Staying at School in Serbia
Mirko, Lazar, Veljko and Srbislav seem like a tight unit – as happy competing to answer questions in class as they are to knock a football around.
Mirko, Lazar, Veljko and Srbislav seem like a tight unit – as happy competing to answer questions in class as they are to knock a football around on the concrete pitch alongside the school.
But little more than a year earlier the picture would have looked very different.
Quite simply, Mirko would not have been in it. The shortest and slightest of the four had been struggling at school – skipping an increasing number of days and misbehaving when he was there.
A speech impediment added to his difficulties. He was seemingly stuck in a downward spiral – his disruptive behaviour both reflecting and exacerbating his alienation from other pupils.
For the principal of Ljupce Spanac Primary, Vanja Tanaskovic, this was familiar territory. She has led this school in the southeast Serbian town of Bela Palanka for more than a decade.
“In every year group there are one or two pupils who are on the edge of dropping out.”
The principal ruefully recounts the tale of a girl from a Roma family who dropped out one exam short of completing her primary school certificate. Without this minimum qualification, prospects for work and quality of life are bleak.
Bela Palaka seems to occupy an idyllic position, surrounded by hills and lavender fields. But the reality is grim for many of its 12 thousand or so people.
It is one of the poorest places in Serbia, with high unemployment, low wages and little hope.
A significant proportion of the population are Roma people, many of them among the poorest of the poor.
Mirko’s mother, 44-year-old Danijela Gunic, relies on social welfare payments to support her son and his older sister, 15-year-old Jelena.
“We live in very tough conditions,” says Danijela. “Our house is almost falling down.”
This is not the life that Danijela wants for her children – that is why she was concerned when her son started skipping school.
“I was persistent that Mirko should continue at school. Education is the key to him getting a degree or a good job – it’s important for him.”
Support from his family and the school helped Mirko to turn his situation around.
“Everyone told me to change!” he laughs.
But perceptions of Mirko had to change as well – making the school a place where he and similar children could be successful.
Vida Nikolic was a key figure. The fifth-grade teacher’s considerable experience was a key to unlocking Mirko’s potential.
“I tried to open him as a person,” she says.
“We brought in a speech therapist and psychologist to help him – and steered him towards pupils in class who could point him in the right direction. I explained to the children that we should help Mirko – not just with learning, but with hanging out.”
Vida also praises the “excellent cooperation” that Danijela gave in helping Mirko with homework and social adjustments.
Academically, the transformation has been dramatic. Vida fishes a ledger out of her bag and shows off Mirko’s grades with a satisfied smile.
Mirko had already identified Lazar, Veljko and Srbislav as the kind of friends who would be good for him socially and academically. The fact that they all played football naturally nudged him towards joining them on a team.
Now his PE teacher, Vlastimir Milosavljevic, makes sure Mirko is on the ball in class as well as on the pitch by making good grades a prerequisite for taking to the field.
“They're ready to do anything to be part of the team,” he chuckles.
The school's holistic approach – bringing together teachers, pupils, families and specialists – has produced results more often than not. That is why Ljupce Spanac Primary was a natural candidate for a pilot project to reduce early school-leaving.
It is one of ten schools across the country taking part in testing dropout-prevention models.
UNICEF developed the project in conjunction with the local NGO, Centre for Education Policy, with financial support from UNIQLO.
Creating an “early-warning system” for pupils at risk of dropping out is one of the goals. Pilot schools are also working to improve cooperation with parents and between pupils.
They are committed to changing their culture so that teachers take responsibility for preventing drop-outs. At every stage, schools will receive support from UNICEF and its partners.
At Ljupce Spanac Primary, specialists have joined the principal and classroom teachers in an intervention team. They identify struggling pupils and help them before the situation deteriorates.
The team is also looking at improving the overall quality of education at the school.
“We identified the problems a long time ago,” says speech therapist Jelena Jovanovic. “We hope this project empowers us.”
The pilot started in April 2014 and the schools began putting the ideas into practice in September.
It aims to involve everyone working at the school –developing peer support as well as partnerships with parents and the local community.
By the end of the project in October 2016, the pilot schools should be open, supportive and welcoming environments to all pupils.
At its heart, the project is about emphasising the importance of education – how completing school can set a child out on the right path in life, however challenging their background might have been.
These days, Mirko is heading in the right direction – and going for a kick-around with his mates.
“He would still be our friend no matter how he did at school,” says Srbislav.
With good friends, social acceptance and academic improvement, things are looking up for Mirko.
But the school and the other people there had to change to make that possible.