by Diana Oncioiu and Oana Dan
photographs by Silviu Panaite and Zora Iuga
With flowers in their hands and large schoolbags on their back, children rush to one of the seven schools that function in the Ferentari neighborhood. In the courtyard, teachers or form teachers greet them and lead them to classrooms, along with their parents. It’s the first day of school and the classrooms are almost full. Among so many smiles and flowers, one can almost overlook the problems of our education system.
However, in Ferentari one does not need to go way beyond the school gates in order to confront such problems.
As part of the series #FerentariLux, Dela0.ro investigates the level, quality and efficiency of public services in the neighborhood. In this first episode, we take a look at education – healthcare services and public security and order follow to complete the full picture.
Every cloud has its silver lining
Cristina woke up when the children entered the classroom. It is mid-September and the morning sun gently watches over the neighborhood scenery. Lately, Cristina has been sleeping in the open. It is still warm enough outside, while inside are the rats. She is afraid of them.
“Je m’appelle Cristina. J’ai dix ans. Je suis roumaine.”,
She utters, with flawless pronunciation. She also knows other things in French, such as a song about poor children.
Cristina would like to attend a school where she would be able to study French. „I speak some English, too”, she adds, proud of herself. She learned both languages at a school in France, her mother explains.
Cristina was born in the “barracks” – the box-like houses lined up, until recently, down the Iacob Andrei street in Ferentari.
Meanwhile, the district town hall evacuated the area, relocating the inhabitants in a homeless shelter unit. Everything happened on fast forward, following a confusing municipal initiative that started in early autumn and initially caused a riot, forcing the town hall to organize, aside from the evacuation itself, a contingency plan and social assistance as well.
Upon reaching school age, Cristina was enrolled by her mother, Eliza, at School no 134 in Ferentari, where the girl attended the first two grades. Then she stopped. Children were laughing at her notebooks nibbled by rats. At the barracks, rodents would hardly miss the covers feast. But Cristina was not mocked only by her colleagues. Even the teacher, as Cristina claims, called her names, repeatedly, such as „vile gypsy” and „filthy gypsy”. And there were others, too.
„When I would raise my hand to go to the toilet, she did not allow me. My mother had picked on her and that is why she would hit me with books in the head. She used to call me lousy in front of others. True, once I even had lice. I got them from a child who lives here (Ed. – in the barracks). But that was only once, because my mom always checks my hair for lice, with a comb,” the girl says.
Her mother claims that Cristina’s brother, Mihai, was treated in the same way. He is three years older than his sister and no one remembers how many grades he attended in school – maybe three or five? Mihai is convinced that he went up to the fifth grade. However, he does not want to speak about humiliation and discrimination in the classroom.
Instead, he quickly shares that he is a Barcelona and Steaua fan and as proof he shows the football clubs` logos on his T-shirt.
He is proud of his records at Snake (a popular game a few years ago) and is able to show to anyone, on the spot, how well he plays the game just with one hand.
As Cristina no longer attended school in 2015, Eliza decided to take her to France. She had met there a Romanian man with French citizenship. She left Mihai at the barracks. However, after one year spent in the Hexagon, they returned home, down the Iacob Andrei Street in Ferentari.
In mid September 2016, while they were still living in the barracks, Cristina missed the first day of school. She would have liked to go, but to another teacher. She was not able to do it. One week after school started, upon the evacuation of the barracks, Cristina and her family moved at the entrance to Ferentari, in a shelter unit provided by the town hall as housing solution. September went by quickly.
Along with the sanitization of the barracks area, the District 5 town hall added a last-minute makeshift social assistance plan. A plan that, however, did not precede evacuation, but was put into practice afterwards. This meant that social workers were forced to work under pressure.
Finally, in October, Cristina, Mihai and other children of the barracks area have come to take their seats in the classrooms. Most of them did it under the „Second Chance” programme, which, following certain criteria, recovers children in situations of school dropout. The brother and sister arrived at School 134 in the normal cycle – the girl in second grade and the boy in the fifth grade.
Without the contribution of the district Social Services, forced to quickly improvise an action plan after the evacuation carried out by the town hall, many children of the barracks would not have managed to return to school in 2016. And not because their parents refused. Those who tried on their own to enroll at School 134 were told firmly there were no seats available in any grade.
View from the principal's desk
For over a decade, Sergiu Mihail has been the school principal at School 134. Throughout these ten years, he says, he did not have to manage any incident involving violence or discrimination. The problem, as Mihail puts it, is that parents are “poor and uninterested.”
„Perhaps, a teacher said something and they interpreted otherwise,” explains the principal when faced with reports that do not match his assessment. „Nobody came to me to complain. Really. We have childish verbal complaints – someone stole a pen, or threw a pencil case on the floor. Others came because it seemed that a teacher did something to a child. All of them believe that their children are the most behaved,” Sergiu Mihail claims.
