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Germany

Tapping Immigrants' Educational Potential

Based on the principle that lack of money should never stand in the way of education, a German foundation offers children from struggling immigrant families financial aid to help them make the academic grade.

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The Hertie funds afford immigrant students a chance to succeed

Germany's federal commissioner for integration, Marie-Luise Beck, never wastes an opportunity to lament the disappointing educational performance of young people from immigrant backgrounds.

It's a problem numerous studies can attest to. According to a survey commissioned by the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), some 15 percent of immigrant teenagers leave school without qualifications, compared to a drop-out rate of just 7 percent among mother-tongue Germans.

Meanwhile, another survey -- conducted by the Center for Political Education -- reveals that while over 30 percent of children with German parents graduate from high school, only a mere 15 percent of immigrant teenagers do so with them.

The discrepancy frequently boils down to money. Language courses and private tuition don't come cheap, and in 2002, the non-profit Hertie Foundation set up a bursary program co-funded by local authorities, businesses and associations designed to help out families who'd like to see their children performing better in school but who lack the funds to pay for some support.

First launched in Hesse, "START" is now available to 14-19-year-old pupils in 13 states, and there's certainly no shortage of applicants.

Helpi n g pupils help themselves

Vera Grebe is only 18-years old, but her life's been far from sheltered. After a childhood in Kazakhstan, her family moved to Germany when she was 10.

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"My father died four years after we moved here," she said. "My mother has also had a lot of health problems, and hasn't always been able to work. They both had cancer. It was hard. And neither of them spoke German, so I always had to go with them whenever they needed to fill out forms at city hall."

As a child, Vera herself learned German with relative ease. As she's grown older, she's done well in school, and attributes much of her success to the START program. Today, a total of 130 pupils per year across the country get to benefit from the grant scheme, and the figure is set to rise to 350.

High sta n dards

The program's stated aim is to encourage more immigrant children to attain a high school diploma. The sole conditions are that the applicants hail from immigrant families with proven financial difficulties, have a sturdy academic record, and a demonstrated awareness of social issues.

Claudia Schlingermann, who coordinates the program in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said she's well aware how stringent the application criteria can seem.

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"But enough pupils can meet these criteria," she said. "Germany's long been home to young immigrants just waiting for a chance to tap their potential. All we have to do is identify who they are and encourage them to apply to the program."

The scheme isn't restricted to pupils at high schools, known in Germany as "Gymnasium." Pupils at the lower-level secondary schools that are known as "Hauptschule" and attended by those who didn't make the Gymnasium cut, are also eligible for the funds.

Simple, but effective

Roland Kaehlbrandt, who manages the Hertie Foundation, said he is confident the program can change lives.

"This is a very simple and modest bursary but it can have major effects," he said. "It improves pupils' confidence and it shows German society just how much potential the immigrant community is harboring. It also proves to the immigrant community itself that it's possible to be successful here in Germany."

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The bursary is worth 5000 euros ($6000), paid to the recipients in installments of 100 euros a month. The pupils can spend the money on learning aids such as language courses, books and newspaper subscriptions -- all they have to do is submit regular evidence that it's being invested in educational purposes.

Vera was also given a new computer, complete with Internet access -- luxuries she could never have otherwise afforded. Even so, she doesn't describe them as the best part of the bursary.

"The best thing is the intellectual stimulation," she said. "I can attend seminars, and there's an annual meeting we all get to go to. There's a nationwide network of grant-holders and we couldn't be more different. But that's what makes it so special -- everyone has something special to add. We're like a big family."

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