Children performing at the Public Ballet School in Berlin smile radiantly at the senator for education sitting front row. The refurbished academy looks splendid in the spring sunlight. Everyone is pleased with what has been achieved here. Sandra Scheeres, Berlin’s Senator for Education, Youth and Science, fought for this. Funding will initially come from the current budget, she says. After that, a way will be found. The subtext is, “I’m someone who makes things possible.”
Posing for a photograph among young dancers trained for fluidity and grace, Ms. Scheeres look rigid and awkward. She tells the pupils that even on days when they aren’t on good form, it’s important to persevere. You get the sense she’s speaking from experience.
For the hour spent at the dance school, Ms. Scheeres’ might almost be able to forget the daily battles that make her job one of the hardest in the Berlin Senate. The city has fallen well short of other German states on pupil performance. Angry teachers and parents protest over crumbling school buildings. Monika Grütters, state chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has just castigated Ms. Scheeres as a failure whose record over the last five-year legislature makes it incredible she has been allowed to continue her job in the new state government.
Since her first day at the Berlin Senate under a coalition between the CDU and Ms. Scheeres’ Social Democratic Party (SPD), she has been under attack. By the time Ms. Scheeres’ second term is up it will be clear whether the critics are right and she was simply the wrong person for the job. She has more money available than any of her predecessors. But the challenges she faces are incomparable.
Since the start of the new government, a “red-red-green” coalition of the SPD, Greens and Left Party, Ms. Scheeres has seemed more confident and relaxed. Mayor Michael Müller has taken on her former responsibility of science, where she never seemed fully at home. Now, she can concentrate fully on education, youth and family – on Berlin’s kindergartens, its almost 800 general-education and vocational schools, and their nearly 400,000 pupils.
When she began in 2011, Ms. Scheeres was expected to close schools and sack teachers because pupil numbers were declining. Despite criticism from the finance senator, Ms. Scheeres ignored calls to downsize. Since then, the city’s population has grown by 240,000 and continues to rise.
The challenges have reversed. Berlin will have to take care of 76,000 new students by 2025. It must hire another 16,000 teachers. Schools are overwhelmed. Integration classes for thousands of refugee children have added extra pressure. During the 1990s, dozens of schools were closed because of the low birth rate in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, school buildings can’t be built fast enough. Every third new teacher needs additional training because they’ve come in from another vocation. This is the only way Berlin can continue to operate its schools. A disaster, according to teachers’ representatives. “Career-changers are often a blessing for pupils,” Ms. Scheeres says serenely.
As spokesperson on youth policy for the SPD parliamentary group, Ms. Scheeres was a surprise appointment by then-Mayor Klaus Wowereit to the post of education senator in 2011. She succeeded Jürgen Zöllner, the grand seigneur of education policy, who implemented a host of reforms that left both teachers and pupils in over their heads. New secondary schools programs had to integrate children who had been attending the “Hauptschulen,” which offered minimal education to lower-achieving pupils.
“My task was to bring calm to the system. I did that.”
“My task was to bring calm to the system,” says Ms. Scheeres. “I did that.” She’s far from ready to relax, though. Sitting on the couch in her office, she never loses her alert gaze. She remarks that no issue raises more passion than the welfare of children – in parents, teachers, academics. Ms. Scheeres seems to have concluded it’s best to ignore the attacks.
“You have to be a fighter in this job,” Ms. Scheeres says. She is one of the Senate’s longest-serving members and in charge of by far the largest budget. She’s praised for her negotiating skills when it comes to securing funding, and the calm determination with which she pursues goals like cultural integration. But for a long time, her public image was a disaster. Observers say she comes across at naïve.
But she is gradually gaining recognition for making big changes through a process of small steps. There will be an additional 27,000 daycare spaces by 2020. Teaching has improved, and schools are being built faster. In the last legislative period, space was made for more than 20,000 new children, and since the beginning of the year, more parents benefit from daycare subsidies.
Yet the credit largely goes to SPD parliamentary floor leader Raed Saleh, who apportioned millions of euros to schools in social hot spots.
Right before the Easter holidays, her official car pulls up at the Leibniz-Gymnasium in the Kreuzberg district. Since taking office, Ms. Scheeres has visited hundreds of schools. Now she’s in a classroom presenting her concept for promoting special talent. It’s easy to see why she’s underestimated. She doesn’t sweep her listeners along. Her presentation is lackluster and pragmatic.
The Leibniz-Gymnasium used to have problems but is now benefiting from the middle-class families who have moved to the gentrified area. The teachers are committed. But the school’s listed building is in desperate need of renovation. The classrooms have electronic smartboards, but the rusty radiators testify to the past penny-pinching. There are holes in the ceiling panels.
Ms. Scheeres sees plenty reasons why Berlin does worse in the rankings than states like Bavaria. In Berlin, 60 percent of children have special needs, including those from migrant families who may still struggle with the language. Every third child lives in poverty. “Anyone who imagines performance is going to shoot through the roof here is being unrealistic,” Ms. Scheeres says.
This article originally appeared in the Tagesspiegel newspaper, a sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com