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Their mothers are overworked from making ends meet and they often raise their children alone. Schools could be springboards to opportunity for their kids — not only by offering knowledge, but also by motivating and developing character. Can schools in Latvia do that?

On a sunny afternoon at Brocēni secondary school, the 9th grade class is learning to determine the gender of nouns in Russian. «What’s the plural ending for the word grandfather?» the teacher writes on the blackboard. Behind her back, the classroom rings with laughter. Dāvis*, a lanky teenager in a dark Nike windbreaker, his mop of fair hair recently cut, has hit a classmate sitting in the first row in the back of the head with an eraser. Dāvis throws again and hits the teacher’s back.

The delicately built woman, her hair black and thick, glasses stylishly framed, turns to the classroom. She is briefly confused, then takes a breath and repeats her question. Her students cast their eyes down for a while. The teacher turns away. Meanwhile Dāvis has shredded another eraser. A few more classmates get involved in the game. In no time the classroom floor is covered in bits of rubber.

When Dāvis gets bored of it, he puts on earphones and immerses himself in his tablet. He finds something funny and passes one of his earphones on to the classmate behind him.

«Dāvis, put it down right now,» says the teacher. The boys ignore her. The teacher extends her hand — «Give it to me!». «Wait a bit,» Dāvis resists, «just a sec». After a brief while he puts the tablet in his pocket.

This is the second Russian class today. So far Dāvis has demonstrated his homework — a presentation about Astrakhan, a city in Russia (more than half of the class hasn’t done the homework at all); has left the classroom without permission once; walked up to a classmate at the other end of the room to ask about homework for another class; and played a game on his tablet.

The teacher is in despair, but at the same time has resigned herself to the situation.

Last winter she reached a breaking point. During a break Dāvis had burned down yet another woolly cactus from her collection on a windowsill in the classroom. Cactuses are her pride and joy. The teacher wrote a complaint to the school principal. Dāvis took it from the teacher’s desk during break, crumpled it up and threw it in the trash bin. The teacher retrieved it from the bin and took it to the principal. There were several similar complaints waiting there already.

A week later Dāvis received a call from the police and was summoned for a talk. The principal had lodged a complaint. Sixteen year old Dāvis went to the police station in the town of Saldus, seven kilometres away, alone. When he returned, he assured his mother everything would be fine.

Which it was certainly not. The police initiated a case for «disturbance of the peace» and imposed a 70 euro fine. In Latvia administrative liability is applicable from the age of 16. Even to a schoolboy making no money, like Dāvis.

Dāvis’ mother did not pay the fine. She didn’t have the money. She is raising five children, mostly on her own. The youngest is five, the eldest – 20. She doesn’t remember the reason she didn’t accompany Dāvis to the police station. It was Christmas time. To earn more, she pulled 12 night shifts almost in a row at the bakery where she works that month.

In a few months, with enforcement fees accumulating, the 70 euro fine grew to 130.

Egons Valters, the school principal, says he rarely asks for police help — only as a last resort. Both the principal and the Russian teacher reckon the punishment helped, as Dāvis was quieter in the classroom for a while.

That while was not long though. In the last six months Dāvis has been the king of warning notes in his class. He has 19, mostly because of his behaviour. «Life is more fun that way,» Dāvis explains why he keeps annoying teachers.

Photo: Kaspars Goba

Last spring a criminal offence joined the school warning notes. Dāvis and a friend of his smashed a house window and stole a computer.

Again, no one was very interested in finding ways to help the teenager. The police asked social services to develop a social correction program. That program turned out to consist of regular meetings with a social worker and filling in surveys. The police assured Re:Baltica that Dāvis has been sentenced to community service, with social services responsible for controlling it. Social services, it turned out, had been under the impression that the police are keeping an eye on the execution of the sentence. It was also from Re:Baltica that social services first heard about the 70 euro administrative fine.

«I had no idea they could fine people. I knew the school has their internal rules of conduct, but I hadn’t heard they actually involve the police, and that there are real fines,» says the head of Brocēni social services, Vineta Frīdmane.

Some say it openly, some implicitly, but when Dāvis finishes ninth grade, which is when basic education ends, most of the teachers would love to see him leaving for one of the vocational schools in the area. Although Dāvis is smart and quick-witted, it would be easier for the school if he did not continue his education there. Brocēni secondary school has about 400 students, and the number is ever growing — the ice arena next door is a powerful attraction. In the autumn of 2015 four first grade classes started studies, so there enough students.

Edging impoverished problem students like Dāvis out of good schools is a tendency in Latvia. The rapid segregation of schools according to parents’ income is proof of that. Ten years ago the children of well-off parents went to 75% of schools in Latvia, now the number is 55%, as shown by a study by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment. That means that poorer kids, whose parents cannot actively participate in their education or afford private classes, have to compete with peers who have it all.

