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One More Chance

A Romanian initiative to bring high-school dropouts back to class gains pace despite social stigma. [Also in Russian.] by Sinziana Demian 23 April 2008 CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | It is 11:10 on a Thursday morning when a slightly unusual science class, the last of the day, begins at Nicolae Iorga School in the Iris industrial area of the city. Five students are sitting at computer monitors operating an application that teaches them all about levers. And while some go through the lesson with ease, others struggle to even read the instructions.

Aged between 16 and 19 and coming from very different backgrounds, the students do have something in common: they all dropped out of regular school at least a couple of years before they were allowed to enroll last fall in this special program, called The Second Chance. They will now study at Nicolae Iorga for two to four years, depending on their results and previous qualifications, in order to get their diploma, a rough equivalent of what they would have received after the obligatory 10-grade regular schooling.

OVERCOMING THE STIGMA

“I find classes here easy, and I am very happy with the flexible schedule,” says 16-year-old Emanuel Balaj, who hopes to finish the program in two years and make up fast for lost time. He quit school at the age of 14 to join his parents in Crete, where they had already been working for several years, but then decided to return home and finish his education. Because he took a break longer than one year, he missed out on the opportunity to go back to regular school. Second Chance was his only option to get a basic diploma in Romania.

Aimed at providing an alternative to “disadvantaged categories” of youth, the program accepts students who couldn’t finish formal education for a variety of reasons. Whether they were expelled three times in a row, dropped out because of bad health or poor grades, or did not receive support from their families in order to able to stay in school, students can then opt for Second Chance and receive not only academic, but also trade training. The program was designed to fit the needs of students of varying ages and abilities.

The program has undergone many changes since 1999, when the European Union’s PHARE-sponsored pilot classes began in 11 schools around the country. Dedicated exclusively to Romani youth from 14 to 24 who had not been able to finish the then-obligatory eighth grade, the program sparked initial enthusiasm but interest soon dwindled. Many pupils left school soon after re-starting their education and only a handful of the 22 classes that started the pilot program went on to complete it.

In the following years, Second Chance dramatically expanded its scope. It opened up to young people from all “disadvantaged” groups regardless of their ethnicity or previous level of studies. More schools across the country became involved, and where PHARE funding was no longer available, the Ministry of Education stepped in to cover the costs and try to align the program to the mainstream system.

“It was very difficult to change the perception that The Second Chance is still open only to Romani students,” says Lucia Copoeru, a national coordinator of the program. “There is still a certain amount of stigma associated with it, but it is getting better every year.”

Across Romania, around 10,000 students were registered in the program last autumn. At Nicolae Iorga School, the 15 first-year pupils attend classes on a flexible schedule, depending on other commitments or part-time jobs they have elsewhere. As this school is the only one in Cluj County to offer the program, several students commute here daily from smaller towns and villages around.

“It’s expensive to take the train into the city every day, but my family is very supportive and they pay my expenses,” says 19-year-old Angela Dobondi from Gherla, some 45 kilometers away. Her monthly travel pass costs 53 lei (€15), but she thinks it is all worth it for her to be back in school and finish her education.

LIMITED OFFER

“Before, I didn’t like studying, but now it all seems much more interesting. The classes are fun, and it’s nice that we don’t get any homework,” Dobondi says.

She does have one big regret, though: She would like to become a chef, but the program only gives her the chance to specialize as a seamstress.

“This is one of the severe shortcomings, that the current offerings for trade-training are very limited, and not well-coordinated with the demand of the labor market,” Copoeru says.
Photo by Seth Werkheiser - Creative Commons licensed

Academic schools team up with vocational schools for the trade component of the program. In Cluj, boys learn auto mechanics, while girls are limited to sewing classes. In other regions, the opportunity to attend driving school and get a license is a big draw.

In most areas, Second Chance students do not have a wide selection of vocational training courses. A few schools around the country train students to be textile workers, hairdressers, blacksmiths or potters.

Even if their trade of choice is not available, the diplomas give the graduates the chance to find work. Most employers require at least basic schooling for minimum wage-jobs.

“This is not a program you can be proud of, but it is good enough to allow you to get a job afterwards,” says 21-year-old Cluj resident Alin Varga, who finished the program in 2006. He then invested 600 (€169) lei in a six-week course in bartending and waiting, and he has since held jobs in hip downtown restaurants and cafes where he can earn up to 60 (€17) lei a night in tips.

That is more than twice the extra pay a teacher earns for one class taught within the Second Chance program. Selected from the pool of regular teachers, they also receive special training before leading their first Second Chance class. Aura Tuluc, a geography teacher who has been involved with the program since 2000, says that she is now using the “active techniques” she acquired here – a more hands-on, interactive approach – with her regular classes as well, although the teaching process and textbooks are very different.

For Maria Bote, a young teacher of Romanian at Nicolae Iorga, the challenge lies not only in the special teaching methods she has to employ, but also in finding ways to connect with her students on a more personal level. As the freshman class tutor, she’s in charge of their well-being while at school, but she also tries to stay in touch with them and their families in their free time.

“At the beginning they were feeling a bit unsure about being in school again, and on top of that, they had to take some mean looks from the regular students, who don’t really understand what this program is all about. But now, seeing that they’re actually make some progress, their self-esteem is growing fast,” Bote says.
Sinziana Demian is a writer for Formula AS magazine in Bucharest.
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