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“We are all Amsterdammers” - Accounting for Diversity and Inclusion in Dutch Schools

Though Brian is only 17 years of age, he is a very bright and ambitious young man. These attributes have already turned him into a prominent hip-hop dancer at his school, with a rapidly rising professional career. “It’s the hard work”, he says. “It’s all about your will and strength. You need to work hard to succeed. And I’m really giving my best.”

Born from a Surinamese mother and an African father, it’s hard not to imagine Brian as a black kid, wearing his pants just a little bit too low and dressed in a big dark sweatshirt – naturally, with its hood covering his head. Don’t worry: you have the picture right – and Brian feels completely comfortable with it. “I don’t mind  how people look, what’s their background, as long as they’re good and fun to be with. If they love  dancing like I do, that’s an even bigger plus.”

Now, situate Brian in the New West, Amsterdam, in a public school filled with children of immigrants originating from countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Suriname, and the Antilles. This school is Calvijn met Junior College. In such a diverse setting, it is not hard for a student as social and open as Brian to have friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. He does not care if his friend’s name is Jan or Ibrahim, or if his girlfriend has Moroccan or Turkish parents, nor if his schoolmates cheer for Fenerbahce or Ajax. At the end of the day, hanging out with each other and having fun is what matters most.

Not an ordinary school

Calvijn met Junior College is no ordinary Dutch school, for several reasons. Its specific combination of lower and higher vocational education, the presence of security guards in the schoolyard and on almost every floor of the school buildings, and the vast diversity of the student body render this setting special. Another critical reason is that Calvijn met Junior College is one of the 290 black schools in the Netherlands. According to the Dutch Social Research Agency, a school is called black once children with an immigrant background comprise more than 70-80% of those attending the school. At the Calvijn met Junior College, this percentage is 99%.

It is not surprising that the public has a bad opinion about black schools, considering the nature of the current debate on the division of schools into black and white. Black schools are perceived to provide low-quality classes delivered by mediocre teachers, and an unsecure environment for learning. All of this is thought to culminate in an inadequate transfer of knowledge to their students. White schools, on the other hand, are perceived as the opposite: excellent teachers conducting excellent classes in a conducive learning environment. But this characterization is unfair to black schools, for it completely ignores the ways in which black children navigate their identity within the walls of a black school, and how this can actually translate into a quality education.

The Calvijn met Junior College gained national media attention when Vrij Nederland journalist Margalith Kleijwegt came to the school in 2003. She wanted to learn more about the history classes at the school, but the topic quickly changed once she saw the problems that the school faced. She decided to write a book about the school's problems with student aggression, the high level of absenteeism, and the complete absence of the parents. The release of Margalith’s book, Invisible Parents, generated numerous internal and external changes to the school. Interventions from respected Labor Party members, the renovation of school buildings, and the replacement of old teachers with new ones greatly improved the situation.

These administrative changes influenced the school's interaction with the greater Dutch society, as well. It began to organize many afterschool activities connecting students with prominent Dutch companies and other citizens. The annual soccer tournament in cooperation with companies from the Zuidas is one of the highlights of this success story. However, i doesn't tell us anything about how children within the school interact with each other. Do they form friendships across ethnic lines? And, what roles do the neighborhood, teachers and school play in  encouraging interaction among students?

Discrimination – or an absence of it?

With her colorful dress, white headscarf and big brown eyes, Fatima (15) looks very pretty. Her parents are from Morocco, but she was born and raised in Amsterdam. Therefore, she feels more Dutch than Moroccan. Fatima has never encountered discrimination among her schoolmates, although the same cannot be said about the “outside world”. As an example, Fatima shares the story of her carting experience.

One day, Fatima and a group of girlfriends wanted to go carting. The owner of the cart centre wouldn't let her in, because of her headscarf. She didn’t argue with him, but just left the place. Fatima felt angry and disappointed, but her pride was too strong to allow her to stoop to arguing with a man who fundamentally failed to understand her reasons for wearing a headscarf in the first place. Sadly, this is not an isolated example. 

