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Filling the Gap: Educational Integration and Achievement Programs for Migrant Youth in Germany

I. Introduction

This article was motivated by an interest in how entities outside the official school structure in Germany are contributing to the dual challenges of migrant integration and academic achievement. It soon surpassed those intentions and turned into a broader investigation of educational support networks, including the unique and compelling efforts of two Berlin schools. This article does not purport to offer a thesis, nor does it provide a single overarching theme. Instead, it explores the concepts of educational integration, achievement, and identity through several different programs and lenses. The questions, which were always present during our research, were the following: what programs/opportunities exist for migrant youth? How can such programs contribute to educational integration as well as the academic advancement of migrants? Can educationally-minded programs fill the gaps where the school system fails? What is working and what is not? And, how can programs aid the students that need it most? It is likely that not every question will be sufficiently answered in the pages that follow; but we hope the process of addressing them provides much food for thought. 

II. Fostering Excellence or Struggling to Compensate?

In the interest of providing a framework in which to locate the support network for migrant youth, our research suggests that two major types of programs exist outside the official school structure. The first category consists of programs aimed at students who are already excelling in school and offers assistance and opportunities to exploit that potential. The “Talent im Land” program through the Robert Bosch foundation and the START program initiated and funded by the Hertie Foundation are exemplary. Both programs target students with a migrant background age 14 and older who are excelling academically and are civically engaged. Seminars are offered with both scholarships on a range of topics, from applying for a job to human rights in Europe. Recipients receive financial support which they can use for extra lessons, cultural activities or other opportunities. Dorna Ghiasfi-Maaffer, a German-born girl of Iranian descent and a member of the START program, will be traveling to Paris the final weekend in June with ten other students to participate in a gathering of Iranians living outside the country who support a democratic transition in Iran. 

START and “Talent im Land” stress the importance of creating a network among these promising migrant youth and the seminars and annual meetings help to form relationships. From the comments of participants, this aim seems to have been achieved. Dorna of the START program said that she has gotten to know a great group of people through the program, “we are like a family.” Margarita Rutgayzer, a Moscow-born immigrant and recipient of the Bosch scholarship through the “Talent im Land”-program, agreed with Dorna that the connections made with other youth in the program is extremely helpful in dealing with common obstacles that arise from being culturally different than one’s peers. 

Also notable is the encouragement and personal support given to migrant youth by these programs. An informal mentoring program exists in both programs so that students have an adult to turn to with problems and concerns or to seek advice. The relationships with other students enforce this support system and the general attitude promoted by the programs - that success is possible - seems to go a long way. Dorna commented that START has given her self-confidence and that she is proud to be a member. Margarita echoed this sentiment that the program “gives you the feeling that you are good and that somebody acknowledges it.” 

The second type of program targets an entirely different group of migrant youth, those that are failing. We visited two interconnected branches of one such program funded by the Mercator Foundation. The central branch, “Medienhof: Berlin-Wedding” is an informal after-school program for migrant youth who are struggling in school. The program is open four times a week and provides a casual setting where students can stop by to get homework help or other academic assistance from university students. The program’s director, Herbert Weber, informed us that the social and economic realities of the Wedding district necessitated educational support. Wedding is one of the poorest districts in Berlin where many residents receive social welfare and crime rates are high. The area has a large migrant population, particularly Turkish, and the schools have become increasingly less integrated. Weber explained that the percentage of migrant children in the nearby schools is disproportionately high given the resident migrant population because non-migrant parents are choosing to send their children elsewhere.

As a complement to the Medienhof central branch, extra classes are offered for struggling students attending the schools in Wedding with large Turkish populations. University students who are to become teachers oversee one after-school class a week with 6-15 pupils. German language is the most common subject in these classes since many migrant children lack a full command of the language. This problem is striking in that it affects even second and third generation migrant children. We observed two classes with students from age 10 to 16, all of whom were second and third generation. The students uniformly spoke with a recognizable accent, had trouble using the correct articles, and struggled with spelling and other grammatical difficulties in their writing. Weber attributes these language deficiencies among the students he sees daily to the existence of a “Turkish infrastructure” in Berlin. That is, with a proliferation of Turkish television channels, media, restaurants, and stores, it has become possible for children of migrant parents to only speak German in school. 

