In Berlin, a school that helps immigrant children find their place in the city

Principal Cordula Heckmann of Berlin's Campus Rütli welcomes students on the first day of school last year. The school is the focus of a program that creates a community support network for teachers and students, most of whom are children of immigrant families. (Maja Hitij/dpa/AP Images)

BERLIN, Germany — In an immigrant neighborhood here called Neukölln, the Roma Youth Theater Group, rushed the stage of their school. Under a spotlight, six Roma 11- to 13-year olds acted out a modern-day adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” It was set in their Berlin.

Romeo held up his iPhone asking Juliet for her number. Skewering Roma stereotypes, they dished funny lines about street music and panhandling. Dressed in skinny pants, jean jackets and sparkly ties, the group got a roaring applause from an audience of teachers, academics, principals, mentors and fellow students for their performance — all in German.

The play was one small part of an educational program that aims to include the children of  immigrant families in the daily life of their city.

It’s known as One Square Kilometer of Education. The idea is to put an enormous focus on bolstering one neighborhood school — in Neukölln, it’s a school called Campus Rütli. All the youth centers, kindergartens, homework-help groups and volunteer networks in the vicinity are marshaled around the goal of creating a support network for that school. The goal is to give at-risk students a better shot at success. It’s also to encourage wealthier people who are gentrifying the area to send their kids to the school as well.

The Neukölln project is in its tenth year, and is one of nine such experiments in cities across Germany. (There’s a second in Berlin in a neighborhood called Moabit.) Klaus Hurrelmann, professor of public health and education at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, says the project has been “a miracle” for Campus Rütli.

“Rütli was desolate ten years ago, nobody gave it a penny,” says Hurrelmann. “Children from low socio-economic backgrounds, a migration background or who do not have German as a first language — they all now have the opportunity to finish school. Ten years ago, 25 percent of them did not get a school certificate. Now it’s down to two or three percent.”

A plea for help

In 2006, teachers at a Neukölln high school wrote a letter to the Berlin Senator asking to close their school. They said classroom conditions had deteriorated to the point that it was impossible for them to teach and for students to learn: Some students were throwing tables and bringing knives to school. The teachers’ plea, which came to be known as the “Rütli Letter,” was published in newspapers across Germany. It sparked a debate about the national school system, classroom violence and immigrant integration — about 80 percent of the school’s students were from immigrant families.

At the time, German schools used a three-tier system for “tracking” students that critics called discriminatory. After elementary school, students had three options, depending on their grades. Low-performing students entered hauptschule, mid-performing students went to realschule and the best students went to gymnasium. Most of the kids from immigrant families tracked into the lower tiers, which made it harder for them later to enter university. Hurrelmann says this created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which “social origin decides educational outcome.”

That system has since been eliminated in Berlin schools and across almost all of Germany. Neukölln is where the old rules were broken first.

Local leaders converted a middle school, initially for grades eight to ten, into Campus Rütli. It would be a true “community school” combining primary, middle and high school all in one. There are roughly 500 students from grades one through 13, and the school works closely with kindergartens in the area. While “comprehensive schools” for kids of all skill levels are now more common in Germany, the all-grades model of Campus Rütli remains unusual.

The re-structured Campus Rütli then became the focal point for the One Square Kilometer program’s support. The program started in 2006, aiming to “invest in a local alliance for education” and to “identify and close gaps in the support provided to children by the educational institutions of the district.” The program is backed by the Freudenberg Foundation and a number of other philanthropic and corporate supporters.

Adopting a school

The One Square Kilometer program for Campus Rütli is based out of an office in an apartment building down the street from the school. There’s a four-person staff headed by Project Manager Cornelia Aigner. There are also spaces for kindergarten classes, as well as offices for teachers to host meetings with parents.

A key focus of the program is backing up the school’s 60 teachers. The project hires a part-time teacher who spends a lot of time helping teachers in the classroom. Every year, Aigner’s team attends a weekend retreat with teachers. When teachers wanted portfolio books for students to keep their homework organized, Aigner hired an editor and designer to make them. “If teachers have wishes and dreams, we help to fulfill them,” says Aigner. “We have the budget.”

Another key focus is supporting the students outside of school. One vehicle for this is a student scholarship. Fifteen scholarships a year go to students who have a special talent — good grades are not necessary — and they are worth US$ 60 a month to put toward developing the talent. The students get an additional $35 if they attend classes regularly and link up with one of the volunteer mentors organized by the center.

Cornelia Aigner, project manager of the One Square Kilometer of Education program for Campus Rütli: “If teachers have wishes and dreams, we help to fulfill them.” (Nadja Sayej)

Aigner cites the case of a young Turkish girl who had terrible grades but excelled at music. Urged by a teacher who believed in her, she applied and got the scholarship. She started changing her attitude and showing up for school. She also learned how to play bass guitar and started her own band. “She got the scholarship three years in a row,” says Aigner. “Her development was so impressive we said, ‘We need to continue this.’”

The mentors are typically in their 20s or 30s and many are university students. They meet with the students once or twice a month and also keep in touch by phone and over social media.  “Most kids were born here but never leave the area of Neukölln,” says Aigner. “Young girls with headscarfs don’t feel comfortable going to non-Arabic areas. We show them the city so it’s more of their city.”

One mentor I spoke with, an academic who lives in the neighborhood, says her mentee, a 12-year old girl, wanted to “try the cuisines of the world.” She took her to a different restaurant in a different part of Berlin each month. “We would go for movies and take bike tours — anything to get out of the neighborhood,” says the mentor, who asked not to be identified. “Her mom said if it wasn’t for me, she would just stay at home and watch TV or play games. We just had fun. There is a lack of role models with refugee families.”

Recently, the students took a weekend trip to the nearby city of Potsdam. “All the kids came,” says Aigner. Financial help was available for students who couldn’t afford the fee required for the bus ride and accommodation. That kind of assistance is also available for other school activities, on a case-by-case basis. “If a kid needs help to pay for a sports club, we can help,” says Aigner. “We look at how many kids live in a household. Sometimes there are 11 siblings.”

Uncertain future

The private funding for One Square Kilometer of Education was set up to last for ten years. That long horizon gave the program the necessary time to make an impact. On the other hand, the funding is close to running out. Aigner is doing a lot of fundraising to keep the program going but says it’s unclear how long it will last.

Whether it continues or not people who have been watching it closely say there are a couple of lessons the program offers. Armin Himmelrath, a German education reporter, says one of them is simply the idea that education matters — especially for a society’s most isolated residents.

“A decade ago, Rütli was the synonym for a school that had dramatically failed in bringing education, knowledge, civic awareness and chances through education to a complete generation of students,” Himmelrath says. “Today we can observe that this was the starting point for an amazing development.”

Professor Hurrelmann says other cities can learn from Rütli’s approach of integrating the elementary and secondary schools together. He says it shows that education systems can be changed on a micro-scale — “all within one square kilometer.”

“That special closeness,” he says, “the reachability of these institutions and co-operation with parents, is important.”

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Nadja Sayej is a Berlin-based journalist. She writes for The Guardian, The New York Times and The Economist​. Full bio

LEARNING FROM BERLIN

  • The Campus Rütli school combines grades one through 13 and works closely with area kindergartens.
  • Through the One Square Kilometer of Education program, community organizations in an immigrant neighborhood have “adopted” a school and offer a support network for its students and teachers.
  • Scholarships offer students rewards to develop talents outside of school as well as a relationship with an adult mentor.

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