What is peculiar, however, is that within the school, the children find a safe haven where discrimination is not an issue; at least not on an ethnic basis. It is not that the children are not aware of their backgrounds – indeed they are – but their ethnicity is not a barrier to interaction. Instead, it serves as a bridge which connects them not only in terms of their diversity, but also in terms of the many commonalities they share. Margalith Kleijwegt, the author of the book Invisible Parents, explains how the situation has improved since she came to the school. “People got used to each other, kids who grow up in a mixed school don’t know better.” For all of the children,  ranking first in importance is their family, followed by their neighborhood, then their school; in the case of the children at Calvijn met Junior College, none can be characterized as traditionally Dutch. 

Margalith believes that the acceptance of one another comes with time. “It’s a very subtle process”, she says and adds: “Give time and have confidence”.

Meet Najib, a sixteen-year-old student passionate about football. Then, meet Najib's football team – an incredible mix of talented players who could play not only on the Dutch national team, but also the national teams of Turkey, Morocco, or Suriname, based on their parents' country of origin. Even so, when the ball is in play, the only existing division is the one between two teams. Always mixed. Never “ethnically colored”.

Najib does not judge his friends by the color of their skin, or their religion, or their parents’ background; instead, the criteria he uses is the paths that his friends choose for their lives. That is why he chose not to be friends any more with a group of young Moroccan boys who started using drugs and behaving badly. “They used to be my friends, but not any more, I don’t want to be friends with somebody who’s going the wrong way.”

Ibrahim is of Moroccan origin, and in his fifth year of the Calvijn met Junior College. He is friends with people from different ethnic backgrounds; it doesn’t matter where they are from. He meets them at the gym, and likes to go out with them. Ibrahim has a girlfriend, born of a Dutch and Moroccan parent. In the future he would like to marry her, but not yet; he considers himself too young.

First he wants to finish school, then find a job, and maybe then marry. He views it as an advantage that his friends have so many different ethnic backgrounds, because there are lots of things to share with each other. Sharing food, tea, religion, customs, music, dances, games and many other things make Ibrahim's life more beautiful and fulfilling. He feels that his life is richer thanks to his very diverse group of friends. There is also much to share with Dutch society. “Dutch people like to cycle, and so do I”. What he particularly likes about living in the Netherlands is the country's level of freedom.

“Dutch people traveled a lot, which provides them with a way of understanding different cultures.” Sofyan Mbarki, a member of the school management team, explains how the children can identify with each other: they are all more or less “street children”, talking in street slang with each other, going through the same experiences. They all form friendships and have girlfriends or boyfriends  together. Most of them have to help their parents, who don’t speak good Dutch, with everyday tasks. Most of them live in the same neighborhood. “Not being accepted in the school is not a result of the ethnic background of a student”, says Sofyan. He emphasizes that having outsiders is only natural, and that it happens in every school, regardless of its ethnic mix.

However, the school is dedicated to preparing the children for the “outside world” since that is where they can expect to be discriminated against. Sofyan, who himself is from an immigrant background, knows very well how hard it could become for the children from Calvijn met Junior College to find a job tomorrow. He knows that it is quite probable that many of them will be rejected for job positions just because of their name.

Semra, a student at the school who is only 15, has already had experience with this. She applied for a job in a daycare center under her real, Moroccan name. She was rejected. The next day, she sent in the same application, but with one slight change – instead of writing her real name, Semra invented a typical Dutch name. She was accepted. Angry, she had the courage to call the center. When she explained what she had done, the other side was silent; not because of shame – they simply hung up.

The neighborhood – a bond, or a segregation point?

