Students study in the stairwell at Koppenplatz elementary in the wealthier part of Mitte in Berlin, Germany. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Attempts to racially integrate schools in America have prompted such backlash and animosity that, at this point, the idea has been largely abandoned.
And schools today are considered more segregated than they were in 1968 — not long after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling ended racial separation by mandate.
Based on the legacy of slavery and racism, this is, in a way, a uniquely American problem.
But the underpinnings of the issue are truly universal.
Keystone Crossroads went to Berlin, Germany to explore that city’s recent integration effort, which hinged mostly on social class and language fluency.
‘That’s not us’
Berlin’s Vineta elementary is a beautiful school.
Clean, orderly hallways. Brightly lit classrooms with huge windows. Up-to-date technology and moderately-sized student-teacher ratios.
In its most recent school inspection report — which is based more on qualitative factors than test scores — it received an ‘A.’
“We had the school inspection. They just have been here, and we got a complete ‘A,’” said principal Katrin Baumhöver. “Can’t be better!”
But a stigma hangs over the school, especially to outsiders.
“All around us is social housing,” said Baumhöver, pointing out the window of her office. “All parents are entitled to social assistance.”
Vineta is located in Wedding, a largely Turkish-and-Arabic neighborhood in Berlin with some of the city’s highest levels of poverty and unemployment. But the neighborhood abuts a much wealthier section of Berlin.
And a dividing line thought of as a “social wall” runs exactly along the site of the former Berlin Wall.
“Parents from the wealthy side are always very enthusiastic about how beautiful and quiet this school is — calm ambience for learning, friendly, polite children, all treating each other friendly, very loveably,” said Baumhöver. “And then they see so many brown eyes, headscarves, and long hair and all that, and then those parents say, ‘that’s not us.’”
The comparative slideshow below gives a slice of life on either side of the social wall.
This “social wall” exists within Mitte, the central district in Berlin. And about a decade ago the government came up with a plan to integrate the schools. They believed that they could give kids born into poverty a better chance at upward mobility by mixing them with students higher up the socioeconomic ladder.
Decades of research in America has shown that, compared to more balanced schools, schools concentrated with poverty severely diminish outcomes for students no matter their race. Baumhöver believes this too, so she was for the integration plan.
“Heterogeneity and diversity is fundamental, because only like that can children best learn from each other and learn together,” she said.
Levers of power
The Mitte government was inspired, in part, by Germany’s mediocre performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which first published results in the year 2000.
“People believed that we had the best system in the world. So everything was good. And then PISA came, and we realized that we’re sort of average,” said Maja Lasić, a member of Berlin’s parliament who focuses on education policy for the Social Democrats, the party which advanced the integration plan.
“One of the major learnings from PISA was that we have a huge gap considering the educational success considering the social income of the families,” she said.
All over Mitte, starting in 2007, the government redrew boundary lines and put schools into clusters where, in theory, parents could opt for any school in their zone.
The most contentious zone, number 7, was the one drawn around this “social wall” near Vineta, which, in its final iteration, included three schools on the poor side of the divide and four on the wealthy side.
The new maps were applauded by education advocates as a crucial step toward reducing poverty.
Dr. Mattias Brockstedt, a public health official and pediatrician in Mitte, argues that the effects of poverty can be as adverse as other more commonly recognized ailments, and that segregating poor students has deleterious effects.
“Social dis-capability is a form of dis-capability,” he said. “It’s a very severe form, which really influences the rest of your life.”
Several studies in the U.S. have affirmed the positive effects of school integration, finding that African-Americans who attended mixed schools increased their academic and career outcomes, and reduced their probability of incarceration — without negatively affecting white peers.
In theory, Mitte’s integration effort treated all families equally. All parents of rising first-graders ranked their preferences among the schools in their zone, and if too many were vying for the same spots, there’d be a lottery which would assign enrollment randomly.
In practice, though, the exercise ultimately served to illustrate how those with greater agency pull the levers of power.
“If parents don’t get a place, then they have the possibility to appeal. Then it gets closely examined,” said Angela Thiele, principal of Koppenplatz elementary, one of the schools on the wealthier side.
From the jump, parents living near a more favored school had many tools at their disposal to ensure that their children would get a desired placement — such utilizing sibling preference or exercising social contacts.
And if those avenues didn’t work — similar to the so-called “white flight” that occurred in many U.S. cities in the 1970s and 80s in the wake of desegregation busing — German parents of greater means either opted for private schools or moved to another section of the city.
Or, they hired a lawyer.
Attorney Olaf Werner represented dozens of parents fighting school placements. He says the most effective legal case was a simple one.
“You use a procedural argument, saying ‘this whole area is much too large,’” he said.
Over and over again, Werner was successful arguing that elementary school children shouldn’t be compelled to travel further than necessary to get to school.
The distance between Vineta and Koppenplatz is about 1.25 miles. Other schools that straddle either side of the social wall are as little as a half mile apart.
“At the beginning you are also angry at the families because they have an extreme focus on their own interest, and are not even willing to try,” said Maja Lasić, the member of parliament.
The map below shows the seven elementary schools within zone #7 as the catchment boundary was drawn in 2011. The circles are larger or smaller depending on how many students of non-German origin are currently enrolled in the schools. Percent unemployment is used as the best available proxy for the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods.
In the U.S., integration efforts have largely only succeeded when they have had the backing of the court system.
The use of desegregation busing in American schools was a result of the landmark 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In an unanimous decision, the court wrote:
“All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes. But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation. The remedy for such segregation may be administratively awkward, inconvenient and even bizarre in some situations, and may impose burdens on some; but all awkwardness and inconvenience cannot be avoided….”
