Polish immigrant Mateusz Pintek's German life turned around a few months ago on the day he brought home a strawberry tart, crafted with his own hands. His mother loved it. The praise washed away the bad memories, the school failures.
After arriving from Poland in 2010, Mateusz, then 14, ended up like many immigrant youth: lost. Finding it hard to make himself understood in a foreign language, he dropped out of school. With no school certificate and thus no possibility of getting an apprenticeship, the door to Germany's famous vocational training remained closed.
But Germany's educational rescue program kicked in. Accepted last year into a one-year pre-apprenticeship training class at a vocational college that specializes in the hotel and gastronomy professions, the teen literally put his hands in the mix. By measuring sugar and mixing dough in a prep class, Mateusz started to make sense of theoretical concepts. Two internships at local bakeries – part of the program – raised his interest in the profession. When he graduated from the prep class in July, at age 16, Mateusz had found a vocation, and he also had a ticket for a future: a middle school certificate and a three-year bakery apprenticeship contract.
"He learned that, even if he didn't make it in school, he can be useful to society," says Jörg Stuhlmann, Mateusz's baking teacher at the Bergius Vocational College prep class. "Society judges children on the basis of their grades. Here they make a product, something that tastes good, that people like. They get the chance to be praised for something they've done."
For a century, Bergius has taught middle school graduates to cook and clerk in Frankfurt's hotels and restaurants. It is one of 16 public vocational schools here that train youngsters in 365 officially recognized professions.
While most European nations try to track all students into college, Germany sends a majority to vocational training. Rooted in the guilds of the Middle Ages, the system offers training by – and, often, a job with – a Meister (professional).
"Most German company leaders or owners have gone through the system and are proud of it," says Jens Schneider, a University of Osnabrück sociologist. "Meisters used to be apprentices first, then journeymen, and now they own the shop; they are the guys doing the training."
Germany's education system tracks students by the age of 10 into one of three systems: the Gymnasium, for careers in academics; the Realschule, for white-collar jobs; and the Hauptschule, the trade-track school. For a long time, early tracking worked. Indeed the Hauptschules produced the specialized workforce that rebuilt the country after World War II and still feeds the strong small-business economy. Vocational training in Germany, unlike in most of Europe, is a respected, solid alternative to the traditional university path.
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.
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."