“For me it is important that every child can develop”

A visit to the Astrid Lindgren special school in Weisswasser

Interview with the headmistress Christiane Burges

This first of all: At the Weisswasser Astrid Lindgren special school an impressive work is being done. Here pupils with learning difficulties with a focus on intellectual development are taught and cared for. These are mainly pupils who cannot adequately be supported in the schools of general education. School authority is the Görlitz administrative district office. In the following interview the headmistress Mrs Burges presents the work of her school in detail.

Christiane Burges, Headmistress: Our school was established on 1 August 1991. We were initially housed in two old mansions in Luxembourg street, where, before the reunification, there had been the special school for mentally handicapped children. But it quickly became clear that it would be much too small in the future. I submitted an application to the administration asking to build or rebuild a school, and on 1 January 1994, we could move in this house here. Previously, the house had been used as kindergarten and nursery but then it had become available. The city handed it over to the district, since all special schools, colleges and secondary schools are overseen by the district; middle schools and the primary schools, however, by the communes. At that time, we would have had the opportunity to build a brand new house, but for me it was more important that we were situated as closely as possible to the city center, so that we would be able to use everything in our environment, and that our pupils could master their ways to school independently, whenever possible. The commuting area is relatively large, comprising the former County of Weisswasser and Niesky and extending to Görlitz. Therefore, many pupils get here with the optional school transport, i.e., by taxi.

Current Concerns: How many pupils have you got here?

It varies, but in the last ten years, there were always between 50 and 60. You must imagine that the pupils are always grouped in age levels. The lower level correspondingly includes 1st to 3rd grade, the intermediate level 4th to 6th grade, the upper level 7th to 9th grade and the work level 10th to 12th grade. Normally, we always lead two classes at the lower level, two at the intermediate level, two at the upper level and two at the work level. With the work level we fulfill the compulsory school attendance as well. Usually, compulsory education is completed with the ninth grade, but since there isn’t any vocational school supplied for our students, we offer it as well, internally.
At the lower level we have six pupils per class on average, at the intermediate level as well, and at the upper level and the work level there are eight to ten students. Of course, it also depends on the clientele of students to be found in a class, and there we have a very wide range, which means that we have severely multiple-handicapped and disabled children with a focus on walking aids, whose parents wish that they are placed close to their home. The “classic mentally-handicapped pupil” – now represents the lowest share of our students. The latter refers to students with a specific medical indication or to pupils with an IQ score of less than 65. Ours are rather students who do not fit into all other current schools, who might be able to cope with the school for children with learning difficulties, but who have behavioral problems or problems with concentration to such a degree that this is not possible.
In the schools for children with learning difficulties compared to the regular schools, performance requirements are curtailed by one to two years and at our school, these are three to four years. In our school the learning material is orientated towards everything that can help students to cope with life. When the pupils start school, they are six or seven years old, but regarding their development often only two to three years old. There, we do not offer reading, writing and arithmetic, but: How do I make a sandwich, how do I lay the table, how can I get dressed or undressed, rather everyday tasks. Usually we start our lessons in mathematics, German and other subjects at the intermediate level, when students are ten to twelve years old; of course this is very individual. Everything we offer is tailored to the level of the individual child. In addition, we offer a lot of handicrafts, that is working with ceramics, wood and metal as well as paper and textiles. The pupils also cook for themselves. Of course there are also several levels, i.e., the kids make tea or a little dessert. The older ones already start with a salad or smaller dishes. And at the work level, they prepare meals regularly, so to say. The intention is indeed that they learn to take care of themselves. We also give them recipe books according to their level.

Is there also a discussion about integration and inclusion in Saxony?

I was going to come to that anyway. We have our main house. In this main house all tasks of subject teaching are covered. But there are also included three classes with severely multiple-handicapped pupils. For these children, even physical, occupational and logo treatments are available on prescription basis. These children are also housed in the main house, because here we have the necessary facilities, such as a therapeutic bath and more.
Next we have a whole floor in the high school next door. All those who are physically fit and able to cope with the ways independently are grouped into classes there. Also an internal training flat is integrated there. This means that the students are there all day and fulfill their work stage concept, i.e., compulsory vocational education; they cook for themselves, go to their individual internships from there and have certain learning programs. For our very fit students we also have an outsourced training apartment.
Since 1991/1992, we have also had a school project in cooperation with various primary schools in the city of Weisswasser, which means: we join students in common classes, however, only in those subjects that we consider to be appropriate, these are mainly sports, crafts, music and art education. The remaining subjects are taught separately. Currently, the principle of inclusion is top of the agenda, but here it is always regarded with some reservation, and in Saxony the attitude is the fllowing: The requirements have to be met, and if they are not fulfilled, inclusion can not be granted.