The Double Obstacle

Problems with language lead to a host of other problems for migrant children, including difficulty in any subject requiring reading. Even math can pose an additional challenge when the problem is written-out and must first be deciphered by a migrant student. As Weber put it, these children face a “double obstacle” for any educational task. However, attempting to supplement these children’s education is no easy task either. Dirk, a university student and tutor for the Mercator school program, whose class of eighth year pupils we observed, said his class is always difficult. Maintaining motivation among both students and teacher is a constant struggle, particularly when students are forced to attend by their teachers and are far more interested in adolescent life rather than learning German grammar. For his part, seeing the number of students decline daily, or coming one day to find that no one has shown up, is demoralizing to say the least. His class started with 20 students and has been reduced to three. 

These challenges are compounded by insufficient preparation of tutors for the difficulties of teaching such a class. Dirk is studying biology and geography but has been placed in a classroom teaching German grammar after one workshop discussing different methods. Bengü Danajega, a Turkish woman who came to study in Germany several years ago and is also a tutor for Mercator school program, faces the same problem in her class of rowdy 10 year olds. She said without hesitation that the university does not prepare students to handle the realities of the classroom, much less a classroom of migrant children. Her colleague remembers taking one theory-based class on teaching “non-Germans” but she cannot recall any preparation of this kind. Herbert Weber echoed this sentiment, saying that pedagogical training does not sufficiently account for the presence of migrant children and new methods must be developed and incorporated. 

Compensating for What?

Although these programs operate outside the official school system, our experience indicated that at the end of the day, all roads lead back to the educational structure in Germany. That is, one cannot reflect upon the difficulties in educational achievement for migrant youth without understanding the institutionalized barriers put before them by the education system. The division of students into levels (Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium) following primary school is based on the assumption that potential, intelligence, and motivation may be discerned at a mere ten or twelve years of age.  Students are placed in one of the three tracks based on their academic performance and the recommendations of their teachers. In many cases this decision can be influenced or overruled by a student’s parents, but this rarely benefits migrant students since their parents tend to have little or no awareness of how the German education system functions.

The Hauptschule is the most basic secondary school and ends with the ninth grade whereas Realschule is an intermediate variant and ends with the tenth grade. Generally speaking, those placed in the bottom two levels are directed toward developing a skill and getting a job, although the options in Realschule are a bit more varied. The Gymnasium prepares students for university study so they are encouraged to take the Abitur exam after their 12th or 13th year, depending on state law, and continue their education. The vast majority of migrant youth (though certainly not all) enter Hauptschule or Realschule, and as a result are less likely to attend university and further their studies. In the school year 2003-2004, for instance, only 14 percent of Berlin’s students of non-German origin qualified to take the Abitur, in comparison with more than a third (34.4 percent) of Berlin’s students of German origin.  It is no coincidence that the Mercator program is operating exclusively at lower level schools with large, if not majority, migrant populations. According to Herbert Weber, the placement of migrant students in the lower educational levels is not surprising because these children start out behind their German peers and from there the gap only continues to widen.

The recently released results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study from 2003 confirm this assertion. The study indicated that the difference in school performance between immigrant children and native students was more pronounced in Germany than in almost any other country covered by the study. While in some countries, second-generation immigrant children stayed on the same level of their first-generation counterparts, or, in some cases, recognizably improved their performance, Germany was an exception in this respect. On average, 15-year-olds with an immigrant background trailed behind their native counterparts by 48 score points, an educational deficit worth about one whole year of study. In Germany, the gap between second-generation immigrant children and native students was twice as big: 90 score points. 

