A second chance for Tunisian children’s dreams
The Second Chance Center for Guidance and Reintegration in Bab El Khadra
“When I come here, I feel that there’s someone looking out for me and my future. I feel that now I can reach where I want to go"
In a brightly-lit office next to the reception area at the second chance center for guidance and reintegration in tunis’s bab el khadra neighborhood, yousef ayari, 17, sits at a desk with salwa mabrouk, a trainer at the center. sitting across from salwa at a desk, yousef quietly answers her questions about his prior education and his life at home in his neighborhood of jbel lahmar, a rough neighborhood on a nearby hillside in tunis. salwa scribbles down notes on an intake form for the center, explaining to yousef how his educational path and vocational-training work will go forward.
Each year, 100,000 Tunisian children drop out of school. Leaving school early creates dramatic negative impacts on their well-being, limiting their productivity in society and their positive social development, and blocking them from the work opportunities they dream of.
The Second Chance Center for Guidance and Reintegration in Bab El Khadra is a pilot center, run by the Ministry of Education. It serves Tunisian children between the ages of 12 to 18 who left school early, giving them the opportunity to catch up on their studies and return to school, pursue vocational training., and for those who are older, to get exposure to job opportunities. The national Second Chance program is managed by the Tunisian Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training, supported by UNICEF, and thanks to funding by the British Embassy in Tunisia.
One part of the Center, Ma3ak (“With you”) is focused on welcoming the child, examining why they left school, and getting the child back into school or to vocational training. The Center’s second part, Intale9, (“Get started”) gets kids re-engaged in learning, offers life-skills-based catch-up learning, and offers internships and job placements. Another pilot center, in the Tunis neighborhood of Ariana, follows the same structure, but is run by a private sector contractor paid through the programme. A third center, in the central province of Kairouan, to be run by the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training, is expected to be inaugurated in March 2022. Plans exist for a fourth center in in the southern province of Gabès, to be run by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The idea is to help kids reach their full potential, giving them space to pursue their career or educational path, and an opportunity to get into work that will both challenge them and benefit society. Kids profit from one-on-one counseling on their education and career goals, stimulating classroom activities and tutoring, all following a personalized approach for each child.
Yousef, the boy working with the counselor Salwa, told UNICEF, “I left school three years ago. I didn’t like school. I didn’t feel convinced that they were really trying to teach me anything. So I tried to work as a mechanic. But that wasn’t good work either. Then my mother told me about the Second Chance Center, and I liked the idea.”
He said that his prior experience in school left him with a bad feeling, and a lack of motivation. But then he described the changes in attitude that he’s been experiencing at the Center.
“This is my third time here. When I first came here, I still didn’t really feel like studying. I wanted to go straight into culinary training, but the counselors convinced me that I needed to—and that I could—complete two more years of study, and get my high school diploma. And then I could move into culinary study.”
While shy, Yousef smiled broadly when asked how he’s feeling after working with the counselors like Salwa.
“When I come here, I feel that there’s someone looking out for me and my future. I feel that now I can reach where I want to go—to be a chef in a nice restaurant or hotel.”
For Sihem Hammami, 17, another child at the Second Chance Center, the decision to leave school was a painful one. Teachers didn’t treat her well at her last school, and with little discipline, there was an air of chaos at school.
“My parents really encouraged me to go back to school, but I just couldn’t bear to deal with the same bad behavior and chaos at school. So, I trained in the army for three years, and then spent a year at home.”
“But then I heard on the radio that there was a program for getting people back on track at school. So I submitted my application, came and did an interview, and they accepted me.”
She added, “In the three months that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve begun to realize my goals. The teachers are great and I feel comfortable with them. Now I want to finish high school, and go on to do professional training. I want to become a chef, or maybe run a beauty salon.”
Wifek Chokri, a mathematics teacher at the Center, talked to UNICEF about some of the things that made the kids in the Center drop out of school.
“Some kids, especially boys, see their family or friends unemployed after getting a university degree, and begin to feel that they don’t need to finish school. Others have a deceased parent, and the family can’t go on supporting the kids’ education, so the kids go off to work odd jobs.”
Despite the tremendous challenges that some children face, there is much hope to be found. Wifek believes that the way the Center works shows the kids that they have what it takes to advance in their education and careers, even if society is giving them a different message.
“In most public schools here, the teacher doesn’t have the time to understand a student’s needs and support them. But here, the program is personalized. Personally accompanying these kids on their learning and developmental journey, without judgement, that’s the key,” she said.
She cited the example of one girl she worked with.
“I worked with a girl here who had left school and wanted to work in the beauty business. As she worked with us, she started to realize that the future she wanted would require more schooling. We got her involved in community work where she saw other kids in her situation finishing their studies. And now she’s back in school, and she might go on to get her diploma,” Wifek said with a big grin.
Marwan Ben Abdallah, the assistant director of the Center, noted that the Center opened in September 2020, with teaching staff chosen after a competition held by the Tunisian Ministry of Education.
Over the course of four months, Marwan said, the staff took part in a training organized by UNICEF with experienced Second Chance educators from around the world. He noted that UNICEF has financed extracurricular trips for the Center that introduce kids to possible professional paths. So far, the Center has worked with about 600 children.
“We’ve supported more than 1,100 young people through this initiative. On my visits I can see a strong sense of purpose and belonging in the kids in the Center.”
Ianto Jones, head of programs at the British Embassy in Tunis, spoke of the Embassy’s funding for the project.
He said, “We’ve supported more than 1,100 young people through this initiative. On my visits I can see a strong sense of purpose and belonging in the kids in the Center.”
“We’ve seen that this model can work and is successful, but also is something that youth want. I expect that in the years to come we can expand on this pilot center and we can have more centers like this across the country to catch more of the children that slip through the educational net.”
Khaled Bargaoui, education program manager at the British Embassy in Tunis said, “We are trying in the Center to provide activities that are in line with the job market. And the activities are oriented around the child’s skills—what he or she wants to do.”
The pandemic, he said, has made the education and employment situation in Tunisia very fragile. But Second Chance Centers are a step towards easing the pandemic-related challenges for children, and delivering better futures. Greater resources and expanding the Centers will aid greatly in this mission, Bargaoui said.
“The risk of school dropout in the Covid-19 pandemic context has increased. So we need to develop the Second Chance centers’ capacity. The government can now take the lead and expand these centers to the whole country.”