The Ruetli School in Berlin made headlines in 2006 when teachers surrendered to a culture of violence and disrespect. Some four years later, Deutsche Welle's Uwe Hessler has discovered new hope there.
When I was shown around the Ruetli School in the tough Berlin district of Neukoelln by Dr. Ahmad al-Sadi, I felt as if I was accompanying a movie celebrity on a walk downtown.
The 61-year-old former Palestinian refugee was wearing a leather jacket and a hat that made him look more like a weather-beaten cowboy than a member of a school's staff.
But everywhere we went in the school on this Tuesday morning in February, he was greeted with shining eyes by youngsters who soon crowded around us, eager to shake hands and get a few words of advice or comfort from the man they lovingly call "Uncle Sadi."
Dr. Ahmad al-Sadi has won the trust and respect of the Ruetli students
Al-Sadi belongs to a team of teachers, social workers, politicians and community members who are struggling to change the image of a school which was once a symbol of a failing school system that had little to offer - especially to young immigrants.
School of Terror
In February 2006, a bunch of rowdy Ruetli School students attacked reporters, shouting their disdain for mainstream German society as the cameras rolled.
In 2006, police moved in at the Ruetli School to de-escalate the conflict
The violence erupted after the school's teachers had written an open letter to the school authorities in the Neukoelln city district.
"In many classes," the letter said, "the behavior of students is marked by a total rejection of education and by attitudes which are deeply inhuman. Teachers can only enter classrooms with their mobile phones on to be able to call for help quickly. We are desperate."
Claudia Heckmann was a teacher of English and German at the time. She said the teaching staff didn't want their protest to lead to a closure of the school.
"We wanted to say that the school system was wrong," she says now, "and that things must change at the roots."
Back then the Ruetli School was a kind of school known in German as a Hauptschule - a school for students who aren't smart enough to make it to a better school. The Hauptschule is perceived by many as a place for the "losers" in society, those who will probably end up on social welfare.
Berlin's Neukoelln district still has the image of a troubled immigrant neighborhood
At the Ruetli School, about 95 percent of the students have an immigrant background. Their parents mostly come from Turkey, the Balkans and Arab countries.
After a recent reform to the school system in Berlin, the Ruetli School is now a Gemeinschaftsschule or community school. This new type of school has been introduced to give students a better chance of earning the qualifications they need to get jobs or even a university degree.
Behind the hundred-year-old Ruetli School building, bulldozers are currently levelling a 41,000 square meter (10 acres) construction site, tearing down decrepit buildings and shacks in what used to be a small inner-city industrial area.
They're making way for Campus Ruetli - a project which school authorities describe as a model of modern-type schooling that is meant to provide state-of-the-art education for children from pre-school age right up to graduation.
Construction work is changing both the face of the district and people's minds
Once it has been completed, Campus Ruetli will include childcare facilities, a sports ground and a gym, and will incorporate three other schools that already exist close by.
Dr. Eric Denton, an American who teaches English at the Ruetli School, said it's not just the teachers who "dream big" as a result of the new project:
"Politicians have realized that the way to save a community is to work through the school, to give the school a foundation and the resources it needs," he says. "The community gets an identity through the school, and the school benefits and prospers."
The German government as well as the Berlin city administration have earmarked a total of 25 million euros for the project, which is to be completed over the next few years.
About one million euros of this funding have already been spent on renovating the interior of the building.
As al-Sadi was guiding me around, he was beaming with pride as he opened the doors to the school's cafeteria and dining room, all gleaming in bright colors now.
The classrooms which he most enjoys showing off, however, are those where natural sciences are taught, which are equipped with the latest science equipment.
Private sponsors have contributed to giving classrooms a facelift
Al-Sadi said that the students had come to cherish the facelift, and added that evidence of this was the fact that vandalism had virtually stopped at the school.
However, there are quite a few people at the Ruetli School who believe that al-Sadi himself has contributed significantly to the change in attitudes and behaviour.
The Missing Link
The Palestinian grew up in the Irbid refugee camp in Jordan, and came to Germany in the 1970s to study economics.
"We had lost everything; our home, our property and the transport business my father had owned in the town of Nazareth. I still remember him saying that only education could save us now, and that it was only through our brains that we could improve our situation."
In 2006 - just two weeks after the outburst of violence at the Ruetli School - al-Sadi attended a meeting of parents and teachers, which, he said, "was marked by a general lack of understanding and interest on the part of the parents."
But, he went on, "I stood up to tell them about my father's message to me. I was speaking in Arabic, and the women started crying as they became aware of their own situation and that of their children. They asked me what to do, and I told them: 'I will look after your children, but you must promise that you come to the school when there's a problem to solve.'"
Since then al-Sadi has been working at the school as one of two "intercultural mediators."
He's sold the building company he owned to devote his time entirely to a job that he said "keeps him busy often from the morning until the late evening."
Over the past four years, "Uncle Sadi" has won the trust of both the students and their parents. But he has also re-established communication between them and the teaching staff. And he often has to mediate within the families themselves, notably when it comes to resolving generational problems arising from traditional beliefs and customs.
He describes what he's doing as working on "the future of Germany as a whole."
He has clear views on social policy: "Germans don't have enough children anymore. Arab families have eight, nine or even ten children. They will stay here, and they must be given a chance to make a living in this society."
Campus of Hope
The Ruetli School students have come to see al-Sadi as a role model for what can be achieved through education and hard work.
A blackboard welcoming visitors in three languages hasn't been vandalized for four years
They've embraced the school as theirs, and they've learned to value what the teachers are doing for them.
"They spend a lot of time so that we can get a job," said 16-year-old Ahmed Iraque.
And Ezgi Güler, a 10th grader from Turkey, added that public perception that the school was only for "losers" was entirely wrong.
"This school gives me a chance for my future, more than the school I attended before. When I leave, I know that I will cry."
Zahra Riaz, who is also in the 10th grade, even believes that the multicultural make-up of the school gives the students an advantage over classes made up of only native Germans.
"We learn more about different cultures," she says. "Yes, I think I have a good future here, because I try to be a good student."
Meanwhile, the number of Ruetli students going on to an academic education has more than doubled over the past four years.
Arabic language classes have been introduced, making it easier for most of the students to learn the second foreign language they need to qualify for university.
The Ruetli students are working together for their school and for a better future
Many students now even spend parts of their leisure time at school, doing their homework or learning in after-school classes.
Parents can enjoy a cup of coffee, or discuss problems with teachers at a parents' center in the school building.
And Claudia Heckmann, the former English and German teacher, has become the school's principal.
She said that the bad headlines four years ago prompted teachers, authorities, students and parents to "move closer together" to become a team that had developed a new spirit.
"Nevertheless there are still huge difficulties," she says, "and sometimes we think it's too much, and too many problems need to be resolved. But then, there is this vision that we can change things if we focus on the strength of people, and not always on what is not working."
Author: Uwe Hessler
Editor: Michael Lawton