Students participate in activity time at the Roma Education Center in Skopje. Photo Credit: Foundation for Open Society Institute Macedonia and USAID Macedonia

Submitted by  Lela Jakovlevski and Alexander Woods, USAID/Macedonia

Roma Education Project

The five Roma Education Centers in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Prilep are always buzzing with activity. Each day, four groups of children arrive for two hours at a time for after-school lessons, educational games, and important socializing. The younger children focus on literacy, numeracy, and Macedonian practice while the older groups get homework assistance, English lessons, and preparing for graduation exams.  All eagerly express their happiness for the help, fun environment, and how they feel much more confident when they go to school.

The overall condition and situation of the Roma community in Macedonia is considered better compared to other European countries, as there is a Minister for Roma issues in government and Roma MPs in Parliament, a Roma mayor, and Roma print and broadcast media in country. However, many of the chilling statistics remain: extremely high unemployment, low level of education participation and attainment, pervasive poverty and considerable community health risks. In education, achievement rates are low due to a number of factors such as household financial constraints, lack of community role models, and systemic exclusion from mainstream opportunities. The biggest problem these children face is discrimination and stigma simply based on where they are from.

Since 2004, USAID Macedonia decided to partner with the Foundation for Open Society Macedonia, including the Roma Education Fund, to support five Roma Education Centers. The main goal is to bridge pervasive learning gaps and a generational barrier within the Roma families but also in the school community. Teacher/ mentors are chosen from the local schools to assist children with many academic topics plus socializing, maintaining personal health, and understanding the roles of different people in the community. In learning more than just vocabulary, the children gain confidence in themselves while behaving and performing better in school. The mentors visit students’ homes, discuss the value and opportunity of education with parents, and inform parents of social services and other opportunities for help. Perhaps the most interesting impact is how many of the teachers themselves report this experience. Prior to working with the Centers, they avoided Roma children thinking they were not fit for society and incapable of learning. After a short period, these same teachers are proving to school colleagues that any child only requires an opportunity to succeed, and they are developing a deep personal commitment to helping them. The children are happier, the school environment is better, and community members begin to break down barriers.

Building on this model, a scholarship and academic support program for Roma high school and university students achieved over 96% graduation rates among participants, and a tripling of those participants to over 600. Due to this enormous success, the scholarship program is now funded by the Government of Macedonia (GOM). USAID Macedonia plans to continue this effort with a stronger focus on early childhood learning, currently not being addressed by the GOM, and with an emphasis on both pubic and private-sector partnerships to build sustainability. More importantly, we hope to continue to reduce the stigma that prevents these children from realizing their true potential.

Disabilities Project: "Vera and Kosta Demonstrate How the System Works" Photo Credit: USAID Macedonia

Equal Access for Equal Opportunities

Vera’s mother, Nadija, was getting concerned because her daughter began to fall behind in her third grade studies. Vera was finding it harder and harder to write out her home work due to a mild physical limitation that was getting worse. Nadija heard about a local NGO called Open the Windows, which provides after school assistance to kids like Vera. At the NGO, Vera met a Special Education teacher who identified what was causing the trouble. With a simple study plan, Vera joined one of their small classes and began to do her homework on the computer. The organization uses simple technology such as a one-click mouse, keyboards with over-sized keys, and specialized computer programs to help with the learning process. Vera then printed out her work, inserted this into her book, and submitted her assignments just like everyone else. The response was immediate: Vera’s morale and self-esteem dramatically improved, her performance returned, and her teachers were happy she found a way to participate. Vera was lucky, Open the Windows had room at the time she went to their center (now there is a waiting list) and her parents could afford the computer equipment for home.

The treatment of students with learning or physical limitations in Macedonia is similar to other post-centrally planned economies of Eastern and Central Europe and Newly Independent States. There is little to no effective triage and evaluation of student conditions and often, once diagnosed with a problem, many are assigned to “Special Needs” schools. Due to no fault of their own, and often without reason, these students face unjust stigma in the community, personal strain, and arrested development due to lack of institutional support and discrimination. In addition, there is little information about the number and scope of students that need assistance, where they are located, and the skills and abilities of the teachers that instruct them. It was because of Vera’s experience and how an NGO is helping children that the system cannot, that USAID decided to support this exceptional effort.

The USAID Macedonia/ Open the Windows partnership represents the first-ever attempt in Macedonia to implement a system-wide needs assessment, comprehensive teacher training in target schools, and donation of innovative and uncomplicated computer hardware and software that allows students of any physical ability to participate in normal classroom activities. The computer programs and associated teacher training focus on literacy and numeracy skills plus creativity and innovation. The final product will be a multi-sector seminar and roundtable to disseminate project results and a policy paper to all stakeholders. The NGO has demonstrated that the demand exceeds resources so this project will donate equipment and training to at least 20 schools and teachers to help integrate all students into the classroom. In addition, Open the Windows is working with the national IT Association to purchase all new equipment in Macedonia in the hope of creating local demand. The more people know of simple and inexpensive ways to help children the more likely they will become stronger, more confident and successful students.