Viewed from the principal’s office, things seem to go well. For eight years, the school has been operating a day care center funded by the town hall, where children receive a hot meal and are hosted until 16.00 o’clock, under the supervision of two educational advisors. There are two schools in the neighborhood that have such a day care center – School 134 and School 148 – serving a total of 37 beneficiaries. Sergiu Mihail recognizes that the Centre only hosts about 20 children, although its capacity would be of 60 kids.
The principal thinks there are two reasons for the center being used at only 30% of its potential. „The name of Day Center leads parents to believe it is meant to be a center for the poor. If the center had been named «after school», parents would have been tempted to bring the little ones,” Mihail says. The second reason is related to the extensive paperwork to be submitted in order to enrol at the center. The principal expresses his shock at parents stumbling over some simple papers to be filled in.
While functioning near the district ghettos, School 134 seems totally disconnected from this background. The investigation led by Dela0.ro shows that, in Ferentari, excessive bureaucracy works often against those who should be rescued from marginalization and poverty, actually hindering their access to public education.
The view from the principal’s desk seemingly shows that the school fulfills all its duties. For instance, it awards nearly 140 social grants, amounting to 420 lei each. And merit scholarships whose value cannot be estimated, because it would be calculated based on working days. In fact, however, social and merit scholarships amount to 150 lei, not 420, and they are unrelated to working days, as the principal claims. The school has never had a mediator, but there is a teacher counselor who discusses with the pupils.
From the principal’s seat, school dropout does not seem to be a problem, as well. Mihail says proudly that dropout was reduced, but it is due to the fact that the number of pupils decreased, he adds immediately. In addition, according to the school’s director, dropout is limited to those situations when parents coming from the countryside remain without money for paying rent and thus are forced to leave Bucharest and return to where they came from; or parents simply take their children and go abroad.
Sergiu Mihail is convinced that there is no case of dropout for children who are still in the Ferentari community. In the second half of September, while the principal was giving this statement, Cristina and Mihai were living within just 300 meters from school, being in a dropout situation.
In addition, figures tell a different story about how things really work at School 134: 7% pupils with outstanding situations / repeaters (Ed. – a situation that can be classified as masked dropout); 41% pupils who did not enter the national evaluation and an average score of 5.01 for those who participated in the national evaluation. Nevertheless, the school has no rookie teachers.
Data was taken from the Romanian schools rating, based on socio-educational risks, carried out at the beginning of the school year by the Ministry of European Funds.
Keeping ward against those 'savage indians'
In Ferentari, cases of violence and discrimination that can be attributed to teachers are discussed only in communities, i.e. between neighbors, in front of or behind the building where they live. Such topics are not brought up at school or at the inspectorate, because there is no official complaint from any parent.
For almost 1 year and a half, George Goliţă has been managing the Alternative Education Clubs organized by the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities (PCRM) at Schools 136 and 147. Due to programmes carried out up to now, he knows all the seven schools in Ferentari. Beyond the poverty that can easily lead to dropout, Goliţă identifies another problem – the attitude of some teachers, a situation which is not dealt with at all. Examples are manifold.
„Younger teachers or those who arrive by shuttle or the ones that only give a few classes in Ferentari have the same prejudice about the neighborhood as other people in Bucharest – ‘Dude, that is the nasty place where we find prostitution, drugs, gypsies’. And they already come with extra cautiousness, ‘to be careful, because obviously something will happen to me’. I also met teachers who are veterans in the area and have the same prejudices. A sports teacher told me – ‘Hey, there is not much to do with these Indians, because they are savages.’”
Cluj teacher Mircea Miclea, former Minister of Education, explains in simple terms why the isolation of schools from communities is a major malfunction of the Romanian education system.
“At the time of Ceauşescu’s regime, form teachers had to visit pupils at home. Today, we send a mediator to visit the families, but teachers do not change their attitude because they do not see and understand how these children live”, says Miclea.
Then he concludes: „In order to change their approach, teachers should go and see how their pupils live. It would be a good idea to make such visits compulsory again, it would be a good practice”.
In Ferentari, George Goliță met pupils that, after a few years of school, barely recognize letters. Reading was out of the question. He came across situations where teachers split their pupils into good ones and problematic ones, the latter being taken over by a newcomer. There were pupils with eight F marks in a single subject or failing at technological education.
„It’s like getting an F in sports because you can’t do the splits” Goliţă says with irony (photo left). The conclusion? „In such situations, it is difficult not to think that the teacher is picking on you.”
The only thing that the activist can do is to show parents that their child should not be offended, regarded as a delinquent or an illiterate. A normal step would be for the parent to make a written complaint to the principal. But this never happens. People are afraid of an even greater marginalization of their offspring. Therefore, they often choose to remain silent. Moreover, many parents from the Ferentari ghettos can barely write. So they opt for dropout, when the situation becomes intolerable.
