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German-Czech School Aims to Build Bridges

In 1998, a secondary school near the Czech-German border embarked on a project to educate German and Czech students together in order to increase understanding between the countries. The first students are graduating.


Students learn in both Czech and German

On the main market square in Pirna, a town of 40,000 near Dresden, a group of students are sketching the Renaissance gate of their boarding school. Their teacher, Dagmar Jäger, is teaching them about light and shadow, perspective and depth as any art teacher will. She does it, however, not in German but in Czech, the language of the country next door.

The students at the Friedrich Schiller Gymnasium, a secondary school for students who want to go on to get a university degree, learn about art in Czech, for instance, but get their music history and theory in the language of the school's namesake, in German.

"There are a few complications, but it works out OK. You can make yourself understood," said German student Simon Hegewald. "You use a few hand signals and it's fine."

"Or the Germans help help us out," added Jana Metkova from the Czech Republic. "If we don't understand something, we ask the Germans and they translate or explain it somehow."

Four years ago, the school began its binational German-Czech project, a school aimed at building bridges between the two neighbors whose wounds from World War Two are still too raw in some quarters. In the program, students learn each other's language and about each other's cultures, not to mention math, science and art. In addition to getting a diploma from the state of Saxony, Czech students get a degree recognized by the Czech Republic. Every class since 1998 has had 15 German and 15 Czech students.

While most of the German students commute to classes daily from their parents' homes, the Czech students live at the school and go home only on the weekends.

"At first I didn't want to go to Germany because I was afraid I wouldn't understand anything," said Metkova. "But then my parents told me it would be good. So I thought about it and then said yes."

Challenging four years

Bernd Wenzel is one of those quiet types who works hard but doesn't trumpet it. Although in reality he is the driving force behind the success of the school, he says the school was almost forced into existence, since Pirna lies so close to the Czech border. He is proud of what the school has accomplished in the past four years, even if it's been a lot of hard work.

"I'll say this, a boarding school and binational instruction, that adds a completely new dimension to things," he said. "It is an immense workload in a very short period of time."

Teacher Petra Pastevera, from Olemuc in the Czech Republic, has been at the school for two years. She came to Germany to teach at a binational school driven by her idealistic views of bridging the gulf that separates the two countries and putting niggling old animosities to rest. But she has been somewhat disappointed, however, since according to her, most of the students have come simply to improve their job prospects. They don't see the Pirna school as anything special, she said. "They don't appreciate the fact that they're here in Germany and could gain so much from their time here," she added. "They also don't leave the school to make contacts. They just see the whole thing as a necessary evil."

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