Decrepit Schools

Year of Learning Dangerously

School director or construction site manager? Source: Tagesspiegel/Kitty Kleist-Heinrich
School director or construction site manager?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s cash-strapped capital doesn’t have the money to renovate public buildings so ruinous that neither the safety nor the education of children can be taken for granted.

  • Facts


    • Responsibility for education falls to Germany’s 16 federal states, but the city-state of Berlin is some €70 billion ($81 billion) in debt.
    • Parents are refusing to send their children to the Fichtenberg school, located in Berlin’s wealthy Zehlendorf district.
    • The public university-track secondary school, built in 1912, is in a sorry state of disrepair.
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Despite a 37-year teaching career, Rainer Lepping sounds more like a building site manager than a school principal.

“I’m going to hand over a ruin,” said the soon-to-retire Mr. Lepping. “That really pains me.”

Fortunately, his pain is of the spiritual rather than physical variety. But the Fichtenberg Gymnasium, a university-track public high school in Berlin’s wealthy Zehlendorf district, has become an increasingly dangerous place to teach and learn over the years.

Some €70 billion in debt, Berlin has some of the most poorly kept schools in Germany. It is not uncommon for windows to fall out of their sills or ceilings to cave in while students are in class. Necessary repairs to all city schools would cost an estimated €2 billion.

The “Fichte,” as Mr. Lepping’s school is known, has become symbolic of the German capital’s failure to take care of its public schools. Last fall, the entire outside of the building was surrounded in metal fencing to ensure no one was hit by the façade’s crumbling plaster.

Built in 1912, the school is on the list of historically protected buildings. Renovating it would eat up the entire school maintenance budget for the Steglitz-Zehlendorf district.

A small man with white hair and blue eyes, Mr. Leppin has been forced to take matters into his own hands while serving as director, the German term used for school principal, over eight years. When he started his job, his wife was shocked when she saw his office. The carpet was ripped and the furniture unusable. The city replaced the carpet, but he had to invest €1,000 of his own money for the rest.

Sadly, the increasing list of potential health hazards is taking a toll on student enrollment.

He didn’t want to see that as a bad omen at the time, but the state of the school has only gotten worse since then. Instead of working on the curriculum or looking after students, Mr. Leppin became director, construction site manager and public relations promoter in one.

During his first winter at the school, the temperature in some classrooms plunged to 12 degrees Celsius (53.6 Fahrenheit), because of poorly insulated windows. The heating in one hallway still doesn’t work today. A few years ago, pieces of the ceiling fell onto his desk, as water rained down on his files from broken pipes above. The ceilings of the physics and chemistry rooms have also caved in.

“We have a right to a proper place to work, but we don’t have that,” he said.

Even though engaged parents and teachers have painted other classrooms, they remain empty, because there’s no money from the city for chairs and desks. Mr. Leppin can only shake his head: “It’s completely crazy, they’ve left us completely alone!”

Two months ago, some of the school’s students asked a city councilwoman if they might soon be forced to learn in shipping containers.

Cerstin Richter-Kotowski, the responsible councilwoman from the conservative Christian Democrats, however, refused to be blamed for the sorry state of the city’s school.

“We’re doing a lot in the district and we’ve started working on a lot else. With all due respect for the criticism, our achievements must also be acknowledged,” she said. “We will do what we can. I assure everyone that we won’t leave the Fichte alone.”

Mr. Leppin no longer believes her. He has spoken to every public official all the way up to Berlin’s mayor, but they all refuse to make any financial commitments. Only after begging for years did the city send a company to assess the state of the crumbling façade. After it determined 90 percent of the outside plaster was held on only by paint, the school was enclosed in a metal cage.

After its old fire alarm system was determined to be not loud enough, the district sent five megaphones.

Sadly, the increasing list of potential health hazards is taking a toll on student enrollment.

“Fichtenberg was actually on our short list, but the building is in such a horrible state that we decided not to register there,” wrote one mother in an email.

Such legitimate concerns only frustrate Mr. Leppin even more, as other schools are now failing to report needed repairs for fear of losing prospective pupils.

“It would be absurd if we’re punished for pointing out problems and asking for help,” he said. “Our good name is being publicly destroyed.”

He knows that as the student body shrinks, they city will assign fewer teachers to the school and curb its budget. In the end, that means less education.

“It’s a total catastrophe,” he said.

Not that the city is completely ignoring the school: After its old fire alarm system was determined to be not loud enough, the district sent five megaphones for teachers to herd students out the decrepit building in case of a blaze.


This article originally appeard in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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