Sara steps further

In Romania, 20 per cent fewer ninth graders come from rural, compared to urban areas. For girls, the risk of never attending high school is even higher. A UNICEF program aims to balance the odds

Roxana Grămadă (text); Ioana Moldovan (photo)
Sara, from Caiuti (Bacau, Romania), stands in her family's yard
Ioana Moldovan/UNICEF
27 April 2021

Before Sara, nobody in her family had made it to ninth grade. Of the four boys, only two are still in school, in the seventh grade. Sara’s older sister married when she was 15 and dropped out. For Sara to reach high school, one small miracle needed to happen.

For all children, transitioning from secondary school to high school is an important, difficult turning point. For disadvantaged children, too many times, the threshold remains a final frontier.

In Romania, education is free and compulsory until the tenth grade, but children from poor rural families continue to be some of the most at risk of dropping out. In the lives of children like Sara and their families implicitly, carrying on with their studies can bring a huge change. For them, applying to high school and being admitted is, rightly, a landmark.

Sara in the kitchen space.
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan

Sara’s parents are illiterate. The father had a job for a short while, but now he is at home. Her mother has a nephrostomy tube surgically placed and must go to the hospital regularly. They both want Sara to have a job, but never thought vocational schooling could open Sara a new trail to blaze. Here, school mediator Mihaela Stanciu had a important word to say.

“Sara is my star, she made it to high school,” says Mihaela. She encouraged Sara to go further and removed one of the large obstacles in her way: when she applied, the girl only had a nearly illegible copy of her birth certificate. Mihaela gave her word she would quickly have a copy issued and the application was successful. She followed through, of course.

The day she found out Sara was being admitted at the Petru Poni Technological High School in Onești, Mihaela said congratulations, and offered her a box of cupcakes. They told the parents afterwards, together.

“We were so happy. Many in Căiuți said … those unfortunate people are taking their child to school… We were very happy, still… This is who we are, this is what we look like, we cannot be different than what we are”, says Mihai, Sara’s father. They had to find the money for the commute and other things a student needs. The little over US$200 the family manages on every month would have hardly stretched that far. Here, again, school mediator Mihaela Stanciu troubleshot.

Sara looks at the broken tablet on her table
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan
Sara is preparing food for her family
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan

Without schooling, too many children’s wishes die unfulfilled

Mihaela Stanciu has been a school mediator in the community for over 14 years. It has been just as long since she made contact with UNICEF programs. She attended her first training seminars in 2007 and saw “what it means to work hard with the others”. Used to working on her own, she started collaborating with her colleagues, the community workers at the mayoralty offices and in school.

About a year ago, she learned of the mentorship scholarships granted in the program ”Together for the Future” - Quality Inclusive Education - facilitating the transition from secondary school to high school. The program is developed by UNICEF in Romania and its partners, and financed by UNICEF’s own resources, with support from The Botnar Foundation and Lidl Romania.

One thousand children in the county of Bacău, at risk of not making it to the ninth grade, receive support to do so.  The program also offers training in courses and work groups to teachers, school managers, and parents. For these children to continue their studies and have a chance at a better life than their parents, everyone must contribute.

“I filled in the application myself. Had the papers issued, received the response, opened a bank account in her name… The scholarship reaches the account, I withdraw it and hand it in each month,” says Mihaela Stanciu, happy that, at last, at almost 18 years of age, Sara has her own ID.

Sara in her family's home
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan
Sara in the kitchen space.
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan
Sara outside her parent's home
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan

Sara is my star, she made it to high school

School mediator Mihaela Stanciu
Sara, looking in the distance outside her parent's home.
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan

Sara’s class master was, until recently, a teacher at the school in Căiuți and worked with Mihaela Stanciu to help her continue her studies. They got the high school to give her a tablet, where Sara attends online classes and does her homework. At the Petru Poni High School in Onești, classes were in person for only a week. Everything moved online afterwards.

“It was very beautiful”, says Sara, who, when physically present at school, needs to wake up at 6, reaches the railway station at 7, and takes her place, first desk from the blackboard by 8, as classes start.

When she graduates, Sara will hold a hospitality cook-waiter certificate. She hasn’t yet thought where she’d like to work, but she’d like to have a driver’s license and to be able to support herself.

Sara, petting her cat
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan
Sara, holding a chicken
UNICEF/Ioana Moldovan

If she met the genie in the lamp, she’d first and foremost ask for mom to be well. “If I had everything in this world, it would be to help her. I wouldn’t wish for anything, but this.” After further consideration, Sara adds to her list: “To have a happy family… We are a happy family,” realizes Sara, and one more wish emerges. “I will carry on, to graduate.”