Teresa Ogrodzinska has transformed the Polish education system by introducing alternative forms of preschool education. Teresa has done this by creating flexible and inexpensive community-based programs for children’s growth, that respond to the economic situations of rural and provincial areas in Poland. Teresa is also unlocking the potential of rural women by empowering them to play an active role in the creation of educational spaces within communities.
The New Idea
For the last fifteen years, Teresa has been committed to creating and nurturing educational environments for young children aged 0 to 5 in the most deprived rural areas of Poland. She has focused efforts on transforming the early education sector so that every child has equal access to educational facilities and the chance to participate in diverse learning opportunities. Therefore, Teresa has strived to create an environment that is caring, respectful, empathetic, yet challenging, and following children’s needs. Such an environment will eventually support the growth of aware and engaged youth who will be empowered and responsible for the development of their country and community as adults.
To achieve her vision, increase the ratio of enrollment into, and broaden the availability of diverse and quality-based preschool educational services, Teresa has converted hundreds of physical spaces for preschool education in the most rural areas of Poland. Her ideas on alternative forms of preschool education have resulted in the creation of over 200 playgroups in rural areas, engaging more than 4,000 children and parents, and over 100 rural libraries, where over 11,000 children and parents are active users. Teresa has also coupled this bottom-up approach with the top-down strategy of influencing policymakers and institutions of the education system. The practices that Teresa put in place have been introduced into legislation and recommendations at the national level and have enabled existence of diverse preschool facilities in Poland. Those practices have been included into the policymaking of the European Union (EU) and set a direction for funding structures for one of the largest EU financing instruments, the European Social Fund (ESF). The multiplier effect resulted in the creation of 300 new kindergartens associated with Teresa’s program and 900 more set up by other organizations, according to their standards and methodologies.
Teresa promotes the notion that investment in social capital and early child education will shape the community in the future. Therefore, using participatory methodology, Teresa has engaged rural municipalities and local communities in designing the education strategies for young children at the local level. Through this, Teresa has started a new movement which draws out the social and economic potential of women living in provincial areas and empowers them to be more self-reliant and play a more active role in their communities through preschool education. Teresa’s goal is to provide women with tools to start income generating-initiatives, encompassing a variety of activities for different age groups and audiences.
Poland has one of the lowest preschool education rates in the EU. The Polish preschool education system is underperforming and has shown slow improvement since 1990. It is estimated that only 50 percent of rural children are enrolled in kindergarten (from 3 to 5 years) and only 3 percent in nurseries (1 to 2 years), while in other EU-member countries, around 90 percent of children have access to kindergartens and 30 percent to nurseries. The educational gap that divides Poland from other European countries is as huge as the gap that divides Poland’s urban children from their underprivileged rural peers.
The low quality of preschool activities is another. Many educators and pedagogues come from the “old-time schooling” system that is rooted in a communistic approach which does not place the child and their potential at the center. Parents’ think of preschool as a place for their children while they work, and so preschool teachers may feel limited in their agency and ability to make a difference in children’s lives. Teachers’ Unions in Poland still discourage new educational programs, activities, or development of the alternative forms to the state complex facilities of early child education and care.
Since state subsidies were cut in 1990, the task of providing early education and care has been transferred to local authorities, also responsible for organizing and funding. Rural districts have been particularly affected by this arrangement, as they rely on their own resources. As a result, municipalities haven’t placed enough emphasis on early child education in rural areas. In Poland, there are 2,156 rural and rural-urban municipalities. In over 860 municipalities, there are no kindergartens or nurseries.
It is estimated that about one million people are unemployed in rural areas, and women make up 50 percent of this number. Thus, children in those families are not attending preschool, since according to Polish legislation, only children of working parents must attend preschool. This perpetuates the social and economic problems of rural families, and leads directly to inherited poverty. Moreover, this legislation strengthens the assumption that preschool activities are only needed while parents’ work, and not as a place for education and shaping a child’s future.
In 2003 Teresa started the Comenius Foundation for Child Development to introduce long-term systemic changes that facilitate and support the development of children. She is particularly concerned with the wellbeing of children from birth to 10 years old, and from economically and culturally disadvantages backgrounds. Teresa’s goal was to ensure optimal conditions for the personal development of children, to build their self-esteem, to develop self-reliance and creativity, and to inspire their natural curiosity. To achieve this, Teresa transformed the Polish preschool education system by introducing alternative forms of preschool education that respond to children needs, as well as their economic conditions in rural areas. She works with local communities and municipalities in the most deprived rural areas, and influences education policymakers and institutions.
Increasing awareness of the need for preschool education eventually led to the education systems transformation and the creation of social capital. Teresa’s begins with a new curricula or preschool programing in a rural area, adjusted for the local context. The guidelines are always consulted with other citizen organizations (COs), teachers and educators, local community members and local authorities. Once vetted, Teresa’s organization runs the pilot program, develops prototypes, conducts evaluation, redefines the parameters, and implements the concept. Once the final program/product is developed and approved, Teresa and her team develop the package for expansion and education—educational materials, training modules, and workshops run by professional trainers. The package is promoted among educators, teachers, and authorities through the Comenius Institute, the for-profit arm of the foundation, used as vehicle to expand proven solutions. Once this methodology becomes a norm, Teresa pressures national authorities to advocate for changes in existing state policies or to design new ones.
