready, Set, Go! has inspired hundreds of children to enroll in local kindergartens, many of them attending early childhood education and care for the first time.

Ready, Set, Go!, which builds on the experience of REF’s portfolio of early childhood education projects across Central and South Eastern Europe and the Balkans, scales up many of the good practices embedded in REF’s intervention model for children under age six. Ready, Set, Go! brings together a package of interventions that aim to improve kindergarten enrollment and attendance of some of the most disadvantaged Roma children in Romania. The project mobilizes local authorities contribution with a matching outreach effort to engage local Roma communities in early childhood education; had created Toy Libraries that have loaned out some 2,000 toys to children and their parents; established a regular Your Story literacy empowerment sessions for Roma mothers; held trainings for teachers and Roma school mediators on quality, inclusive education; and sponsored community events to broaden participants’ horizons and perspectives.  

On the occasion of the Ready, Set, Go! international dissemination conference in Bucharest on April 27, 2017, which addressed the mechanisms and outcomes of this successful countrywide project to improve early childhood milestones of Roma children, REF Romania Country Director Claudia Lixandru remarked on the vision that drove the project: “We are people who are changing the world we live in. I believe all the participants here are helping to change the world around us.”

The aspiration to jumpstart Roma children’s education is not without risks or rewards. With some 63 percent of Roma preschool children not attending any kind of kindergarten – compared to some 33 percent of non-Roma – and absolute poverty among Roma exceeding 80 percent of the estimated Roma population, clearly there is a huge gap to overcome in Romania.

REF, like its technical advisor, the World Bank, share the belief that education investments can make a difference in the most disadvantaged communities. Elisabetta Capannelli, Country Manager of World Bank Romania, said, “I want to emphasize the importance of education and investment in education for eradicating social exclusion in vulnerable communities and particularly among the Roma minority. In particular, I want also to emphasize the importance of education in the first years of their lives to that it can change destinies as we have already seen examples in the Ready, Set, Go! project.”

In the subsequent panels, partners, contributing experts, government agency representatives and over a hundred guests concerned about the state of early childhood education in Romania – regulated by a loose legislative framework and chronically underfunded – were shown the impact of how early childhood education can shift the needle for communities persistently bypassed by education services.

Ambassador of Norway to Romania, H.E. Mrs. Tove Bruvik Westberg, remarked on the value of this project made possible by Norway Grants RO25 Poverty Alleviation Programme in Romania. She said, “Early education, educating children and youth is important to bring out the positive development of each individual and educating children and youth people is also about securing our future and safeguarding human rights. [...] The very good thing is that the respective town halls are open to take over the responsibility and thereby securing the further access kindergarten for these children.”

Working in Romania’s most disadvantaged Roma communities has multiple challenges, all of which are surmountable with the right amount of deftness, expertise and patience. Among the most important to overcome is establishing trust and a building a bridge between homes and schools.

Due to persistent prejudice and segregation, Roma communities often hold schools and education in low regard. Such psychological obstacles to enrolling Roma children in quality early childhood education can be solved only with careful outreach and awareness raising.

“We lack young Roma teachers in education, people who can gain their trust, because trust is a very serious issue,” said Ready Set Go! Project Manager Marian Daragiu. He emphasized, “Coming from outside, even as Roma ourselves, they regard us as outsiders. We are well dressed, we drive cars and we talk about education. It is different if children from those communities will fulfill that role.” Marian went on to persuade local town halls to participate as four implementing partners managed to convince Roma parents from extremely disadvantaged circumstances of the value of education for their youngest children.

Despite the best of intentions to better Roma educational outcomes, hunger is a real issue for many families. Roma parents, who themselves may be unable to read or write and are struggling on the margins of society, face a heartbreaking choice whether to send their children to school hungry or not at all.

Florina Maruntela from Galbinasi, spoke of her experience before Ready, Set, Go! began to operate in her village in Calarasi County. She said, “I feel ashamed because I don’t always have something for him to eat. I don’t bring him to school because I can’t leave my child hungry. At home I can cook him onion soup, I can find something to feed him, but I can’t send him to school with a jar of soup to eat at school.”

Ready, Set, Go! overcame this obstacle common to many participating families by offering food vouchers to improve the health of their household budgets.

Meanwhile REF began to construct and refurbish 10 kindergartens, bringing a new dimension to its implementation work, and solving the problem of too little space for kindergarten-age pupils at its project sites. This shortage of space did not hinder meeting the deliverables of this complex project, as alternatives were found for conducting the project’s components.

Furugh Switzer, Founder of the Your Story method, remarked, “We bring the culture of books and reading into homes,” and participating mothers received a selection of children’s books for home libraries that had not existed in many households until the literacy activities of Ready, Set, Go!

According to an International Development Learning Assessment (IDELA) of Ready, Set, Go! recently conducted by the World Bank, participating children showed promising results in their scores in emergent literacy and numeracy, motor and socio-emotional development, executive function and cumulative learning skills regardless of the language spoken at home.  

Such results are a big achievement for a foundation with limited resources like REF. Ligia Deca, State Advisor to the Presidency of Romania said, “Preschool education helps us and teaches us, parents and children, how to live together. When you interact with children of different culture or ethnicity, it is easier to be more tolerant and integrated into society. … The most visible results come from NGOs which manage to bring together all these entities. We have a lot to learn from NGOs, which bring together many partners. This project had some simple but very effective instruments: renovating schools, shaping the mission of parents themselves, toy libraries to help children to be accustomed to this idea. It allows us to replicate this.”

In 2016, REF invested nearly EUR 650,000 in early childhood interventions that are proven to give children a good start in life, improve their long-term education achievements and establish the ground for social inclusion. Such investments chip away at deep-seated poverty and inequality that have been perpetuated in Roma communities for decades, bringing families into the orbit of schools, teaching professionals and local administration, and establishing new ground for families’ growth and development.

As the organizer of this conference, REF intends to capitalize on the insights and results of early childhood education. REF senses that now the time is apt to reprioritize quality, inclusive learning in Romania’s education system and that Romania should pour some of its human and budgetary resources into securing the success of Romania’s next generation.

The project "Ready, Set, Go! - Increasing Early Childhood Development Outcomes for Roma Children" is financed by the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2009-2014, RO25 - The fight against poverty, through a grant on Norway’s behalf in approximate value of 2.800.000 euros and implemented by Roma Education Fund (REF) Romania foundation together with its partners, the Ruhama Foundation, Divers Association, Center for Education and Human Rights Association (CEDO), Association Justice and Brotherhood, and Roma Education Fund (REF) Hungary, with the technical assistance of the World Bank.

About REF Romania

The Roma Education Fund Romania Foundation aims to increase access of Romanian citizens of Roma ethnicity in the educational system, in order to achieve the foundation’s primary purpose, closing the gap in educational outcomes between Roma and non-Roma.

For further details, please visit 
romaeducationfund.ro |  www.readysetgo.ro 
www.facebook.com/REFRomania | www.facebook.com/readysetgo.ro.

For more on the Norwegian Financial Mechanism, please visit 
www.norwaygrants.org.