The time refugee children and teenagers need to settle into a normal school routine varies from state to state in Germany. One Düsseldorf school has more 20 years of experience with children from refugee families.
DW: Mr. Vogel, you are the principal of a school in Düsseldorf and your school has more than 20 years of experience with children from refugee families. How do you help them?
Klaus-Peter Vogel: This school year, we have 60 refugee children at our school. They take part in an introductory program. The children have been in Germany for only a short period of time and do not speak the German language. These classes have been taking place in our main school building since 2005 so we can work on integration as well as language training. The new students in these classes generally work together with our regular students, which is very important for subsequent support measures.
How long do the students take part in the introductory program?
The legally stipulated period for the introductory program is two years. Normally, they only spend a year in the initial program, because we would otherwise not be able to provide enough places. One of the groups consists of 10-to-14-year-olds who will stay at the school and end up going to regular classes, depending on their progress. In the other groups we distinguish between students who need to learn basic literacy skills, as they can neither read nor write, students who just need to learn the Latin alphabet, and those who are simply lacking any basic grounding at all.
How can students with no language skills join regular classes after only one year of introductory courses?
That is a good question. But amazingly enough, they manage it - not everyone, as they all have different capabilities. If students have great difficulties, they stay in the introductory program for a second year. But that rarely happens if they come to us at the beginning of the school year. That means we spend a full year with them, and they have 18 hours of German lessons per week, plus German-language classes in other subjects. They learn German as a second language, not as a foreign language.
What difference does that make in the way they are taught?
The difference is that we focus on the students' daily needs. Here in Germany, they have to become involved in everyday life immediately, and they first learn things they really need, such as words for groceries or articles of daily use. That is not necessary if one is learning German as a foreign language.
Who decides where the refugee children will go to school?
Children in Düsseldorf visit a counselor in the municipal office in charge of integration and education. There, they are given an initial consultation, and staff members try to assess their level of knowledge, what types of schooling they've had and if they have ever been to school at all. In this initial consultation, the type of school deemed as appropriate is suggested. The matches are not necessarily perfect, but it really does not matter when students are in the introductory program. Things get interesting when they have to attend regular classes. Then, the acquisition of specialized language is added to pure language acquisition.
What are the refugee children particularly good at?
At first they are incredibly ambitious at school. They want to study no matter what. They absorb everything they are offered and are very hard-working. The younger they are, the more easily they learn the language. The "German as a second language" system helps, and as they have to use the language in their group and in everyday situations, they learn quickly. That is why they do not learn everything correctly, but correct grammar is not that important in everyday life. It is important that they make themselves understood and can understand texts.
Where do the challenges lie?
The hardest chunk of work is using articles properly. That's when they make most of their mistakes. Learning formal things about language is hard because they often do not recognize language structures and perhaps did not learn them at school in their mother tongue. That is why they may not understand grammar structures.
Do German children with an immigrant background help by using their additional language skills?
Interaction is good. It usually begins in the introductory program. The classes consist of 15 or 16 students who all have different levels of knowledge and come from various countries. If someone knows a particular language or dialect, then that person helps and translates if need be. That also happens in regular classes. More than 80 percent of our students have an immigrant background. The system has taken on a life of its own. In our school, 37 countries are represented, and you can always find someone to translate.
How do the parents of regular students feel about the refugees at their child's school?
The parents do not have a problem with this. They do not complain, as the children accept each other. The parents like this and support us.
Are German schools generally ready to integrate refugees into regular classes?
With regard to the situation in Düsseldorf, we have been getting all types of schools and levels of school involved. But I foresee difficulties in the next few years, because we have to integrate more and more children into regular classes and the numbers are growing steadily. For example, I can only create two classes because the building has no more rooms. I cannot allow a random number of children into class, because 29 is the limit and that is more than enough. So that worries us bit.
Klaus-Peter Vogel is the principal of the Bernburger Strasse secondary school in Düsseldorf. He has worked for many years at the school, which helps integrate school-age children and young people who have come to Germany with no or very little knowledge of the language. A large number of the young people arrived in Germany as unaccompanied minors. The students take intensive German courses to prepare for regular classes, vocational colleges or pre-vocational training schemes.