The neighborhood in which Calvijn met Junior College is located, Amsterdam-West, has a mainly immigrant population. The life of the inhabitants is concentrated in this area where they buy their groceries at the Turkish supermarket, their meat at the local halal butcher, and pray together in the mosque. Sofyan states that one of the main goals of the school is to prepare the children for Dutch society, since many of them very rarely get the opportunity to interact with people who are not from their own neighborhood. “For them, New West is the real society”, he says, and explains how the children  live in immigrant neighborhoods, with almost no Dutch people around them. For this reason, the school organizes trips which take them out of the neighborhood. However, most of the children do not confirm this generalization on the part of the school management; they like to go to the city center to visit the cinema or go out to one of the bars. Gabriel, a third-year student, states that he usually hangs out in Amsterdam-West, but sometimes visits the Dam Square with his friends. He doesn’t leave the borders of Amsterdam often, though. “Only if my parents take me to Volendam.”

According to Ibrahim, the state should invest more in Amsterdam-West. In remarkably good English, he explains his criticisms in this regard. “The state has forgotten about this neighborhood, why did they only build small houses here?” he states. “We need different kinds of houses, so different people come and live in this neighborhood. We also need professionals to cheer up the neighborhood.” Fortunately, Ibrahim has a positive attitude.“It is never too late to invest in this area”, he adds.

Civil society in Amsterdam-West is concentrated around soccer clubs. Soccer is one of the ‘bonding’ mechanisms, and all the boys that we interviewed at Calvijn met Junior College stated that they enjoy soccer. During the break, the soccer table is the central meeting point in the school hall. Shortly after the bell rings, boys gather around the table and start playing fanatically. “I am Fenerbahce and he is Galatasaray”, explains one of the boys.

The students’ focus on Turkish players is illustrative of how the soccer clubs in the neighborhood function. Soccer unites people, but some clubs are segregated along ethnicities. There are clubs in the neighborhood with names such as FC Türkiyemspor (Turks) and CF Chabab Amsterdam-Marokko (Moroccans). 

Margalith Kleijwegt states that Dutch society was blind to the problems of immigrant communities for too long. “It is wonderful to have a multicultural society, without facing the consequences of having one, ” she says. Not enough effort was mde toward integration in the past, which is why today this process is much harder. In the past, there was  a certain patronizing way in which Dutch society behaved towards immigrants, not realizing that change has to come from the communities themselves. Margalith sees education as a vital element of integration, since that is the only true way of understanding differences between one another. She is a strong advocate for greater investment in education at black schools, since they are the most vulnerable and therefore need the most attention from the community.

The Calvijn met Junior College is a positive example of how children with different ethnic backgrounds can easily play together. Its success raises the question of the necessity of separate Turkish and Moroccan soccer clubs.

Teachers – role models or just transmitters of knowledge?

Margalith is happy that her work with  Calvijn met Junior College sparked a heated discussion not only about this school, but many other black schools as well. “They must not be ignored”, she says, explaining how at the time of her research six years ago, this school in particular was one of the most difficult.  Of all the problems she has encountered during her research, the largest one concerns the means of transmitting knowledge: the teachers at the school. She found them unable to cope with the situation and ultimately being there just to teach, without a deeper understanding the children. Could it be called teaching at all, if there is no real interaction and insight into the ideal relationship between teacher-student?

That is definitely the million-dollar question at this school, and the answer differs based on whom you ask. Sofyan, as an administrator, thinks that the teachers are effective. He is very proud of the diversity reflected by teachers at the school. This, he feels, makes the school community  more open and accessible to the children, since many of them would rather convey their fears and problems to a teacher to whom they feel closer – often someone of their ethnic background. But an even bigger reason for students' feeling more confident with teachers of their own background is the connection they are able to make between their lives, and the teachers' lives. “The teachers know how to communicate with the children without words”, says Sofyan, adding that the teachers mostly grew up in the same neighborhoods where their students are currently growing up, and faced the same difficulties.

The street serves as a social institution for the children and leaves an enormous impact on how children behave. The teachers, who have already gone through a "street education," know this, and accommodate their way of communicating accordingly.

