For the first time, refugee students from Ukraine have graduated from a German school with a Ukrainian high school diploma. German-Ukrainian education talks funded by the Foundation shed light on how both countries benefit from this pilot project.
Around 30,000 students from Ukraine have found refuge in Bavaria since Russia invaded Ukraine. Many of them attend a so-called welcome class, known in Bavaria as a bridge class, as a first step toward integration. At the private SchlaU-Schule in Munich, which was awarded the German School Prize in 2014, 21 students have now received a Ukrainian high school diploma in Germany for the first time, awarded in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education. Especially interesting is that 20 percent took online courses offered by two partner schools in western Ukraine, while 80 percent were taught in person by nine teachers from Ukraine who also fled the country.
For the students, it's a milestone. Finally, they have a degree with which they can study in both countries. "I'm very happy that I can now study, either online in Ukraine or here at a preparatory college for German university," says 17-year-old Bhodan Hlahola. He fled to Germany from Mukachevo in western Ukraine in March 2022, "when the Russian soldiers were five kilometers from Kyiv." The terror of that experience still resonates in his voice today. Now he is standing in the magnificent ballroom of the Munich Künstlerhaus, receiving his graduation certificate in the presence of Bavarian Culture Minister Michael Piazolo and Ukrainian Consul Oleksander Stetsiuk.
Bhodan, like many of his peers, still isn’t sure what he wants to do with his future – perhaps study sports, math or something with languages. Three days ago, he passed his German exam at A2 level, he says proudly, an important step for him toward success in the German education system. And yet he is an exception among Ukrainian students: Teachers from different schools report that most do not speak German as well as other refugee students. Because many hope to soon return to Ukraine, they are not very motivated to learn the language. In the welcome classes, they mostly stay together with others from their home country.
For the principal of the SchlaU-Schule, the pilot project with the Ukrainian Ministry of Education is an investment in Ukraine's future. "A kind of early reconstruction assistance," as Michael Stenger says. "We are creating prospects for people to return home with positive thoughts and dreams for the future." Stenger heads the school, which is run by the association of young refugees – Junge Flüchtlinge e.V. It was founded in 2000 with the goal of helping refugees earn a qualified German high school diploma – always guided by qualified social education workers who have access to and the trust of the students. Stenger says the past school year was challenging. He tells of exhaustive discussions with his Ukrainian students about good study habits and punctuality, and of the arduous task of building up their self-esteem together with other teachers and a Ukrainian social worker. "The daily events of the war were an enormous burden,” he says. “Sometimes five students were affected, sometimes none." But he remains positive about the work of the school: "We did everything right – but we doubted it all year."
For the education experts from Ukraine and Germany who met to discuss German-Ukrainian education on the occasion of the award ceremony, the pilot project marks the beginning of a cooperation from which both sides can benefit – above all, the Ukrainians . Lilia Hrynevych, Ukraine's Minister of Education from 2016-2019 who now works as a consultant, hopes that the graduates will soon return and participate in the reconstruction of their homeland. She also hopes that the refugee teachers, 600 of whom are currently teaching in Bavaria, will provide impetus for educational reforms launched before the war, aiming for a "New Ukrainian School.”
Germany also has much to learn – in seeing diversity as an opportunity and developing a school system for an immigrant society, says Dagmar Wolf, the foundation's head of education. In view of the extreme shortage of teachers and structural challenges at schools in general, she would like to see more social education workers, school psychologists and more classroom support. "We know from our school survey “Schulbarometer”, for example, that as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, one in four children in Germany has a disorder that requires treatment," she says. "That's why we're advocating for multi-professional teams in schools, and not just for Ukrainian refugees." The question remains whether the German education system will succeed in better integrating refugee students compared to the last large influx of refugees in 2015. At that time, offers were developed that have proven to be viable options in helping the newly arrived Ukrainians. In addition to classes, refugee students need safe spaces and an organized daily routine.
"But the problem is that this knowledge is not anchored in schools, but lies with individuals and groups. We can therefore take ideas from schools like SchlaU and apply them to the system as a whole, so that next time we don't have to figure out what to do from the ground up."
Anastasiia Butkevych has encountered just this kind of safe space. The 17-year-old from Kyiv passed her Ukrainian graduation with honors, as shown by the gold medal around her neck. "What was special about SchlaU School was that it was almost like a place I could call home; it gave me a safe harbor." She arrived in Germany alone in March 2022. Her brother lives in Spain, and her parents stayed in Ukraine. Asked about her dreams, Anastasiia replies, "I don't make big plans for the future. I have learned that everything can change within one day." She has her sights set on a technically oriented business administration degree at the Technical University of Munich. "I'm happy to have completed school now. At the same time, I am a little bit afraid because I don't know what will happen in September." The SchlaU-Schule already has some idea: there will be four classes next year counting on them for their future.