Back to Class

TBILISI | Beka looks worried as he surveys the customers sipping coffee in the late-autumn sun at one of Tbilisi’s upscale cafes. The 12-year-old and his street pals come here nearly every day to sell icons and flowers, and occasionally beg for money.

“We come up to the tables when people from the cafe aren’t watching. Then they get mad and chase us away,” he says. Asked why he is not in school, he shrugs. “I have to work. Dad passed away two years ago. My mother waits tables until midnight. She can’t earn enough to feed me and my sisters.”

A girl begs on a Tbilisi street. Photo by Onnik Krikorian.

A girl begs on a Tbilisi street. Photo by Onnik Krikorian.

An espresso here costs 5 lari ($3) – an amount that exceeds the total daily expenditure for many Georgian families. UNICEF reports that one in four Georgian children lives on less than 3 lari ($1.70) a day.

Six-year-old Nino was luckier. In September she began school on the outskirts of the capital thanks to anonymous donors who answered a plea on Facebook to help Nato, a single mother who could not afford to send Nino and her two other young children to school. Hundreds of Facebook users responded with cash donations and even built a small house for the homeless family.

Helping children like Nino and Beka stay in school has for years been an uphill struggle in Georgia, involving civic groups and various government departments. Groups who work with the poorest and most marginalized children repeatedly call for a many-tentacled approach that attacks poverty even as it focuses on education. And they say there is still no reliable count of these excluded children.

In Georgia, “Poor families with children cannot afford to buy food, school books or medicine, among other things. They may consider putting their children to work at an early age to help the family survive,” a 2012 UNICEF paper on child poverty.

From near-universal school enrollment and literacy rates in the early 1990s, Georgia experienced a sharp drop in quality of and access to education during the turbulent transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reduced state funding for schools, declining living standards, and growing inequalities pushed up the drop-out rate. By 1996, the primary school enrollment rate had tumbled to 84 percent, according to the World Bank.

Enrollment figures, based on the official school-aged population, subsequently climbed to almost 100 percent, but the lack of reliable data on child poverty and its effects on education makes such calculations open to question.

For instance, a report by UNICEF used birth data to calculate that around 20,000 children of primary-school age were not enrolled in school in 2011. That is a worryingly large figure in a country where primary school children number 260,000.

Chronic truancy can become a vicious circle, thwarting efforts to bring those children back into the classroom.

“Children who regularly miss classes lack social skills and basic knowledge. They can’t catch up with schoolwork and often drop out,” said Mariana Khundzakishvili, a child psychologist who works with disadvantaged children.

Adding to the problem is a lack of trained staff in mainstream schools to help integrate children who have not regularly shown up. An expert committee convened by the Education Ministry has so far focused on evaluating the needs of disabled children.

Filling the Gap

Since 2007 Georgia has adopted a series of plans to integrate children with special needs into mainstream schools, but it has only been recently that inclusive education has been rolled out across the country – and even now it targets only disabled and minority children. Other efforts to help poor children and those with behavioral problems, such as a free textbooks and a specialized boarding school, remained ad hoc.

“The government lacked a systematic approach to this issue and used temporary measures to handle problems,” said education expert Shalva Tabatadze, the director of the Tbilisi-based Center for Civil Integration.

Many Georgian nonprofit groups and international donors working with vulnerable children have tried to fill this gap, but Tabatadze says the kinds of small-scale, short-term projects they typically run are no substitute for a roots-to-branch approach.

One of the most experienced educational nonprofits, the Civic Development Institute, has a long history of working with poor, minority, and at-risk children. With the help of international donors, since 2008 the organization has trained dozens of teachers and published five specialized textbooks to help pupils who fall behind the mainstream school programs.

The institute is now running special classes for 200 children in an EU-supported program in Tbilisi and two provincial towns.

Nely Naskidashvili is one of the teachers retrained by the institute. She helps her two dozen pupils to catch up with math classes once a week at a Tbilisi school.

“They come from different grades of the same public school. We have children with parents in prison, children from multiple-children households, some who missed school years for not having proper documents. I work with them separately. It’s important to reassure them of their own abilities and talents,” she said.

Inclusive Education Redux

In July, the Education Ministry launched a more substantive inclusive education program that has drawn praise from some in the nonprofit sector.

The Second Chance Education program will “very soon bring every child to school who had previously been left outside the school system,” then-Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili said. Margvelashvili will be inaugurated as Georgia’s next president on 17 November. A member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, he handily defeated the candidate backed by outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili in last month’s election.

The program, financed by UNICEF, is designed to boost the enrollment of children from poor families, marginalized and minority groups, and those living and working in the streets.

“Until recently the state lacked tailored programs for children outside the formal education system,” said Natia Jokhadze, the director of the Education Ministry’s National Curriculum Department.

After studying the situation and identifying target groups, educators will propose a national model to integrate those children into mainstream schools, she said.

According to the Civic Development Institute’s Tamar Mosiashvili, lack of data is the first big challenge for the program.

Classroom with children in Georgia.

Classroom with children in Georgia.

The gaps in official records for children missing from school are staggering. The situation is especially alarming in remote rural areas with predominantly ethnic Azeri population and high mountainous settlements. Sometimes children from such families, especially those from very poor ones, don’t even have birth certificates.

“These children are not counted and not accounted for. Since there is no reliable official data, we had to reach out to local communities, work with the civil sector, go from neighborhood to neighborhood to find them and bring them into classrooms,” Mosiashvili said.

Experts say the situation remains institutionally chaotic and advise the government to take a comprehensive approach.

“The major issue is targeting and identifying such children,” said Maya Kuparadze, the head of UNICEF’s education program in Georgia. She advocates close collaboration with social workers, who are often in closest contact with poor, abused, and excluded children.

Educators in the nonprofit sector also urge the Education Ministry to study the successes and failures of the dozens of civil organizations and donors working with underprivileged children in Georgia.

“Unfortunately, the state’s assistance has been limited just to providing targeted financial assistance to poor families,” Mosiashvili said.

“The real challenge though is equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to battle poverty in the future. This can be done only through quality education and by keeping them in classrooms.”

At least some who work in the field remain skeptical of the new program’s chances for success.

“This is a good and timely initiative but does not resolve the educational issues of the most vulnerable and marginalized in Georgia,” said World Vision Georgia’s education and welfare expert Maya Mgeliashvili, who works with street children. She thinks that apart from creating a reliable database, training teachers, and bringing previously excluded children into classrooms, the biggest real challenge is to keep them in school.

“Unless the government adopts a comprehensive balanced approach that includes nutritional support, economic aid to their families, and investment in services that are crucial to lifting people out of poverty, the problem of children out of the school system will always be there.”


Natia Ejoshvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.


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