However, ending up at a school where most of the peers are from the same social environment doesn’t motivate students to achieve better results. So the level of grades at these schools drops as well, concludes Ilze Johansone, who received her PhD at the University of Latvia and is currently researching education quality in Boston.

Another way youngsters can take is vocational school. Lately, there has been no shortage of talk about the quality of these schools, but no in-depth research has been done. Centralized exams prove the average level of grades at these schools is lower than at secondary schools.

A study commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Science (MoE) in 2014 showed that most of early secondary school leavers between the ages of 13 and 18 were studying in vocational schools and came from poor families, raised by a single parent. Compared to elementary and secondary schools, the number of impoverished youngsters dropping out of vocational schools was huge.

Looking at the figures for students leaving school, an average of four students from low-income families per secondary school dropped out in a year, but at vocational schools that number was threefold — 13. An even higher indicator emerges if we are looking at youngsters from single parent families: an average of four dropouts in a comprehensive school, while at a vocational school that average is 15.

After investigating the subject for a year, Re:Baltica concludes that the main reasons why problem students fall through the cracks in the school system are the lack of mutual understanding among the parties involved, their lack of knowledge, and indifference. Instead of working together to help teenagers escape their backgrounds, the responsible institutions punish them.

The police, when deciding on the punishment for Dāvis, did not look into his family’s financial situation. Neither the school nor the Brocēni social services were informed about the fine imposed on him. And the collection enforcement officer did not care whether Dāvis had any income. They all offer the same explanation — it is not required by the law.

What could have been done differently? International researchers increasingly emphasize the role of the school in supporting kids like Dāvis.

Canadian-American journalist and researcher Paul Tough insists that as well as cognitive knowledge (arithmetic, reading), schools should also help to develop character traits to contribute to students’ successful progress after finishing their education, especially for children from undereducated, poor families.

Education researchers reckon the influence of school and teachers in reducing the inequality gap is about 10 — 20%, the rest is determined by the environment and family. But it’s the school that has the means to engage various support services if required.

Re:Baltica chose the Brocēni secondary school as a positive example, because the school has been trying out innovative solutions for helping problem students. But these attempts were not enough, as opinions on the right ways of raising children differed even within the school.

Trying To Be A Good Mother

Reclining in the chair behind the teacher’s desk, Dāvis is presenting his homework on Astrakhan. He has tried hard, even using Prezi software. His text is full of mistakes though, as he has translated it using the internet, while visiting his father who lives in a farm house that hasn’t seen repairs for many years and only partly has electrical wiring.

Next up with her homework is the straight-A student of the class, Katrīna. She has drawn her presentation on cardboard. The artistic touch of her mother Natālija is apparent — she teaches art at the school and keeps a close eye on her daughter’s studies.

Natālija is a single parent and earns extra money working at the student lodging facilities of the school. Katrīna is an example of poverty not interfering with good marks at school. But poverty often goes hand in hand with stress, which significantly influences the professional development and even the health of children.

A study done in the early 1990s in California revealed that experiencing trauma in childhood (such as parents’ divorce, alcohol or drug addiction in the family, or physical violence) increases the probability of children smoking twofold, and the chance of becoming alcoholics sevenfold. Such children also tend to become sexually active early.

Paul Tough says stress experienced in childhood often manifests itself as discipline issues at school. Such stress makes it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions. Many of these kids cannot react to their peers’ provocations in a composed manner. «When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet,» Tough writes.

Dāvis lives with his mom in a modest house four kilometres from Brocēni. Santa (37) is a short, dark-haired woman, with some of her curls highlighted red. Santa has five children from three different fathers, and an unfinished elementary school education. School was not a priority, as she had to babysit the younger children of her alcoholic mother. They were ten altogether, including Santa. Some of them ended up at an orphanage.

Santa doesn’t know who her father is. At the age of fifteen she started working at a neighbour’s horse farm. A year later she was already living with the owner. «I got out, went to a rich man, did well. The one from among all  (my siblings) who had a breakthrough in life,» says Santa. Māris and Zanda were born in that relationship.

A few years later the father of her children found himself another woman. He bought a run-down farmhouse in the name of his son, Māris, and Santa moved in there with the little ones. Soon she married another man. Dāvis and Ketija were born.

When Dāvis was five, Santa left the children to her husband and went to England to earn money to repair the house. Meanwhile the husband met another woman, and spent the money Santa sent. After Santa returned home a year later, she underwent treatment for depression . Her youngest children had become easily agitated and cried often. Similar news about her elder kids reached her from the school.