Over the decades, the American court system has moved away from this opinion, with the Supreme Court delivering a series of rulings which have weakened constitutionally-enforced school integration efforts. This includes an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007.
In Mitte’s case, the parliament had hoped the integration effort would succeed without the clear support of the courts. But it didn’t, and government officials scrambled each year to revise boundary lines that they hoped would pass parental and legal muster.
The maps below show how the school catchments in Mitte were revised from 2009-2012.
Graphic by Azevea
The 2009 map shows the catchments as defined by neighborhood-school boundaries, where families were ensured a spot at the closest school to their home. The 2010 map shows an integration attempt that was rejected by the courts. In 2011, the Berlin government modified the map, shrinking zone # 7 based complaints about distance.
The city of Berlin, steeped in pivotal 20th century history, provides an almost poetic backdrop to this school integration debate.
Arguments for creating fairer, more equitable school systems can hew towards the ideals of socialism — prioritizing the good of the whole over individual desire.
But as decades of history proved in Soviet-controlled East Berlin, this sort of system can be extremely stifling. In the wake of World War II, with millions of people fleeing Soviet-controlled East Berlin, it came to the point that the East German government literally built a wall to keep its people in.
Even after the Berlin Wall was erected and fortified with armed guards, barbed wire and attack dogs, thousands of East Berliners continued to risk their lives in the hopes of finding greater freedom.
So it’s little wonder that parents try to escape anything that they perceive will limit the opportunities of their children.
“There is a tendency for parents of greater economic and academic means to aim for certain schools very strongly, while others de facto simply don’t have this possibility. It’s a social problem,” said Werner, the attorney. “I cannot solve this from here.”
And this dynamic goes even for those parents who prescribe to a very liberal world view.
“We pay a lot of taxes. But we like to do that, because that’s something which is really for the social well-being,” said parent Anke Krause, who lives on the wealthier side of the divide. “It’s good.”
Krause sends her two daughters to Koppenplatz — it has a collaborative, project-based curriculum, which she and her husband love.
In their social circles, many parents send their kids to private school. And she admits that she probably would have done the same if the integration plan had threatened to send her daughters out of the neighborhood.
As has been the case in the context of many other school integration debates, the issue often forces parents to grapple with the tension between their political ideals and their personal priorities.
“We still have our borders and things in our heads and our hearts, and there’s a lot of, ‘Oh I don’t know how that works,’ from all sides,” said Krause. “And I think we need to get our inner walls….get them down. And you don’t do that with force, and you don’t do that with, ‘You do that now.’ But you do that with communications and with common projects together.”
To Krause’s point, it’s important to note that there was not a major outpouring of support for the integration plan from the families in Wedding.
Wolfgang Miehe — a veteran English teacher at Vineta who’s also taught at Koppenplatz — attributes that fact, at least in part, to a tendency many have to gravitate towards their own culture.
“It’s totally hard for our kids because they have other clothes. They have other eating and food habits. They are totally different in their behavior, and it is not easy for them to go to a school like [Koppenplatz],” said Miehe. “[The students at Vineta] are still in their culture, their Arabian culture. Many girls have a problem to say to their parents, ‘I want to study.’ It is not easy for them. They must fight against the opinion of their parents.”
In the end, after dealing with years of complaints and legal challenges, the Mitte government abandoned the integration effort. The segmented, neighborhood-based catchment map from 2009 as seen above has again become the standard.
The Berlin government releases very little school information to the public. Despite repeated requests, officials declined to provide any data that would indicate school-level statistics on the socioeconomic status of students or academic results — anything that, tracked by year, could indicate the larger effects of what occurred during the years where the catchment boundaries were widened.
This withholding of data is in sharp contrast to the U.S., where such information is easily accessible to the public. A spokesman for the Berlin Senate’s Administration for Education, Youth and Family says this data is not disclosed in order to “avoid school rankings and the stigma of schools and pupils.”
Several sources, though, corroborated the fact that the integration plan never forced students from the wealthier part of Mitte into schools in Wedding. Some children from Wedding did attend schools on the other side of the “social wall,” but the government did not track how the integration affected their academic success.
Overall, in the wake of this collapsed effort, some say the government squandered a tremendous opportunity. Brockstedt, the public health official, says the plan could have succeeded if leaders had better promoted its long-term benefits to parents on both sides of the divide.
“The people just see their individual lives and don’t think in general, and this is the role of the politicians, to make them understand that they are talking about…real improvement for everybody,” he said.
Government officials say there is currently very little political capital to jump-start another integration measure. Leaders are still stinging from the recent backlash, and now, with Berlin’s population rapidly growing, priorities have shifted.
Within the next seven years, Berlin’s public schools are expected to swell by 86,000 students — hastening the need for the city to build new schools and find more teachers.
“So that’s our major problem, and that’s why everything that has to improve — closing the gap and so on — simply won’t happen in the next decade,” said Maja Lasić.
Even as the conversation shifts, for some, like Vineta parent Andreas Rissmann, the larger pushback that killed the integration effort is alarming for personal reasons.
Rissmann takes his cue from another period of Berlin’s history. His grandfather fought for the Nazis in World War II, and, as a backlash, his parents raised him to be extra sensitive and open to any differences between people.
“My parents have taught us tolerance, they had no prejudices against anything,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got from them.”
So as much as he values personal choice, he worries about what the failure of this effort says about human nature.
“For me everybody is equal, no matter where they are from, which language they speak — if with one arm or two; three heads,” said Rissmann. “I don’t mind either way.”
In the third and final segment of our Berlin series, we examine a school along the “social wall” where integration has occurred, but only with the help of a hotly-debated special program.
The first story in the series examined Berlin’s funding system in relation to the “social wall.”
Some interviews were conducted in German. Translations and other reporting support by Nanette Kröker.