Of course, the level of a student’s educational attainment is not written in stone at age ten or twelve. Switching into a higher level can be done if a student is particularly motivated and hard-working. Ammani, a 15 year old Lebanese girl who was born in Germany, is such a student. She occasionally attends the central Mercator program for homework help but is doing quite well in school. Though currently in Realschule under the advisement of a teacher, Ammani fully intends to move on to Gymnasium and then pharmacy school. She is aided in this pursuit by supportive parents and weekend classes. Unfortunately, Ammani is the exception not the rule. How can this level of motivation be expected of other migrant youth when schools are essentially predetermining success? 

The fundamental problem with the tiered system is that it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children will not stretch themselves to achieve when they are not encouraged to do so. The young Turkish girls in Bengü’s class with whom we spoke were eager to learn but, when prompted, said no they didn’t think they were good enough to go to Gymnasium and would aim for Realschule instead. Weber stressed that the tiered system does not and cannot support each student to the extent of their abilities; its foundation is the assumption that many students will not excel and will not attain more advanced education. Faced with additional obstacles, migrant children fall naturally into this category. Margarita, a Russian immigrant who has achieved a great deal, is nevertheless aware of this problem. She said that the German system leans toward putting all migrant youth into the lowest level, even those that come as adolescents. For those that want to study, Hauptschule offers few possibilities. Margarita got lucky, as she put it, and was able to move into Gymnasium with the help of a dedicated school counselor and supportive parents. However, she knows other migrant students who came to Germany with plans to go to university but were not able to advance. 

When you walk into one of the classrooms of the Mercator program, it is loud and disorganized and the educational level of the students can be disheartening. In Dirk’s classroom, 16 year old Turkish girls were reviewing how to form proper questions in German, though spent most of the time giggling or talking on cell phones. In Bengü’s class for 10 and 12 year olds (once again all Turkish), a game meant to teach history stumped four boys with a question about when the Berlin Wall was built and taken down. After a series of a random guesses ranging from 1920 to 2004, the tutor finally gave them the answer. These glaring deficiencies make it obvious why programs targeting migrant youth are so important, but they also force one to question the reasons behind such fundamental gaps. Weber stressed that these types of support programs are necessary as long as the system does not change. He explained, “what we do is compensation for what the school system can’t provide.” In his opinion, what are needed are not more after-school classes, but rather an overhaul of the system with smaller classes, better-trained teachers, new methods, and the end of both the tiered system and the concept of “frontal” teaching to a homogenous group of students. 

The Encouragement Factor

Another notable feature of certain programs is the impact of personalized support and encouragement. Our discussions with recipients of the Bosch and Hertie scholarships emphasized the importance of this aspect. Both Margarita and Dorna felt that their success was partly attributable to the support the programs provide and the self-confidence they help to foster. This aspect is not altogether absent from the Mercator program, though it is not highly developed, most likely because of the classroom structure of the school programs and the chaotic environment of the central program. However, individual support of migrant youth is not unique to the Bosch and Hertie programs. In particular, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters initiative in the Rhein-Neckar region should be mentioned. Borrowing the idea of the successful American program, Big Brothers/Big Sisters matches children between the ages of six and sixteen with personal mentors, individuals which range from university students to the elderly. The program is very new to Germany (it was started this year) and its focus is not explicitly educational; but it nonetheless addresses some of the issues that were raised in our research. 

The activities of each mentor/student vary but the relationship is intended to provide a role model, to underscore the importance of education and strengthen self-esteem and motivation. The program does not specifically target migrant youth but is attempting to address their needs. About 50 percent of the participating children are of migrant background and Sabine Scheltwort, the marketing and communications coordinator, told us that a workshop is currently being developed for mentors to increase intercultural awareness and suggest methods for handling the particular challenges facing migrant youth. Big Brothers/Big Sisters is far too new to assess its success, but it offers a promising development to the migrant support network.  

