DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And many feel change has not come quickly enough in Germany when it comes to bridging the racial divide. We're going to visit Berlin, where schools remain segregated in some inner-city districts. Journalist Esme Nicholson spoke with parents who want their local schools to better reflect their neighborhoods.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: When Angela Merkel declared integration has failed in Germany almost a decade ago, she was responding to complaints about schools like Karlsgarten Elementary here in the Berlin borough of Neukolln. Like many other schools here, most of its pupils have what Germans call a migrant background, even though the fast-gentrifying area has a diverse demographic. And like the other schools, this one does not have a good reputation.
BRIGITTE UNGER: (Through interpreter) Recently the mother of a prospective pupil asked me, how high is the percentage of immigrants at this school?
NICHOLSON: Brigitte Unger is the principal of Karlsgarten Elementary.
UNGER: (Through interpreter) And I told her, 86 percent of our pupils are kids whose first language is not German.
NICHOLSON: Sixty-four-year-old principal Unger issues a knowing sigh and says the mother in question would've been quite happy were these other languages French, English or Italian because that would qualify as an international school.
UNGER: (Through interpreter) She knew, though, that most of the pupils here are of Turkish and Arab origin and was afraid that this would disadvantage her own children. In her mind, kids from immigrant families are not as intelligent, and that misconception is our biggest problem.
NICHOLSON: Local mother Susann Worschech says it's not just the language barrier that deters many Germans of nonimmigrant background from sending their kids here. We meet after work at a busy cafe opposite the school.
SUSANN WORSCHECH: Someone told me, I'm really afraid of my son coming home and beginning to disrespect women or girls because, I mean, this is also a very much Muslim neighborhood. And people have so many prejudices.
NICHOLSON: Worschech, who's in her 30s and currently writing up her Ph.D., has three children. When her eldest daughter reached school age three years ago, she and her husband automatically dismissed Karlsgarten. Then they took a closer look and discovered that the school's poor reputation was undeserved. So Worschech started a campaign called Local Schools For All to encourage other nonimmigrant parents to enroll their kids at Karlsgarten. The initiative is changing the demographic of the school, making it more mixed, something that pleases Principal Unger.
UNGER: (Through interpreter) Word spread that, in fact, your children can get a decent education here even if you are German and university-educated.
NICHOLSON: Unger says a third of all first-graders are now Germans of nonimmigrant background. This statistic also pleases Halit Kamali, whose 11-year-old daughter is a pupil here.
HALIT KAMALI: (Through interpreter) I had major reservations about the school and, yes, because at that time, more than 90 percent of the pupils were immigrant kids.
NICHOLSON: Kamali is an immigrant himself, born in Turkey, raised in Berlin. According to a recent study by the University of Dusseldorf, his attitude is as typical among immigrants as it is among nonimmigrants.
KAMALI: (Through interpreter) I thought my daughter would not be stretched enough academically, that the school would dumb down the lessons for immigrant kids.
NICHOLSON: Over coffee Kamali is chatting in Turkish to some parents from a different group, one he founded six years ago. He wanted to debunk another common myth about the area's schools, the reputation of its parents.
KAMALI: (Through interpreter) There was this prejudice that we, as immigrants, were not interested in the quality of our kids' schooling. So we decided to show that we value education just as much as anyone else.
NICHOLSON: Kamali's initiative offers extracurricular activities from tutoring to bike riding. When the parents from Local Schools For All first showed up, Kamali says his group felt snubbed.
KAMALI: (Their interpreter) I expected more tact, but instead they declared, we're here to make changes. We're German. We're inner-city.
NICHOLSON: Despite teething problems, Kamali and Worschech say they now get on very well. Yet while their kids are no longer segregated, the parents still meet in two separate groups.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
NICHOLSON: Both admit that they could learn a thing or two from their children, who got along with each other from the word, go, proof, it seems, that given half the chance integration in Germany starts in the schoolyard. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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