Santa then had a new relationship, which ended with the man dumping her at the maternity home, right after the birth of her fifth child, little Nils.

For the last three years Dāvis’ mom has been living with a man who works as a construction worker in Germany. Her eldest daughter Zanda (17) has left her mother’s house, and custody court has stripped Santa of custody over her middle daughter Ketija (11), who since last year lives with her father not far from Brocēni. Santa’s boyfriend had hit her in the face. Santa thinks her daughter consciously provoked him, so that she would get to live with her lenient father.

«At my place you have to wash the dishes, wear slippers indoors, at his place it’s OK to wear boots,» says Santa. Her daughter told the custody court that Santa yells at her at home. «But I tell her something once, she doesn’t hear, the third time it’s louder,» Santa explains. «Nowadays your kid can tell you to f..k off, and you can’t say anything,» she sighs.

Dāvis also says he bickers with his mom, as «she’s always yelling at me». Dāvis feels his mother doesn’t appreciate the things he does daily. Every morning Dāvis takes his five year old brother to kindergarten on the school bus and picks him up after school. That’s why Dāvis cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. At home he washes the dishes, heats the wood stoves, as Santa is often too tired when she returns from work at a bakery.

To earn more, Santa works night shifts as well. Sometimes she travels to the bakehouse, located 100 km away, even five nights in a row. She earns about 500 euros a month and receives an additional 200 euros in alimony. One hundred and ten euros a month from that income goes for the car lease, and 75 euros is the monthly payment for a used computer she bought at a pawnshop with very high interest and is paying off within a year. Since they own a car, the family is not eligible for benefits from the local municipality.

Although she is worn out, Santa thinks she’s a good mother. When the school summons her, she always turns up; she cares about her children’s grades. She takes the children out to a cafe. Sometimes they all cuddle together in the big family bed and watch movies. She has no idea where she has gone wrong in raising her children.

Photo: Kaspars Goba

Only once have social services offered Dāvis’ mom psychological help — when the stepfather hit her daughter, both Ketija and Santa were assigned a session course with a psychologist. «My past was all brought up, how I lived with my first husband, then the second. Where all our problems started,» Santa remembers, and admits the psychologist did help a little. She was advised to talk more to the children and not to argue with her boyfriend in their presence.

Santa travelled to Saldus for these sessions, as a full-time psychologist has only been available in Brocēni since July this year. Saldus is often brought up as an example, because the local municipality gets the whole family involved in solving teenagers’ problems. «You have to work differently with these people. You can’t just call them into your office and wag your finger at them,» says Ina Behmane, the head of Saldus social services. She elaborates: parents don’t know how to raise their children, as they have experienced similar attitudes when they were kids themselves.

Paul Tough writes that trust in the world and a healthy self-confidence in a child is instilled by a close relationship with the mother in early childhood. But, «when a woman has to battle poverty, insecurity and fear, she needs superhuman powers to give a sense of security to her child. If a mother hasn’t felt secure attachment in her childhood, it’s even more difficult for her to provide it to her child.»

When creating relationships with these students, teachers should take into account the environment that has shaped them. But that does not always happen. Robert Starratt, professor at Boston College, points out that schools consider the curriculum to be the most important thing. «At many schools the message is — leave your personal and social life behind the door.»

And many teachers in Latvia think this way. In the study on leaving school early, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, school employees said in a survey that «educational institutions should not be solving broader social and economic issues that lie outside their direct range of competence.» A similar conclusion appears in the study by lecturers at University of Latvia: «In cases when issues are caused by students’ behaviour, the school tries to avoid them, and pressure the children to change schools.»

I Care How You’re Doing

The Brocēni school is trying to help Dāvis. In eighth grade he was involved in a «folder» project. That was a novelty in the school — each «problem child» had their own folder, where at the end of each week the class teacher would put together all the pluses and minuses for behaviour and grades the student had collected, for long-term analysis of the development dynamics of the particular child.

The idea is similar to the «character report cards», introduced by Yale graduate David Levin at his South Bronx high school. In 1999 the school he had established was an incredible success story — its alumni, almost all of them from underprivileged neighbourhoods, improved their grades so much that the school went on to rank the fifth best in New York. Almost all of the alumni enrolled in universities, but only 21% graduated— the ones with strong character.

Levin realized it’s not just knowledge that is important for these kids, it’s developing their personality. Together with academics Levin devised a special programme to develop seven character traits — zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. A «report card» was introduced for each student. Teachers took notes of progress, and at the end of each term discussed it with the child and their parents and set goals for the next term.

Brocēni discontinued the «folder» system the following school year. The system means extra work for the teachers, and some of them thought it disciplines only in the short term.