Maria considered dropout as well, when her daughter, Cleopatra, started to be discriminated against, humiliated and harassed at school by colleagues and teachers. She had to sit in the hallway during class, ready to intervene when her child was hurt. Cleopatra was a prize-winning pupil until the time she entered a group of girls less concerned with school. Since then, her marks started to go bad and teachers changed their attitude completely.
Nobody at school informed the mother about it. She learned everything from her daughter, sick to hear the form teacher calling her “dirty” and „whore”. When Maria asked for explanations and said she would complain to the principal, the teacher threatened that Cleopatra would fail the school year; in any school she might choose to attend.
At that point, Maria decided to withdraw her daughter from school for a year, maybe two, until the dust would settle. She managed eventually to move her to another school. Later on, Maria and Cleopatra met on the street with one of the former teachers. „It does not matter that she moved. There is no way this kid is going to make it” said the teacher to Maria, in front of Cleopatra. The mother bit the bullet and assured her that Cleopatra will complete her school education.
„If we are offended or rejected, we no longer go there. That’s how we are. Our parents taught us not to say that we are gypsies. They knew something. So far, I have not followed their advice. I thought that, shameful as the situation may be, I accept it in order to protect my children,” says Maria, who asked that we do not disclose her and her daughter’s name.
Normally such a situation should be managed by a school mediator, a position created specifically for schools located in Roma communities. But the mediator is part of auxiliary staff, such as a librarian or a stoker, and the school can choose among them. There are 430 active mediators in Romania, out of 1800 trained ones. In Bucharest there are only two – one at School 136 and one at Nursery School 54, both in Ferentari.
There is a system organization problem that creates major hurdles: how could a mediator take action against a teacher who discriminates, if his salary is paid by the school?
Step by step towards systemic failure
Elena Radu has been a mediator at School 136 since 2005 and in 2010 she became a fully certified teacher. In the period 2009-2010, she witnessed a sample of racism right from the former school principal, who said that the school was no place for gypsies because „they need to learn Romanian just enough to be integrated”. As for those teachers who complained about the smell in classroom, Elena Radu found a solution: to visit the neighborhood in order to see the living conditions of those children that they expected to come with clean and ironed clothes, when they live as families of four in spaces of 12 square meters, sometimes without water and power.
At the inspectorate, she witnessed a discussion that has reinforced her belief that prejudice went up to the high level. A French teacher had to choose between three schools located in District 5. She chose School 136 because it was a full-time job. Those on the committee reacted immediately: „Ah, not there, it’s Ferentari! Do you know what it’s like out there? ”
Elena Radu claims that she filed complaints to the school management against racist teachers. The concrete results? Retirement, transfer or even promotion.
Such cases did not reach, however, the School Inspectorate of District 5, claims inspector Marilena Stroescu.
„Parents try to come up with various reasons for their children not going to school in order to keep their social benefits. They try to justify not sending them to school because they are discriminated against. This is not the truth, as they have full support from teachers. ”
Just as principal Sergiu Mihail, Marilena Stroescu believes that the main problem is related to parents, who are uneducated and difficult to persuade to enroll their children in school.
Figures speak out about what the education authorities, principals and teachers will not say. Beyond the „uneducated parents who lack interest” there is a system that is not working. Four schools in District 5 are classified as Level 1 in terms of socio-educational risk, according to the hierarchy drafted by the Ministry of European Funds. Actually, this means that they are as close as it gets to systematic abandonment. Three of the four schools are located in Ferentari – 136, 147 and 148.
Marilena Stroescu’s explanation is simple. Those are the schools where most children come from disadvantaged backgrounds – parents without income or homeless. They have already identified 26 kids with huge problems that they are trying to enroll in the District 5 Children Club. „We are trying to direct them towards other activities. The 26 kids live among children of the same condition, so we try to get them out of that place, in order to see something else,” said the inspector. What happens to the other children, those who live in the same way as the 26 already identified? Each step at a time, answers Marilena Stroescu.
The three schools were classified as Level 1 in terms of risk not just for reasons related to the area, but also to socio-economic development. According to the criteria used by the study, it is important to look at: the risk of school dropout, defined as the percentage of repeaters or pupils with unfinished situation, the level of teachers training and readiness of pupils.
Let’s take, for example, School 148. The school has 21% pupils with outstanding education situation / repeaters / expelled, 8% beginners or untrained teachers, 51% of eighth grade pupils who have not taken the national evaluation and an average result of 5.2 for those who took the evaluation. As far as School 136 is concerned, there are 14% pupils with unfinished situation / repeaters / expelled, 25% beginners or untrained teachers, 62% of eighth grade students who have not taken the national evaluation and an average result of 3.8 for those who took the evaluation.