This approach was developed early on to address the absence of preschool facilities in rural areas. In 2001, the program “Where There Is No Kindergarten” was a 3-year pilot promoting flexible forms of preschool education where there had been no facilities. Through iterations, testing and awareness activities across Poland, resulting in over 35 regional and national conferences, publicity and engagement of major politicians, the program concluded in 2004 with 37 new preschool facilities, and 400 children enrolled in 11 rural municipalities.
Teresa’s practices of alternative forms of education, different from complex state run facilities, have been introduced into legislation with recommendations at the national (2007) as well as policymaking of the EU. Here it was set as direction for funding structures for one of the largest EU financing instruments, the ESF. This resulted in the creation of 300 new kindergartens associated with Teresa’s program and 900 more set up by other organizations, according to her standards and methodologies. In addition, the enrollment rate in all preschools increased from 14 percent in 2000 to nearly 54 percent in 2012. The success of the program, accompanied with publicity in major opinion-leader magazines, and echoed by politicians from all parties, put the accessibility and quality of education at the center of public debate, and Comenius Foundation became the field’s reference point. In the past several years, every political party in Poland included this on their agenda.
Through the Comenius Institute, Teresa has designed over 30 types of educational programs for kindergarten teachers using the same prototype approach. One of the most exciting is the science project methodology, in which children organize and participate in a number of scientific experiments, complete with the participation of their relatives. The Comenius Institute also promotes the quality standards involved with teaching a healthy lifestyle in kindergartens with parents’ engagement in activities. On an annual basis, more 1,000 teachers participate in different forms of educational activities. Teresa’s creative work around alternative education is proving that lack of resources actually encourages creativity. She addresses professional education in universities through partnerships with the Educational Research Institute on the functioning and effectiveness of the education system, and invites international experts in preschool education to guest lecturer.
Teresa has also introduced shared responsibility among parents, teachers, and local governments at the community level. To gain support and interest to pilot solutions across the country, Teresa identified key stakeholders at the community level and addressed them with programs such as “Municipal strategies for equalizing chances for small children,” where she introduces participatory development of preschool education. She conducts focus groups with local authorities, parents, teachers, and COs and helps them to achieve effective results and build long-term education strategies. Those strategies address actual needs and are built on community resources, ensuring continuity and long-term financing beyond political disparities. More than 60 rural municipalities joined that process. The continuous education of stakeholders leads to further innovations in terms of formats and facilities to respond the geography, financial resources, but also availability of teachers, educators, or parents. Teresa and her team are creating curricula based on age group, with programing such as play groups for children from 6 months to 4 years (engaging over 4,000 children and parents thus far) and Libraries for the Little Ones for children 1 to 10 years (old book and game rentals, with simple “guide books” for parents on how to play and use toys and books to stimulate children’s development. More than 100 libraries have been created; engaging over 11,000 children and parents.
Teresa’s next step is to introduce the social entrepreneurship and social enterprise ideas into the rural communities as a vehicle for engaging women, especially mothers, in the educational effort as a way to generate income. Teresa plans to apply her “consult, prototype, verify and spread” approach to empower women to create social cooperatives around diverse preschool activities. She sees the power in the integration of different functionalities of a physical space in rural areas, which can serve as preschool in the morning, after school for doing homework mid-day, afternoon for teens, and evenings for active 60+ citizens, who have a lot to offer and share with the community. Teresa is now in the process of setting up a pilot program that she would like to develop as a template and spread this idea across the country addressing the two most pressing needs in rural areas—children’s education and women’s employment and empowerment. Five years from now, she envisions the model for rural women’s income-generating activities will be tested and verified, and will spread across the country. Teresa also plans to influence policymaking and increase educational state subsidy to ensure more physical spaces for diverse forms of preschool activities.
Teresa’s open approach allows her to promote her model of alternative forms of preschool educational programing widely in Poland and abroad. The Comenius Foundation has built a network of social organizations in the early child education field to strengthen its impact and innovative ideas. Her universal model can be implemented everywhere. Teresa has already transferred her experiences to other countries in the region, and especially in former soviet countries. She has worked with organizations in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan where she has promoted alternative forms of preschool education. She has been also invited by the Center for Innovations in Education to Azerbaijan to share her expertise. The Good Start handbook on alternative forms of preschool education in rural areas has been requested in English by UNICEF to use as a recommended practice for international rural education.
Teresa grew up in Warsaw in a conservative family during difficult communist times. As a young person, she led the student union in primary and high school. Teresa was the first in her family to receive a university degree. She also engaged several student organizations, but gave up on membership when the union merged with a communist association of students in 1968. Both 1968 and 1969 witnessed strong anticommunist demonstrations and opposition movements among students groups in Poland, Teresa got involved.
In the 1980s, during military law in Poland, Teresa was as a volunteer with the underground Primate Aid Committee, which offered legal and humanitarian support to arrested anticommunist (oppositionists) political activists and their families, many of whom were her friends. As a natural path she joined the Solidarity movement and the new democracy politics. However, soon she realized that “politics” was not her cup of tea.
Known for her work and commitment to social causes, Teresa was spotted by one of the leaders of the International Youth Foundation when they launched work in Poland. She was asked to lead the establishment of the Polish Youth and Children Foundation, where she pioneered youth development programs. While running the foundation, Teresa was inspired by Dutch grantmakers to look at the education of young children in Poland. What she discovered was a breakthrough and motivated her to engage in supporting the education and development of children. Teresa knew that developing a high-quality education and care services would provide young children, especially those from poor and excluded environments, with a good foundation and the potential for further success in education and their quality of life.
Teresa has been recognized by the President of Poland for transforming the field of education and has been awarded the highest presidential distinctions for her work.