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Global education lessons: Germany’s respected voc-tech path with Meisters

In Germany, more than half of all students take vocational training – and for those not ready, an intensive pre-apprenticeship program "rescues" youths by helping them identify a profession and prep to work with a serious Meister.

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But now, the early tracking system can fail its weakest members – immigrants, particularly because they are often not prepared to learn. Vocational schools have become a "dumping ground" for immigrant children like Mateusz, says Bernd Nürnberg, principal at Bergius.

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Only 15 percent of those leaving vocational schools have an apprenticeship in their hands, according to federal statistics. "What about the other 80 percent? What can we do to help those people find an apprenticeship?" asks researcher Mr. Schneider.

Bergius tries to bridge the gap with intensive support. Small classes are hands-on, and teachers, counselors, and work mediators follow pupils' progress. But, says Mr. Stuhlmann, who gave up his own bakery to teach, "It's not as though all children come to school beaming and saying, 'Let's bake Brötchen!' "

The school helps solve distracting problems like fights, family issues, and nerves over job interviews. "Teachers can't do it alone," says teacher Eva Othold.

Since prep programs started in the early 1980s, myriad similar public and private initiatives have sprouted to help weaker students catch up with school basics and essential behavior for getting the all-important apprenticeship, say experts.

For six of the eight boys in Bergius's prep program, this year ended with precious apprenticeship contracts: They will learn a trade.

"You've had 160 hours of German and mathematics; 80 hours of sport, religion, politics; 400 hours of practical class," Ms. Othold told the class at graduation in July. "You've tried out different jobs, had team training, written résumés, thought about how life is going to go on. And on top of that, you got your school certificate. Now, make the most of it."

Boys, who a year ago were school dropouts, betrayed their pride with beaming smiles.

"I want to be a cook," says Thomas Ntissios, a Greek immigrant teen who graduated from the prep program with Mateusz. The two started their apprenticeship training in August amid the gigantic ice-cream makers in the Bergius school's kitchen and the array of knives in the butcher room. Three days a week Thomas will work in the Intercontinental Hotel kitchen and Mateusz at a local bakery.

"If you didn't have those special measures, the girls, especially those from Turkish backgrounds, would disappear in the family and the boys would start working in low-level jobs," says Schneider of the University of Osnabrück. "The challenge is to get them into an apprenticeship. But once you are in an apprenticeship and stay at it, it does not matter if you have Turkish or Greek background. You are in the system; you've made it."

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