The Age Factor

In the short run, however, progress can still be made and lessons can be learned from these initiatives. To start, our experience in the two Mercator classrooms convinced us that age is a crucial factor. Dirk’s class of teenage girls were far too distracted by the demands of their social lives to get anything out of the class and their diminished numbers over the course of the year speak to the many more appealing options available to adolescents than extra academic help. Bengü’s class of 10 and 12 year-old Turkish children, on the other hand, was full of energy and enthusiasm. All nine children were engrossed in the geography/history game being constructed and would run eagerly to consult the classroom’s resources when developing questions. Their information was often wrong but they were never afraid to guess; and while they made spelling mistakes when writing their questions, they were quick to self-correct when prompted by the tutor. The girls were delighted by our presence and eager to try out their English with us, introducing themselves immediately and asking us to help them with the game. The boys, jealous of this attention, soon ran to get their English books so they could correctly ask us a litany of questions and lure us over to their work area. 

These children were receptive to the class and excited to learn, having not yet reached the age where school becomes a chore. Bengü and her colleague both think the class has been effective, that progress has been made since the beginning of the year. Certainly older students who are struggling in school should not be ignored, but our experience suggests that resources would be better spent if invested in primary school students. 

III. Networking Success, Teaching Tolerance: Approaches to Educational Integration and Achievement

As mentioned in the introduction, our research expanded to include two very unusual and compelling schools in Berlin which are actively pursuing a higher level of integration and/or educational success for their migrant students. We have chosen to include our findings on these schools because they offer two distinct perspectives and approaches.

Thüringen-Oberschule, Berlin-Marzahn/Hellersdorf:

When you get off the metro at Mehrower Allee it seems as if you have left Berlin and entered an entirely new place. There are Soviet-style apartment buildings running the length of a highway and that is all; no stores, restaurants or cafes can be found. If you walk a little farther you will come across Thüringen-Oberschule, a relic of sorts of the Soviet era but with a forward-looking agenda. When Berlin was still divided, Russian language was commonly taught in schools as the first foreign language. When the wall fell in 1989 and the city reunited, this particular school preserved Russian as the first foreign language instead of switching to English. Russian immigrants that came to Germany after 1990, many of whom were ethnic Germans, were attracted to this school because of the language component. For students this meant that the Abitur exam taken after Gymnasium to gain admission to university could include Russian as an option for the foreign language test, an obvious advantage for native Russian speakers. 

Due to this history, Thüringen-Oberschule has a substantial population (about 50 percent) of first generation migrant children from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are ethnic Germans but did not speak German when they arrived as children or adolescents. The school only runs until the tenth year and is a mix of Hauptschule and Realschule, but it defies all the trends of lower level schools with large migrant populations. It has amassed a formidable network of support and offers a wide array of opportunities to its migrant students. In its network, dedicated specifically to migrant students, Thüringen-Oberschule has developed partnerships with the German Red Cross (DRK), Project Berlinpolis, the Mercator foundation, the Berlin Senat for Education, Youth and Sport, and a parents’ organization. Through these relationships, the school is able to offer free classes after school for new migrants who do not speak German, a training program to introduce migrants to the nuts and bolts of living in German society, a mentoring program with university students which includes the chance to visit the university and sit in on a class, extra German classes, two additional teachers whose salaries are paid by outside sources, and much more. Through one of their other networks of support, students can do an exchange program abroad (funded in large part by the school’s partners), take part in intercultural festivals organized by a local church, or take free music lessons. The connections go on and on. Thüringen-Oberschule even has a relationship with a realty company which leases flats to new Russian families so their children can attend the school.  

With such a system in place, Thüringen-Oberschule has unsurprisingly seen significant results. According to the school counselor, Natalja Tibelius, 30 percent of migrant students at the school take the Abitur and continue on to university. This is an impressive number given that the average number of migrant students in Berlin schools who take the Abitur is only 18 percent.  Tibelius is of Russian descent herself and is in charge of a great deal of the school’s migrant support network. She says the school receives positive feedback every year on their students which go on to Gymnasium. We met with four students near the end of their time at that school and they were indeed impressive. All were ethnic German immigrants, but did not learn German as children. Three hailed from Russia and the other from Kazakhstan. They spoke German well and could manage in English. They had all been active in the school’s offerings and were now looking toward the future. Three of them plan to attend university and the fourth intends to become a nurse. 

