The long road to high school

In rural communities, children commute for hours each day to attend high school. But before they reach that level of education, they first need to be made to believe they can.

Roxana Gramada
UNICEF/Cybermedia

14 February 2020

RĂCHITIȘ, Romania  – This past December, Ionela decided that she wants to be a waitress when she grows up. At a large family gathering, the 14-year-old asked her mom if she could help serve the food. She enjoyed serving, and thought the skill could lead to an actual job.

Ionela lives in a small village in the county of Bacău in eastern Romania, with her mother, stepfather and five of her six brothers. Her eldest brother works abroad. Neither of her parents is employed and the family receives social assistance.

Before Ionela’s village was connected with the national roads, very few people went out of the community to work or study. To this day, Răchitiș has no restaurant. But Ionela already has ideas about how she would be a waitress: she needs to stand tall when walking to a table and always address customers respectfully. But how does she know this?

Before her family gathering, Ionela had discussed several careers in school. In the eighth grade, teachers and school counsellors bring up the big question: What do you want to do next? In Ionela’s village, very few children used to decide that high school or a vocational school was next. But community and school support has helped turn that around.

“We worked with them to understand their profiles: inclination and aptitude tests and practical activities. And, especially, to get them out of their environment, to see and wish for other things. To have a job,” says Mirela Rotariu, school principal in the village of Strugari, where Ionela previously went.

The efforts were part of the Quality Inclusive Education Package designed and implemented by UNICEF and its partners in 51 schools in Bacău County from September. The programme focused on ensuring that all children started school at the right age, stayed in school and learned to their maximum potential, to be prepared for life and employment. To achieve this, a school-family-community partnership for child participation and support was developed.

Transition to high school is

particularly challenging for vulnerable children

A 2014 UNICEF study showed that some 170,000 adolescents aged 15–18 years old are out of school in Romania. Education is compulsory from the Preparatory Class (Grade 0) until Grade 10, but the transition from lower to upper secondary education represents a particular challenge, especially for vulnerable children. High schools, which provide general education as well as vocational training, have been established mostly in towns and cities, but not in villages.

The consequence for rural students, who are often the most disadvantaged, is a high dropout rate between Grade 8 and Grade 9 – before they can finish compulsory education. The enrolment rate for rural students is 20 percentage points lower than for urban students. 

Facilitating the transition through integrated services for parents and

individual support for vulnerable children

UNICEF/Cybermedia
Ionela is doing homework at home, after returning from high school earlier in the day

Starting this year, the Quality Inclusive Education programme is being taken to the next level, focusing on supporting the transition of students from the lower to upper secondary education. The transition component of the programme, “Together for the future”, focuses on developing the institutional capacity of grade schools and high schools to provide quality inclusive education, provides individual support and counselling to vulnerable adolescents, and offers support for parents to develop their parental skills and help their children remain in school.

For Ionela’s school in Strugari, positive results were achieved through teamwork, which involved teachers, parents and the extended community. The principal also enlisted the help of the school counsellor, other teachers and the school mediator.

Eighth grade is a particularly important time, as children in rural areas, such as Ionela, need encouragement and support to believe they can continue their studies and that the effort is worthwhile.

Planting the seeds and nurturing the dreams

UNICEF/Cybermedia
Ionela, 14, on her way back home after classes. She attends Grigore Antipa Technological High School in Bacău and is supported through the QIE transition programme.

For Ionela, that effort involves waking up at 4:30 a.m. and walking 50 minutes to the station to catch a 6:00 a.m. bus to Bacău. Through the transition pilot programme, she receives a scholarship to cover the monthly transportation fare and a daily snack for the long hours until she reaches home. She arrives at Grigore Antipa Technological High School at about 7:15 a.m., with enough time for her packed breakfast and a quick read through her textbooks. School finishes at 3:00 p.m., and she return home at about 5:30 p.m., in time for dinner, some homework and then bedtime at 9 p.m.

Her day involves a lot of walking, but Ionela has become used to it. She’s been walking long distances to school since fifth grade. Many of her classmates also come from villages near Bacău. “I can do it, but I’m afraid I will be late when snow comes. The bus may not be as quick,” she worries.

Ionela’s desire to work as a waitress springs from a seed her school counsellor helped to plant and nurture. “I tell them of students who worked in restaurants or hotels during the summer and made their own money,” says Ancuta Melinte, the counsellor at Grigore Antipa Technological High School. “I really wish for Ionela to complete her studies, for her mom to support her so she can fly so high. I hope the city will make her wish for more. They all wish to finish school and go abroad. But I wish for her to accomplish something in Romania,” she adds.