I can remember: In a commemorative publication in 1982, “150 Years of Zurich elementary school”, the special education of children with disabilities was praised as a great achievement, as an expression of a human spirit and as a sign of solidarity. One was proud that every child received training and one began to defame this special support as discrimination. And today it is demanded that the special schools should be abolished and all children should be integrated into the regular school. Are you also affected by that provision?

Just recently we have had parents who definitely wanted that their daughter visited an elementary school, close to her home if possible. After the diagnosis, we carried out, it was clearly a G-Child, that is to say, a child with a focus on mental development that should be taught strictly according to our curriculum. The problem is that this girl – even in a small primary school class – would need a special offer that corresponds with our curriculum. She would need a special education teacher that the school would have to provide for parallel. Now imagine: The girl needs at least 15 lessons at its own level, while the others have their English and maths lessons. A primary school teacher can not accomplish that, she has to take care of the rest of the class. In addition to these subjects, there are also sports and other subjects, in which the girl could not take part. It would take an integration companion, so again another person. The girl must be accompanied during transport, it needs help with dressing and putting on its shoes and, and, and. Now look at the effort that you would have to make, and here is a school that can accomplish all that. Actually, that’s crazy, right? Meanwhile, the issue is settled. The parents exercised their right of appeal and judicial use and won their case in the instance of the Saxon Higher Administrative Court of Law, so that the girl has been taught in a primary school since the end of November, with all of the above conditions.

Even though it is questionable, whether the enormous effort required now is really for the good of the child. The idea that special support is discriminating is not correct. It is a matter of fact that there are differences, even organically related disabilities, and one can only appreciate that these children are promoted at their level.

But this is a topic where we exercise restraint in discussions with parents more and more, because the parents say: There is the position of disability rights, we have the right to that and it is our wish. Of course, we give recommendations, and the parents recognize that. The problem is simply that they want something that they consider to be their right. They want that their child is happy, and feel that they help if it goes to school close to home. But this has often not been thought through. For me it is important that each child can develop. It will not be small and cute forever, it must be integrated into society at some point. When schooling is over, it must be decided whether the child goes to the sheltered workshop or to the open labor market and where it is to live then. The school has the task of preparing the children for this. This means that every child is encouraged at its level, so that it can cope with life subsequently. And this is our basic approach.
Many German states just closed down the special schools and put the children in other schools. So I am glad Saxony is watching and waiting at the moment. At the moment, the culture minister promised us that the special schools would continue to exist. I say at the moment, because you never know ... There is the concept of sitting it out, waiting to see what happens. In some states, in which there is inclusion of the children, they notice now that it does not work. Not even integration works out, much less inclusion.

Reality is quite different from theory. With the inclusion, children actually are supposed to be no longer encouraged, but simply be accepted in their “otherness”.

Most of the parents do not want that. They are happy that their children can come to us and they support us. One mother told me, “I also once wanted my child to attend a regular school, but I can see now that it does not work and therefore I am glad that this school exists.”
We also have an acute shortage of teachers in Saxony, each year we fight for every teacher. It is like that: In GDR times, many teachers were hired from the 1955 to 1960 cohorts in our region and new schools were opened. At that time 45,000 people lived in Weisswasser, now we have 16,000 to 18,000. Meanwhile the city has been dismantled and the teachers have been spread everywhere. But just as they all started together, they are all together retiring now. There will be a severe cut. To make matters worse, many (teachers) who are currently trained in Saxony move to the old federal states because they can earn more money there and can become civil servants; they are leaving. I just do not understand, there are kids everywhere, even here in the Lausitz.
There is one thing I would also like to mention: We have had a very good cooperation with the integration service for three or four years, so that we were able to open up many individual internships in companies for our students. Our aim is to integrate them in the primary labor market at least partially. Perhaps I’ll tell you one example: We have been working in cooperation with the horse farm in Rietschen for years, where children go horseback riding, a therapeutic treatment. There they also learn how to handle horses and to take care of them. One student who liked it very much, is now employed as an assistant. And in this process, expanding over many stages the integration service does all the clarification and guidance. Another student desperately wanted to work in the nursing care. She even worked there and she enjoyed the work, but she did not like the environment. She had no contact person to talk to and no one to give her some acknowledgement. And here the integration service took really great care and found another place where she was integrated into the team immediately. Now there is a good chance that she will be employed next year. Thus there are ways to integrate our pupils. Indeed, they have got good qualifications, they have a good attitude, they want to work, they come voluntarily, they are endearing and open, theycome on time and do not wander around.

One can feel that you are very committed to your pupils, and that is something needed in the first place. Thank you very much.     •

(The interview with the headmistress was led by Dieter Sprock.)