What is unique about Thüringen-Oberschule is not just its extensive support network and opportunities, but also its willingness to foster the native identity of its migrant students alongside their new German identity. One of their networks is dedicated to social and cultural integration and holds intercultural days and festivals each year with dance and music. For its part, the parents’ initiative hosts international dinners (which, according to the students we met, include a substantial amount of Russian fish salad). Tibelius was insistent on the idea of a dual identity. Assimilation is not the answer, she explained, we cannot just pretend they are the same as the German students because this causes an identity crisis and they do not know who they are. She concluded that two cultural identities are better than none. When we asked the students how they personally identified, one boy said he felt 100 percent German, but the other three spoke to the existence of a dual identity. We cannot say that we are Russian or German, they agreed, we are both. 

Hermann-Hesse-Schule, Berlin-Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg

If you walk through the front doors of the Hermann-Hesse-Schule in Kreuzberg you will pass by a plaque that reads: “Schule ohne Rassismus, Schule mit Courage” (school without racism, school with courage). These words indicate that the school belongs to a German network of learning institutions, “Schulen ohne Rassismus,” which have agreed to actively fight racism and prejudice within their walls. We had the opportunity to visit this school and speak with Anna Wulff, a woman who teaches English and history in addition to coordinating the “Schule ohne Rassismus” program. She spoke to us at length about the challenges the school faces as well as the current efforts to counter prejudice and ignorance.

The Hermann-Hesse school is a Gymnasium with 680 pupils and an extremely high percentage of Turkish youth. According to Wulff, the school used to be a more evenly mixed group of students, but it has become increasingly dominated by migrant students as integration became less “fashionable” and the competitiveness of schools more important to white, middle-class parents. The school joined the ranks of the “Schulen ohne Rassismus” on student initiative. In order to be a member of the network, the students had to gather the signatures of 70 percent of all students and teachers, which they accomplished in 2005. Wulff was quick to state early on that “it doesn’t mean we don’t have racism; it means we try actively to fight it but it gets more difficult each year.” So what does it mean to “fight” racism in a school with a majority migrant population? In short, it is an uphill battle. The group that organizes activities for the program consists of only ten students. They ensure that a booth is set up at all school events and gatherings to spread information about the program and the philosophy behind it. 

The group has also come to rely on film as a medium to involve the rest of the student body with the hope that discussion will follow. The result is mixed. Students came to watch the Oscar-winner “Crash” but left immediately afterwards. On the other hand, a documentary shown about the murder of a Turkish woman in Kreuzberg by her brother sparked controversy. One girl even came forward and said she believed some teachers discriminated against her because of her ethnicity. Another interesting project was the screening of a staged documentary in a German metro station where skinheads pretended to harass a black man. The film captured the reactions of the bystanders and prompted discussion not only about the presence of racism but also about what the appropriate response should be. 

Despite some successful events, Wulff was frank in her assessment. She sees racism growing, not declining, and is disturbed by the common use of “violent language” among students. She observes tensions not only among migrant and non-migrant students but also among Arab and Turkish students. Her history class causes her worry that a new anti-Semitism is on the rise among some of the Arab pupils. However, she continues to stand by the “Schule ohne Rassismus” program as a step in the right direction. The racism and prejudice she witnesses is not an intellectual creation, she believes, but a product of social and familial dictates. Small activities and positive experiences can achieve more than a classroom. 


As we compared our experiences with the Thüringen-Oberschule and Hermann-Hesse-Schule, we were struck by the vastly different perspectives the school representatives had presented us with. At Thüringen-Oberschule much care and pride was taken in conveying the statistics of student success. Tibelius made sure we understood that the 30 percent of migrant children who go on to take their Abitur was an impressive number given the usual trend. At Hermann-Hesse, on the other hand, there was an exclusive focus on the social and ethnic dimension of education; we could not get a statistic on the percentage of migrant students who go on to university. 