In contrast to Sofyan's characterization, Ibrahim, a student, perceives that most of the teachers at his school are not effective. “Every teacher has his own style. 40% of that is good, but not the rest.” He finds the lack of structure quite confusing, and misses the structure supplied by other teachers he has had from time to time. He further indicates a preference for Moroccan teachers, due to their ability to better understand the needs of Moroccan students like him. Other students who profess to have had a great experience at the school, like Najib and Fabien, have no problems with their teachers. Therefore, it appears that the perceptions of high-quality educators is correlated with positive students’ experiences.

Whether the teacher is Dutch or Moroccan definitely makes a difference in the effectiveness of their pedagogy for students from different backgrounds. Fouzia and Saida, two young Moroccan female teachers of Civic Skills and Trade, noted: “Sometimes the students feel better understood by teachers from a minority background. During the Ramadan this is especially salient, because they experience the same process.” This contrasts with the perspective of Jochem Naafs, a Dutch teacher, whohas a hard time telling the difference between Moroccan and Turk.

Understanding the immigrant experience also helps teachers navigate linguistic barriers in the classroom. Moroccan children speak Dutch, which has as much to do with the fact that they all speak different Moroccan dialects at home, as the pressure to speak Dutch per se. Incorporating these linguistic differences in the classroom makes for more effective teaching, as Ibrahim indicated earlier. Jochem had a slightly different interpretation. For him, language is not the biggest issue since all of the students in the school speak excellent Dutch, but it does become an issue when the students choose to bring their own language into the classroom. Many students, when angry, choose to speak in their native language. “They think they can fool me with their language in class.” Some of this is motivated not by  disrespect for him, but represents an attempt to impress the group. “In the culture of the students, the group is more important than their individual persons.” Jochem deals with this by not allowing it, and by avoiding differential treatment in general. The way in which one deals with this issue definitely makes a difference when it comes to teachers’ experiences.

One thing that all interviewed teachers agree upon, however, is the necessity of mentoring students outside of the classroom. Fouzia and Saida are role models for the children, who ask what they did in order to become teachers. They inspire the children, and motivate them to succeed. Outside of teaching, Jochem is also a mentor to many of these kids, visiting them at home. He likes his job because of such interactions, which offer him a warm, very different experience from the one that he has in Dutch schools. “When you’re one of the family, they respect you and this makes a difference.”

Indeed, they all are Amsterdammers

Brian, Najib, Ibrahim, Gabriel, Semra and Fatima are all interesting individuals with many things that differentiate them from one another. Yet, it seems that there is much more that connects them, beginning with the school they attend, the neighborhood they live in and their immigrant backgrounds, and extending to the  expectations they have in life. The question of identity is not an issue for them. Indeed, they all feel like Amsterdammers, and because of that they can easily interact with one another, become friends, have girlfriends and boyfriends from backgrounds that are different than their own. They do not judge people by their ethnicity; rather, they choose to judge them for their deeds and the decisions they make in life.

Even though ethnic background is not a major issue for these children, they sometimes feel isolated from  greater Dutch society. The school tries to fill this gap by organizing trips and activities with Dutch companies. But, addressing this will also require more understanding on the part of Dutch society itself. Dutch people travel a lot, and have seen other parts  of the world. This intrinsic interest in ‘other cultures’ could just as well be expressed by showing interest in people of different backgrounds who live in their own neighborhood. . Sadly, discrimination from Dutch society towards immigrants still occurs.

Fortunately, times are changing. Recent research at the University of Amsterdam shows that children in mixed schools perform better in civil skills, and are better in conflict-solving tasks, compared to children in homogeneous black or white schools. Indeed, integration takes years tocomplete and requires responsibility and understanding from both sides. Our meeting with the ambitious children at Calvijn met Junior College, and the improving image of mixed schools, are both positive signs of a future in which native Dutch and immigrant communities will take the responsibility to work on integration together. The school lies at the intersection of connections between children from different backgrounds – whether Moroccan, Turkish or Dutch. Thanks to the time spent in school, children can get to know each other, understand each other's differences, and learn how to respect one another. By doing this, they become aware of the bonds that tie them and the commonalities they share. Indeed, they all are Amsterdammers.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2011


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