Merging East, West Students Challenges Berlin Schools

GERMAN educators are struggling to bridge the gulf between education systems in eastern Germany and those in the western part of the country.

"If you look internally at Berlin, there is still division between east and west," says high school social-studies teacher Uli Meuel. "It's a 40-year tradition."

Mr. Meuel recalls a recent class discussion about student birthplaces. "One student was afraid to say where he was born. The others talked about being born in cities like Beirut, but it was the east German student who was ashamed. In the hierarchy, the students from east Germany are below the foreigners, and this is causing problems."

High school student Silke Michaeli thinks schools should do more to address the lack of understanding between students from different backgrounds. "I think they should build a new subject about social problems to get to know other people" she says.

Teachers from west Berlin complain that east German teachers and students have a different attitude. "In east Germany, they ask what the government can do. In west Germany, we ask what we can do," Meuel says. Another west Berlin teacher speaks of the different approach required for teaching students who grew up in the east. "It's hard for them," says Uwe Brenne. "They can't work on their own. They wait and say, `What should I write down?' They write whatever I say."

Meanwhile, schools in the east are struggling to adapt to an entirely new system. "We had to go without a principal for quite a long time. Everything was upside down," says Renate Remke, an English teacher at a high school in Hellersdorf, a typically gray residential section in east Berlin.

"There was no one willing to do it because the problems were too big," explains Axel Friede, a principal from the west who agreed to take the job less than a year ago.

"The problem we have is getting the students to work in the new system," he says. "They were used to going to a school where everything was organized for them.... Outside everything has changed, and now everything changes inside the school."

The unemployment rate in the Hellersdorf area is nearly 30 percent, and the students have no recreational facilities. If students want to see a movie, for example, they must travel more than an hour by train to the west.

Although it's been difficult, east German teachers see improvement in their schools. "We as teachers have more possibility to interpret the curriculum for every lesson," says English teacher Norbert Grimm. "In our former GDR [German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany] program, we had no possibility to use another book. It's much better than before."

Students notice a difference as well. "Teaching is harder and quicker," says eighth-grader Lorena Pierson. "It's harder to get good marks." Lorena's 18-year-old sister doesn't understand Lorena's homework. "I am doing harder tasks," Lorena says.

The changes have been a shock to many east Berlin residents. "If you had told me in 1988 that the GDR would break up within a short time, I wouldn't have believed it," Ms. Remke says.

"It opened the world to us," she continues. "The first time I was in west Berlin was the 11th of November 1989, two days after the wall came down. It was overwhelming to have that opportunity. All my life I had wished to see the Brandenburg Gate from the other side. I had been standing there on the other side so often and asking myself, `Why can't I go there?' "

Now that she can go to the west anytime she wishes, Remke sees the progress needed at home. Although the transition has been difficult, both students and teachers are hopeful about the future. As young Lorena puts it: "Now it's difficult for people, but I hope that in the future things will become better."

"We can't teach our students English, German, and biology without some prospects that it will get better," says Mr. Grimm. "We must say so."

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