At the Ketteler Elementary School in a socially deprived district of Bonn, it is easy to see how schools can cope with the growing heterogeneity of students. In order to learn for the future, children need three things: support from educational specialists, individual learning goals, and – perhaps most importantly – a good school climate.
Hatice is working on a math problem in front of a computer. An underwater world can be seen on the screen. A fat moonfish swims into it. On its belly is written “1T+8H+0Z+5E”. What does that mean? The ten-year-old turns around and says, "It's obvious, one thousand, eight hundreds, zero tens and five ones." Hatice types the result into the box. Correct! And the next task swims into the picture ...
Hatice attends the Kettelerschule in Bonn and is one of 25 children in the inter-grade Hedgehogs’ learning family. It's just before half past nine, the Hedgehogs have free learning time, and Hatice has chosen math. The other children, aged six to ten, are sitting on their own or in groups in the classroom and doing some concentrated work. The class teacher and a special educator walk around to see who has any questions. In addition, there are two integration assistants in the room. They support special-needs children in their learning. In the middle of the lesson, a boy is picked up by a speech therapist to receive language support next door. Normal everyday life at a not-so-normal school.
In the third school year since the pandemic broke out, there is a lot of talk of crisis and learning backlogs in German education circles. According to the IQB Education Trend 2022, fourth graders show a decline in skills compared to 2016, equivalent to a third of a school year in reading and a quarter of a school year in math. Even before Covid-19, almost half the students in Germany were suffering from school stress. School closures and home schooling have increased this pressure. At the same time, the gap between children from educationally advantaged families and those who receive little support at home is widening. But at the Kettelerschule, an inclusive community elementary school in the socially deprived Dansdorf district of Bonn, there is still a good atmosphere among students and the educational team at the beginning of this school year. What can we learn from this school?
If it were up to the elementary school Hatice had previously attended, she would now be at a special-needs school. At the end of first grade, her parents were informed that Hatice's language ability was "too weak" for elementary school. "My husband and I didn't agree with that," recalls her mother Raba Curevska, who is from North Macedonia and has lived in Germany for more than ten years. "We wondered why they didn't give Hatice a chance." The parents approached the Kettelerschule and got a place for their daughter. You wouldn't necessarily expect Hatice to find learning easier here, because the Kettelerschule is what's known as a "hot spot school." A third of the 230 elementary school students have diagnosed special needs, and German is the second language for more than half the children. Around 70 percent of the families are considered low-income, uneducated, and affected by poverty. "Hatice has made great progress here," says her class teacher Mark Winter proudly. She has even been elected class representative.
As in the other learning families at the Kettelerschule, each day at the Hedgehogs’ learning family is clearly structured. There are learning units where the children themselves choose what to work on, and those that are fixed to subjects such as math, English, or German. Each learning unit is always followed by a break or a meal time when the children are free to move around.
It is shortly after ten. Hatice is done with math. Next, she practices her reading. Her crayons are carefully sharpened, remarkably so. She always does this at home in the evening, she says with a serious expression. What she enjoys most about school? "I love reading and writing," she says, "right now I'm reading 'Greg's Diary' (Ed. an American graphic novel) in English."
"You can recognize a good school above all by the fact that the children get the feeling that they belong here in every situation," says Thorsten Bohl, a professor at the Institute of Educational Sciences at the University of Tübingen and future chairman of the jury for the German School Award. The Kettelerschule won the German School Award in 2019. "This clear, non-negotiable affiliation with the school does something to the children." Equally important, of course, is the quality of the teaching, he adds. "For educationally disadvantaged children in particular, every minute of real class time counts because they get few educational opportunities outside school," he points out.
Once a week, there are meetings known as a development conferences in the Kettelerschule. Mark Winter, Ute Hennig (a special needs teacher) and educator Nataliya Zagonenko are talking about a new student who has only been there for a few weeks. How is she doing? What does she need? What do they need to learn about her? During the enrollment interviews in the November prior to school enrollment, the children are already closely observed and a diagnosis is drawn up. Observations about social and emotional behavior, motor skills, work behavior, perception, communication, and play behavior are recorded in standardized, self-developed sheets that are constantly updated during the child’s time at school. "Current or acute needs" includes aspects such as "language comprehension – need for support" or even "separated parents". In the development conferences, the learning families' team regularly discusses all the topics that affect the child and makes decisions together: Do they need language support? Or occupational therapy? And what would be a realistic goal for the child in question?