These schools are incredibly different and comparisons are irrelevant in many ways. Indeed, both serve as interesting case studies alone. However, discussing Thüringen and Hesse side by side provides the opportunity to reflect upon our own language when we speak of integration and educational achievement for migrant youth. This topic is often discussed as if it encompasses all migrant children equally, as if integration means one thing regardless of one’s background, as if the model of achievement for one migrant teenager will apply to another. It should be explicitly noted that Thüringen-Oberschule is having great success with Russian (and often ethnic German) immigrants while Hermann-Hesse-Schule is engaged in a daily struggle to find common ground between students that identify as German, Turkish or Arab. Without reducing educational challenges to ethnicity and religion, we must ask if a hierarchy exists within the all-encompassing term “migrant youth,” and search for ways to overcome those differences without diminishing them. 

IV. Recommendations

We would like to close by reviewing the areas where change could be most effective. At a more superficial level, programs targeting struggling migrant children should be aware of the age factor, taking into account where extra academic support will be best received and absorbed. As a note to all programs, regardless of target group, the importance of personal support and encouragement should not be disregarded. Programs which attempt to improve self-confidence and convey the possibility of academic achievement can have an enormous impact, particularly since this kind of support is often lacking within the school structure. 

With regard to more profound change, it seems too clear to us that major reform is needed in the German school system. The tiered structure fails in both theory and practice. Dividing children at such a young age becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and discourages the possibility of advancement. Further, given the language and cultural barriers that often exist for migrant children the playing field is far from level. It is fair to say that the current situation in Berlin schools leans more and more toward social segregation, to say nothing of the consequences which tend to arise from low educational levels later on: high unemployment, lack of vocational qualification and dependence on social welfare.  

The education of teachers must also be considered in light of our conversations with new practitioners. The considerable presence of migrant children is now a reality in parts of Berlin and pedagogical training must reflect that. Holding a class on cultural sensitivity is far from adequate; teachers must be prepared to handle the particular obstacles in front of migrant students, such as language, as well as the challenges of teaching a mixed classroom. It is encouraging that programs, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, seem to be recognizing this fact and although the tutors we spoke to felt unprepared, their experience with the program will change that. Bengü said she is involved in a teacher’s online network and is always searching for new methods and approaches for her classroom. So until more sweeping reform can be made, we will put our faith in these dedicated individuals and the small victories they can achieve.



Dirk Hartelt, Tutor for Mercator school program (June 21, 2007)

Ammani, Student and participant at Medienhof: Berlin-Wedding Mercator program (June 21, 2007)

Herbert Weber, Coordinator of Mercator school and central programs (June 21, 2007)

Bengü Danajega, Tutor for Mercator school program (June 22, 2007)

Sabine Scheltwort, Marketing and communications Coordinator for Big Brothers/Big Sisters (June 25, 2007)

Margarita Rutgayzer, Former participant in Bosch Foundation’s “Talent im Land” program (June 25, 2007)

Dorna Ghiasfi-Maaffer, Participant in Hertie Foundation’s START program (June 26, 2007)

Natalja Tibelius, Counselor at Thüringen-Oberschule, Liebensteiner Str. 24, 12687 Berlin (June 26, 2007)

[Collective interview] Aleksej; Katharina; Katrin; Viktor, Students at Thüringen-Oberschule, Liebensteiner Str. 24, 12687 Berlin (June 26, 2007).

Anna Wulff, Teacher and program coordinator at Hermann-Hesse-Schule

Böckhstraße 16, 10967 Berlin (June 27, 2007) 


Commissioner for Integration and Migration of the Senate of Berlin: Encouraging Diversity—Strengthening Cohesion: Integration Policy in Berlin. (Commissioner for Integration and Migration of the Senate of Berlin (Ed.): 2005).

The Program for International Student Assessment: Where Immigrant Children succeed—A Comparative Review of Performance and Engagement in PISA 2032 (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: 2006).

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