Former Education Minister, Mircea Miclea, shows why the generic poverty of Romanian schools is all the more obvious in disadvantaged areas. „Schools would do anything to keep their full-time status, so they need a certain number of pupils and thus promote them from year to year, without worrying that some are not ready, that they can’t write and read. I know about situations where schools in some villages still keep in their enrollment documents pupils who have been out of the country for 2-3 years.”
„Basically,” says Miclea, „the reason is money and so we find ourselves with extremely low marks in exams, while no one holds those teachers accountable. There should be a comparison of national examination results for each school, year by year, and where there is no progress, teachers should be held accountable. ”
There should be… We are stuck with the modal verb.
The third way: dropout
Laura Greta Marin works at the organization Human Catalyst, primarily responsible for the schools ranking. She is convinced that all cases of repetition / situations not completed, masking school dropout, are related to children being discriminated against, insulted or abused in the education environment, children who were never given recognition for being good at something and came to the conclusion that it makes no sense to go to school.
Laura Marin does not speak only from the perspective of someone who has done research and programmes with Roma pupils, but also as an ethnic pupil who went through the Romanian educational system. In her case, discrimination gradually decreased after the fourth grade, after four years of getting the best results in class, while she used the same school supplies as the other children and always came to school with clean clothes.
In 2014, she he did a research on 16 Romanian schools with Roma pupils, to see how the principals were managing educational risk factors.
She concluded that there is no management of such factors because principals actually had no idea what educational risk really meant. According to theory and law, explains Laura, the state and community should intervene and compensate in those situations where educational risk factors are encountered. A first step would be to allocate money for schools subject to those risks, from the state budget.
Another solution that Laura Marin has been proposing for several years is the School after school programme. Funding this programme is provided by law since 2011, but it is not applied. The programme functions in those situations where parents sustain it from their own pockets or where NGOs have intervened. But these are exceptions, and exceptions can not replace a systemic effort.
„In Romania there are no <good schools>. The concept of <good school> hides in fact the cases where some parents pay for tutoring, private after school, gifts for teachers. You can see the real picture of our education system where there are no parents to support the school financially. That’s actually the real picture. The other is false, embellished and maintained by parents,” says Laura Greta Marin.
In Ferentari, there are no such parents, but one can find there all the other ingredients that favor school dropout and hardly any solutions to prevent it.
Mircea Miclea delivers the final conclusion, as one who managed, at ministry level, the local education system. „Basically, in Romania there are no school intervention programmes designed to reduce violence and discrimination. Such programs would aim to solve the issue at multiple levels, targeting relationships between children, relationships with teachers and with the school, i.e. at the level of school policy. Simply put, there is no such strategy in schools.”
„So when problems arise,” concludes Miclea, „parents already know that there are no intervention mechanisms and that they do not really have solutions, even if they wanted to do something. They should either let the child continue at that school, with the risks they already know, or transfer him/her to another school.”
Because even finding a school in Ferentari is a challenge, let alone a second option for a transfer, a third way emerged as a definitive and widespread option: dropout.
A light of hope on Livezilor Street
Alina woke up at six in the morning. She had been waiting for this day since May, since she passed the evaluation for preschool. Tudoriţa wants her to put on a dress, but realizes she has no tights. So she pulls on a pair of jeans, a white shirt, white socks and white lacquered sandals.
The mother arranges Alina’s hair in two pigtails with white elastics, gives her the school backpack, takes her by the hand and they go to school. They leave behind Aleea Livezilor, together with Bubulina, Alina’s friend who lives in the same building and who will be her future classmate.
There is no mayor, no authority, and no public figure in the yard of School 136. As well, there is no priest. Upstairs, using the microphone, the principal calls each grade at a time. Children and parents find out the name of teachers and form teachers, then they enter the school one by one, passing under a bridge of flowers held by older pupils.
Alina takes a seat in the first row, while Tudoriţa takes a look at all the other children. She wants to know where she is leaving her little one. They receive from the teacher a list of supplies, the subjects that they will take, the schedule of the school year and the teacher’s phone number. Upon leaving the school, Tudoriţa gazes at Alina seriously.
„You talk using <please > and do not push others. When you want something, you go and say it to the teacher. When you put the notebook on the desk, do not crease its corners. Do you understand?”
Then she takes her hand and they go towards Aleea Livezilor. Alina is happy. Tudoriţa is worried that she might get pushed by other kids, perhaps even get beaten. She is nervous because the next day she has to be at work at 5.30 in the morning and can’t take Alina to school.
Tudoriţa did not go to school. Her father went up to the seventh grade. The little one sat today in the first row because her mother really wanted her to go to school. She was there also because a community facilitator helped the family, guiding Tudoriţa and following the enrollment process, while two donors offered support for school clothes and supplies for the girl.
So the little one goes to school.