In Southern Italy, even more children stopped school due to the lockdown.

Really nice, 15-year-old Antonio from Naples never found school. โ€œFrom the classroom window, I saw friends chilling. And I just sat there, day after day.โ€ Because his mother insisted that he would get a degree anyway, he kept it up.

Until his school closed during the lockdown last year. โ€œEverything had to be over the phone, it gave me stress,โ€ he says. In the end, he stopped doing it completely. โ€œBecause of distance learning, I didn‘t make it to my year,โ€ he says himself.

Antonio isn’t the only one. Even before the pandemic, more than 20 percent of children under the age of 16 dropped out of school in Naples. That number is considerably higher than the average in Italy (13 percent) and in the EU (around 10%). Official figures for last school year are not there, but experts are seeing the problem getting even bigger.

Criminal organizations

โ€œSchool is not seen as an opportunity here, but as an obligation,โ€ says Colomba Punzo, director of a high school in Naples. โ€œParents send their children here to prevent a social assistant from coming by or receiving a sanction.โ€

Punzo‘s school is located in Ponticelli, a vast suburb of Naples that is little more than a collection of outdated tower blocks. โ€œMany parents here are unemployed or have no stable jobs,โ€ she outlines. โ€œWe also see many single-parent families: young mothers living with young grandmothers and young great-grandmothers.โ€

Most children who quit school are looking for jobs to help their parents. But some kids just stay at home, or hang out on the street. And in this neighborhood there is the danger, says Punzo. Ponticelli is notorious for having several mafia clans active. The neighborhood regularly comes in the news after a shooting, an explosion or a police raid.

โ€œBecause there is so little work here, young people are at risk of being incorporated by criminal organizations. If they don’t have a degree, or are not educated, that risk is even greater.โ€

Positive role models

Non-profit organization Maestri di Stradan therefore tries to keep vulnerable young people off the street with all kinds of workshops. โ€œThe most important thing is that they feel that they have supporters here,โ€ says Nicola Laieta, who supervises a theater workshop.

โ€œThe children who come here often have problems with their parents. Because they have no money, are absent, or are themselves caught up in crime. Their parents are not the bosses of the clans, but the soldiers. A lot of fathers are in jail because of a stupidity.โ€

In order to prevent their children from walking that same path, according to Laieta, it is especially important that they have good role models. โ€œMany young people who come here want to become a psychologist or counselor later, because they come into contact with that. For young people without positive role models, crime is the only thing that stands out.โ€

15-year-old Antonio also follows Laieta‘s theater workshop. In the play they rehearse, he got a starring role. โ€œIt makes me emotional when I think about it,โ€ he says. โ€œI never thought I could do that before.โ€

Antonio felt so well with Maestri di Strada that his supervisor could convince him to return to school last September. But that’s not true for all his friends: โ€œMost who quit work. Or they don‘t do anything all day.โ€

As part of the recovery plan for the Italian economy, the government is investing 5 billion in schools in the coming years. Part of that money is meant to prevent school dropouts especially in southern Italy.

But even with a large budget, there is no ready-made solution, says school director Punzo. โ€œTo prevent school dropouts, you have to look not only at the school, but to the whole neighborhood,โ€ she argues. โ€œMake sure that people can live with dignity and don’t depend on gangs that benefit from things going bad here.โ€

The government, therefore, would do well to invest in employment as well. โ€œIn the schools in this kind of neighborhood, you can see many beautiful projects. Nicer than in many other schools in Italy. The problem is what comes after school.โ€