Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The correlation between a child’s economic status and their school performance is the strongest in Hungary from all OECD countries, illustrating the inability of the education system to compensate for children’s family background. Public education is tailored to middle class kids with outdated curriculums mostly focusing on tests and statistics. It neither acknowledges the different needs of children coming from rural areas, nor provides the skills/tools for teachers to be able to answer those needs. The 23% of Hungarian children living in poverty face systemic challenges, repeatedly experiencing failure, low self-esteem and discrimination. Teachers of students from impoverished communities feel helpless and disempowered to address those challenges early on, often stigmatizing the “problematic child” and hardly reaching out to parents to find complex solutions together. Primary education too often fails to nurture the skills and competencies, such as collaboration and creativity, required by the labor market. As a result the high percentages of youngsters who drop out early from school don’t possess the necessary skills required by employers, and usually fall into chronic unemployment caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.
Every fifth Hungarian child lives in a family where neither parent works. These parents are often fully dependent on social welfare, are frequently in debt to money-lenders who charge usurious rates, and lack the skills and motivation to break out from their condition. The lack of economic growth in the country means there are fewer opportunities for rural populations, especially for the unskilled and illiterate, which results in unemployment rates as high as 98% in many villages. A further challenge to improving chronic poverty in those rural areas is the high concentration of Roma populations, who have historically been discriminated against and excluded from the Hungarian and many European societies. Whether for the Roma or non-Roma alike, the conditions of chronic poverty in rural villages and towns are manifested in numerous social pathologies, high rates of alcoholism, prostitution, criminality and generally poor health. Citizens in these communities feel demoralized, lacking empathy and self-confidence, and are often suspicious of others with little trust in neighbors or social institutions. These poor communities constantly experience discrimination against their social, economic and racial backgrounds reinforced by the distorted image of the media and public perceptions that lack appropriate information on their actual conditions.
The support system that could address the challenges of structural poverty is barely functional. Institutions that should cooperate and strengthen each other are working in silos. Services are either fragmented or duplicate themselves instead of effectively dealing with the reality of social needs. There is lack of communication and understanding between service users and providers. Service providers regularly discriminate against the marginalized people they are established to serve, sometimes even refusing to help and unwilling to change their stereotypes of the chronically poor as dependent and passive. They wish to offer one unified solution for everyone rather than digging out the root cause of problems. Too often community members, who need the services of these institutions, are unfamiliar with how public institutions work and have false expectations. They are often impatient with administrative bureaucracy and arrive unprepared for appointments. This tension between parties is a frequent source of conflict. Many agencies and government entities may wish to help, but because they are not truly familiar with the realities and needs of people in poverty, their work ends up accentuating the dependency culture within local populations, who then cease to become active agents in their lives.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
In a country where nearly 1 in 5 children grow up in a family where neither parent works, and 20% of children are functionally illiterate, Nóra Ritók realized early in her career that drastic reforms were needed to create opportunities for impoverished families, most of whom reside in rural areas of Hungary and Central Europe. Confronting poorly resourced state institutions, from schools to social welfare agencies, that were unable to respond effectively to the chronic poverty in their midst, Nóra set out to create concrete models outside of the government structures. These engage and inspire families and communities to become active agents of change in their lives, and build awareness and support for transforming the state and nongovernmental programs, institutes that were designed to serve these populations.
In order to overcome the generational cycle of isolation, suspicion and lack of opportunity facing communities in rural Hungary and beyond, Nóra began working with young people, setting up an afterschool Academy (now in 7 locations) that captured their imagination and interest through collaborative learning programs creatively mixing arts with other school subjects. The success of the Academy created a channel to work with families in the community, with Real Pearl’s staff of local change agents entering into a dialogue and ultimately becoming engaged in mutual self-help programs conducted in new community centers sponsored by Real Pearl across towns and villages in the region. These programs are collectively managed with strict peer accountability systems, requiring commitment and participation to gain access to the services that meet the social, economic and health needs of families in the communities.
Nóra and her team is actively documenting and analyzing their work with the 16 settlements. So far significant progress has been made in kids’ school performance and competency development based on their individual development plans tracked by the teachers of the Academy. Since 2009 adult literacy increased by 50%, average family income levels rose by 25%, while around 80% of the inactive population got active by at least getting involved in temporary job opportunities. The morale of communities tangibly improved as there is regular collaboration and social interaction between its members, aggression levels dropped, while child prostitution and teenage pregnancy are completely eliminated. The strength of cooperation between state institutions and helping organizations grew from lack of direct communication to attending weekly problem solving meetings, thus successfully solving 40-50 family/community problems case by case.
The success of the approach and the many innovative techniques in both the Academy and the community self-help programs has opened the doors to work with schools, universities, local governments and social welfare agencies across Hungary and increasingly internationally, who have come to Nóra for assistance. Nóra and her staff work with educators, case workers, administrators and others to build understanding of both the realities of the lives of the populations whom they seek to serve and concrete methods to incorporate into their daily work. The Oulunkylän Primary School from Helsinki, one of the oldest partner schools of Real Pearl not only adopted its education curriculum but is now implementing the community building program to overcome discrimination and bring local people closer to the growing number of migrant populations. The Association of Hungarian Pedagogues of Slovakia connecting over 50 preschools and 200 elementary schools accredited a complex teacher training program hosted by Real Pearl to equip teachers with tools to motivate children coming from poor backgrounds for studying and collaboration. In 2014 Nóra was a guest speaker at the German Child & Youth Welfare Congress, the biggest event as such to transfer the knowledge about her self-help program and start the planning process of its use with different ethnic groups of Germany.
These attempts are supported by broader public awareness efforts spearheaded by Nóra, including her blog on poverty issues, which is the most read platform on the topic in the country, regular speaking engagements, and work with universities, especially teacher training programs. Currently more than 100 Hungarian public schools use Nóra’s education method and 50% of the 200 teachers taking part in their trainings get their attitude changed permanently year by year.