In Bulgaria, where just 15 percent of Roma children complete secondary school, Eugenia Volen, 42, knows only too well how hard her job is.
In her role as a Program Officer who is in charge of early education at the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA), a Bulgarian foundation helping the most disadvantaged, she is trying to create greater educational opportunities for Roma children. But where to begin?
“For many years, the government focused on fifth, sixth and seventh grade, when many kids drop out,” she said recently, on a call from Sofia, where she lives. “But the more we studied the issue, the clearer it became that you need programs to catch kids earlier, to help them prepare for school so they don’t get discouraged and drop out later.”
The Trust for Social Achievement, together with researchers supported by the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund, designed the Springboard for School Readiness Program to promote early education among children aged three to five years old from disadvantaged communities. An impact evaluation was built into the program to test the effectiveness of different approaches to improve kindergarten access: covering the costs of kindergarten tuition, giving additional cash incentives for regular attendance, and providing informational sessions for parents on the importance of early childhood education.
In this interview, Volen talks about the problems of keeping kids in school, how a blindfold can ensure trust, and why being an eastern European in western Europe kindled her interest in working with disadvantaged populations.
What got you so interested in the Roma issue?
I was born in Bulgaria, but lived in Great Britain for a time—my father was a foreign correspondent for the central news agency so we moved around — and the experience of being an eastern European in western Europe, being an outsider and experiencing hostility, sensitized me to the plight of the Roma. I experienced discrimination first hand and so it got me thinking about these issues, about the ways that communities are closed off from one another and the importance of better integration.
Why is early education an important issue in Bulgaria?
Children from Roma communities drop out of school quite early and at very high rates—only 15 percent graduate from high school, compared to 87 percent for the population as a whole, according to 2016 figures from the National Statistical Institute.
One of the primary reasons is that they are unprepared for primary school, which may partly be because they are only half as likely as ethnic Bulgarian children to enroll in early education programs. Preschool is mandatory and technically free for children aged five to six, but families would have to pay attendance fees if they wanted to enroll their children in a full-day kindergarten program, which includes lunch for example.
Why is Roma preschool enrollment so low?
There are a lot of theories in the public discourse, but no one really knows why the gap is so large: is it a lack of knowledge about the importance of early education? Is it that parents know, but aren’t motivated? Or is it that it’s too expensive? We didn’t really know, which is why this evaluation was so critical.
You mentioned the expense of early education, but isn’t kindergarten free for five and six year olds?
Not in reality. The educational component is free, but municipalities frequently set so-called attendance fees to cover lunch and building maintenance, especially for full-day kindergarten programs. Then there can be extra charges for things like transportation and books. In total, even though learning is free, everything else can be about 30 Euros (around $35) a month, which is a lot for poor families. Here, participants’ average income was about 220 Euros (around $256) a month. Given full-day programs fill up quickly, families that cannot afford to enroll their children at an early age are frequently left with half-day programs as the only option once their child reaches the age for mandatory preschool education.
What did families think of what you were doing?
The project and evaluation design was quite complicated, especially for parents who may not have had even a primary school education, and so we decided to do the randomization through a public lottery at a hotel in Sofia. It was important to be transparent and an algorithm just doesn’t do that. So we had a large public event, with non-governmental organizations, policymakers and media. The randomization was done by someone wearing a blindfold and we even videotaped it as proof and posted it online.
What’s the most important thing you learned from the study?
Cost is a definite barrier. Removing financial barriers led to a statistically significant increase in attendance and enrollment. That’s a huge piece of the puzzle. But it also showed us that children from ethnic minorities aren’t benefiting from kindergarten the same way majority children are. It’s too early to tell what’s going on. It could be too much of a transition, which is stressing them out, or that they need more than just one year to adjust and make progress. The other thing we found, when we spoke to parents, is that they said they wanted to see more Roma teachers.
Why was this so important for the parents?
There is mistrust and ethnic tension on both sides and many Roma parents believe that their children aren’t treated equally in the classroom. A recent survey of Bulgarian teachers prepared by the Association of Psychologists in Bulgaria showed that every fifth kindergarten teacher believes that segregation between ethnic groups is an effective approach, and that children’s natural capabilities are tied to their ethnicity. That’s the view of teachers willing to speak out, there may be many more who think like that but didn’t want to come out and say it.
We’re working with the government on a follow up study: if one year of kindergarten doesn’t have a positive impact, the natural question is what happens after several years? Having continued financial interventions in most communities since the project’s initial year, we are now able to test those children who are in their final year of kindergarten to see the effects after three or four years.
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