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Students face high stakes in post-communist Romania

In Romania, 8-year-old Raluca's family does not take economic security or education for granted. WNET's documentary series "Time for School" visits Bucharest to examine how opportunities have changed for young people in the post-communist era.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, we continue our coverage of the global education crisis with a look at our New York public station WNET's documentary series "Time for School."

    For 12 years, PBS has followed six children from around the world who are simply trying to get a basic education.

    Tonight, we meet Raluca from post-communist Romania, whose parents have been working long hours to give her every opportunity in the country's new free market economy.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    This is my bed where I sleep. And this is Sylvester, the cat that I sleep with.

    This is the drawer where I keep a lot of books. And this is a book that shows you everything about nature: the earth, animals, people. This book shows you everything. You should buy it. And this is from my mom and dad's wedding. They're really wonderful people for me.

  • NARRATOR:

    Raluca Ifrimescu is 8 years old and lives in Bucharest, Romania, with her parents, Cristi and Mirela.

    CRISTI IFRIMESCU, Father of Raluca (through interpreter): What counts is for the child not to lack anything. We struggle for it.

  • NARRATOR:

    Though Raluca's family seems to enjoy a comfortable life, economic security is not something they take for granted. Romania is a work in progress. When communism ended in 1989, the country began a transition to capitalism.

    Raluca's parents are trying to give her every opportunity to succeed in the new free market economy, and they know the best possible education is essential. Her family can't afford a baby-sitter, so Raluca commutes 45 minutes to school on her own every day to attend a public school considered one of the finest in Bucharest.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    She knows she's not supposed to talk to strangers.

    MIRELA IFRIMESCU, Mother of Raluca (through interpreter): When she was in kindergarten, she once told a lady, "I'm not allowed to talk to you because when Red Riding Hood talked to the wolf, he ate her."

  • NARRATOR:

    Elementary school is free in Romania, but even in first grade, Cristi and Mirela find that the little extras add up.

  • MIRELA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    By the end of the month, we have no money left. We wonder how the others who make less money than us can manage. How do they survive?

  • NARRATOR:

    Cristi works as a technician at a printing press, and Mirela is an accountant.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    It's a great thing that we both have a job. It matters a lot. We hope, since we consider ourselves still young, that things will change. And we hope for a better life.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    On manga anime, I have 2,145 posts. I also moderate some Web sites, and I'm the administrator of others, and that practically takes up all my time.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    She's ambitious. And she wants to do something with her life. We didn't think of that when we were kids, because you could only reach a certain level, and then you had to stop.

    It wasn't important if you were smart or not. It was important who you knew, if you knew someone who had an important position in the Communist Party.

  • MIRELA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    Now, you have to be very good to succeed.

  • NARRATOR:

    Raluca's middle school is a pressure cooker, with intense competition for high marks.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    Calculate the median line for a trapezoid with a base of 10.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    I felt from the first day that there was a huge difference between them and me, but I caught up, and now I'm one of the good students. I want to be one of the best and have only 10s.

  • NARRATOR:

    It's the night before a big exam, and Raluca is having a meltdown.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    Based on this mark, I could end up in a good high school or a bad one. My future depends on it.

  • NARRATOR:

    Only those who test at the very top will be admitted to the most competitive high schools.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    Please, try to relax.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    I hope the test will be easy and I hope I won't panic, because I tend to panic whether I know the answers or not. God gives me confidence.

  • NARRATOR:

    Raluca did manage to test into a good high school. And five years later, everyone's hard work has paid off.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    This is the building where I spent my four years of high school. They were the most important years of my life, because I have learned so much.

  • NARRATOR:

    She graduated from Bucharest's Economics High School with a near-perfect score and was named valedictorian.

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    My guidance counselor had told me I would graduate first in the class. My average grade was 9.9 out of 10. So she told me to expect something big. It was a beautiful moment, because I hadn't really expected it. Was that really me? I was so emotional. I'm surprised I didn't trip over something.

    Memories. I love these guys. I will always remember each person and what they were like. I will miss them, yes.

  • NARRATOR:

    Raluca will be leaving Romania — an international business degree at the University of Warwick in the U.K., something her parents could never have done. Living under communism, they weren't allowed to leave the country.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    I hope she will become somebody important as quickly as possible. I also hope her dreams will come true. We live vicariously through her dreams.

  • NARRATOR:

    Raluca's chances for success may be better abroad. Despite progress, Romania is still one of the poorest countries in the E.U., and one in four 20-somethings are out of a job. So, Cristi and Mirela are preparing to let go of their only child.

  • CRISTI IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    Can we buy an apartment on campus while you're in college?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):

    No, I don't think so.

    I will probably be happy on the first month, because I will be like, oh, I am free now. I can do anything I want. And my mother will not come at 11:00 or 12:00 and say, turn off the computer. You are making so much noise.

    (LAUGHTER)

    But after — and after the first month, I will miss them and probably I will cry a lot. But I know that I'm going to have fun and those years will be one of the amazing things that will happen to me ever.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What a story.

    You can watch the entire "Time for School" series on WNET's Web site. That's Thirteen.org.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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