Bilingual students better mixed

Despite positive results of programmes to disperse bilingual students, experts suggest that doing so is not a way to improve school quality

The number of schools with high concentrations of bilingual students is on the wane despite an increase of bilingual students overall in the country's 1,500 schools.

Copenhagen and Aarhus have in recent years made efforts to alter the composition of their schools in order to improve student performance by spreading out bilingual students. Busing students to other districts, merging schools and alterations to the school districts have all been implemented to change the student base of certain schools. The plan looks to be working.

Last year, 55 schools consisted of more than 40 percent bilingual students, a number that is down from 64 schools in 2009. A number of schools that are known for their high numbers of bilingual students are likewise headed to a student ratio that reflects the population as a whole, such as Rådmandsgade School in Copenhagen's Nørrebro district. There the proportion of bilingual students has fallen from 75 percent to 63 percent in last three years.

“When registering, parents don’t ask as much about the number of bilingual students as they used to,” headteacher Lise Egholm told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “Today they know that there are lots of ethnically Danish children.”

One of the issues is that several tests have indicated that if the classroom composition contains more than 40 percent of bilingual students, it has a negative effect on grades as well as their results on the Pisa-test, a global student-evaluation. Furthermore, once the public school composition of bilingual students exceeds 30 percent, well-off parents begin shifting their kids to private schools.

Yasar Cakmak, the headteacher of Amager Fælled School, said that in addition to changing the make-up of the student body, the school had also organised community outreach and open-house events for parents.

“It’s been a tough struggle, but it’s moving in the right direction. In five years we’ve managed to change the student composition and doubled our number of kindergarten classes from two to four,” Cakmak told Jyllands-Posten. “The challenge is to earn the trust of the parents so they don’t dismiss us due to rumours and myths.”

While many see bringing down the percentage of bilingual students as a way to improve student performance, not everyone believes that spreading is the answer.

“The number of bilingual students doesn’t mean anything in itself. The important thing is how well each individual school is geared to accommodate its student group,” Christian Horst, a lecturer and researcher of multicultural education at Aarhus University, told Jyllands-Posten. “Instead of spreading out the bilingual students, they should train the teachers and ensure that some schools specialise in handling the bilingual students and catering to their needs. We need to stop seeing bilingual students as a disruptive element.”

There are still a considerable number of parents in Copenhagen that choose to put their children into private schools, but that number has not increased in recent years.

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