At the Kettelerschule, not all children are measured against the same learning goal, but are given an individual learning goal corresponding to their abilities and talents. All the 25 children's names are displayed on the Hedgehogs’ large pinboard, divided by year. Below them, on index cards, are the respective learning goals. The bulletin board looks unassuming, but has a big impact.
An "integrated combination of individual and critical reference norm", educational scientist Thorsten Bohl calls it. His research includes the question of how German schools can deal with the growing heterogeneity of the student body. Criterial reference norms are learning goals that apply to all children, like curriculum goals. But the more heterogeneous a student body is, the more difficult it becomes to achieve just such critical norms grade-wide. Thorsten Bohl advocates combining them with individualized units of measurement, as happens at the Kettelerschule. And that actually seems to work. In third-grade comparative tests (VERA) children take written tests and for several years now in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Kettelerschule has recorded average scores in math and in reading has been above the state average since 2011. This is a real success: if solely compared with other "hotspot schools," the Kettelerschule would be high up in the table.
The children's right to have a say is lived out in practice at this school. During the free learning time, tasks are often distributed not by a teacher but by a student, the so-called "circle leader”. Today, nine-year-old Emily has taken on this role, and she almost sounds like a little teacher herself. Mia and Princess, both second-graders, wanted to count out piles of tens from a jar of rice together to practice arithmetic. Emily is skeptical. "But will it work with you two?" she asks, "You're friends." "Yes, it’ll work," say Mia and Princess. "Okay, I'll give you a chance," Emily decides. And it does work.
Anyone silently witnessing a school day here can see how the children blossom through this individual responsibility. A children's parliament even gives the pupils a say in their school day. "The teachers have to put up with the fact that it takes longer. But when the children decide things for themselves, they’re much more motivated," says Mark Winter. "And it trains them to make good decisions."
A good mood is not only important in the classroom, but also in the educational team. Ute Hennig, a special education teacher, has been working at the school since 2009 and has witnessed times when the teaching staff’s motivation was at rock bottom. "Today, no one cooks their own soup anymore; we develop things together," Hennig says. The motto "School Not Class" is important to her because it emphasizes that the multi-disciplined staff of teachers, educators, and therapists is committed to shared values, ideas, and rituals. "People like coming to school. We all have the feeling we can really achieve something here," says Hennig.
The Kettelerschule is not successful because it has a lot of money or a generous circle of supporters. Like all other schools, it has to fight for good, specialist staff. In theory, all "hot spot" schools should have several teachers per class, but most schools lack not so much resources as simply staff. Around half of Germany’s teaching and other specialist staff, the German School Barometer discovered, are suffering from physical or mental exhaustion in 2022. At German elementary schools, 83 percent of teachers believe they cannot provide some students with the learning support they need.
If you ask the principal, Christina Lang-Winter, how the Kettelerschule manages to retain teachers, therapists, and educators in the long term, she prefers to talk about attitude: "With us, the sun shines even in the rain.” What does that mean in concrete terms? "When a child holds a door open for me, I say, 'Oh, that's so nice of you to hold the door open for me,' and the child beams, and that makes me beam." According to Christina, it's important to keep mentioning the positive, and that applies to everyone – students, teachers, and parents.
When you step out onto the noisy street after a day at this school, you wonder how Hatice, Emily, Princess, and their classmates will feel when, one day, they have to leave this protective environment because they have to move house or simply transfer to a comprehensive school or high school. Familiar with such thoughts, Christina Lang-Winter is reassuring and points out that, compared to other "hot spot schools", the Kettelerschule recommends a large number of children to go to high school and also works well with a local comprehensive school. And perhaps it's because the children have worked in their group for years and experienced self-determination that they are flexible and resilient enough to deal with any challenges – and change society a little "It's not just about literacy," Christina Lang-Winter says. "We hear from the youth centers in the area that our students also care more about children who are not part of their family or close circle of friends. That makes me really proud.”