The Brocēni secondary school also has a support group, meeting once a week with those children having problems studying. The group includes the head of the teaching department, a psychologist and a social educator, who discuss grades with the student and set targets for the upcoming week.

John Hattie, an authority figure in the field of education, has analysed and summarised 800 studies on education, and he considers that an evaluation of each student’s progress over the year should be the main indicator of how effective the particular school is. If there’s no development, the methods are ineffective.

Dāvis doesn’t have to go to the support group, as his grades are not considered very low. Art and chemistry are the two subjects where his grades are failing in the last six months. Chemistry is the hardest. «The teacher is good, but I don’t understand a thing there.» He doesn’t go to the so called after-classes to work with the teacher to improve his grades, because «the teacher says you can’t go there if you don’t know anything. So I don’t go there, because she’ll just throw me out.»

In mid May Dāvis was in seventh heaven — he got an 8 in chemistry! The first person he rushed to break the happy news to was the social educator Inga. «Teacher, have you seen Dāvis? He’s been looking for you all over,» Inga remembers the day. «It was such a triumph, the best gratification!»

Photo: Kaspars Goba

Inga has been working with Dāvis since November 2014 — before the principal had lodged that complaint. Dāvis’ mother was summoned to the school to discuss her son’s behaviour. Then it was agreed that the boy should see the school’s social educator once a week.

«I tell him — you should come to me and tell me how you’re doing. Because I care,» Inga tells Re:Baltica. She is slightly over 40, with a warm voice. Dāvis comes to her more often than required, sometimes together with his little brother after picking him up from the kindergarten.

«He really wants attention. He’s ready to communicate with everyone,» she relates. Inga thinks that’s the reason for Dāvis «being rude» in class — to attract attention.

It was Re:Baltica who brought Inga the news of the fine and police intervention. Unravelling the sequence of events, it turned out the principal had lodged the complaint without letting Inga know. He thought Dāvis had been missing the mandatory meetings, so he took drastic measures.

Paul Tough reminds that teenagers need someone to take them seriously, to trust their abilities and to encourage them to keep progressing. That person can be anyone at the school — the class teacher, the gym teacher, even someone from the technical staff. What’s important is that the child feels they can talk to someone anytime and not feel like a nuisance.

«Behaviour issues in class most often point out the weak spots of the teacher, this is what the effective teachers have told me unanimously,» says the journalist Kristīna Rizga, who spent four years studying a school in San Francisco and recently published the book Mission High about it. «If a child is creating problems in class, there are reasons for that. Sometimes they are psychological disorders, but most often it’s directly related to the teacher’s lack of pedagogic knowledge. Maybe Dāvis is lacking certain knowledge, maybe some things in the curriculum or the teaching aids are difficult to understand, or maybe it’s just presented in a very boring way. Dāvis is the only one to resist it by being loud, while other kids (half of whom haven’t done their homework) protest in silence, they don’t participate in the class, either emotionally or intellectually,» Rizga elaborates.

There are teachers at the school who Dāvis has no issues with, and teachers who he is in constant conflict with. Education quality researcher Ilze Johansone believes that is because «teacher training in Latvia is poor on the whole. Teachers seem to be especially poorly prepared to recognize learning problems caused by anxiety, attention deficit syndrome, emotional or even physical violence in the family.»

Teaching The Teachers

Pedagogy students and lecturers themselves admitted insufficient knowledge in class teaching two years ago. As a result teachers mostly react to consequences, lecturers at the University of Latvia concluded in another study in 2012. Schools are based on «punishment, deprivation of privilege, writing explanation notes, summoning students to the principal’s office or other school specialists, calling the police and alerting parents.»

To offer an alternative, the same group of lecturers at the University of Latvia used EU funding to develop the programme ‘Support for Positive Behaviour’ and started implementing it at twenty-five schools in Latvia from the study year 2012 to 2014. Any school could join the project, provided participation was supported by the principal and 80% of the teachers. The teachers took a course of lectures, and the researchers visited the school once a month to discuss progress. It took time for the teachers to open up, as they’re afraid to openly talk about their helplessness in class, remembers Linda Daniela, one of the lecturers and an associate professor at the University of Latvia.

The main aim of the programme was to teach teachers to react to their students’ achievements. «Not just to say — well done, but elaborate what exactly was done well,» Daniela explains. Right now the education system in Latvia tends to only notice students’ mistakes. The researchers recommended, for example, to note also positive actions in the e-class online system, instead of only noting down misconduct. That information was automatically sent to parents as well. «Later the teachers said they hadn’t believed that such nonsense could work, but it did,» Daniela remembers.

At the same time, the researchers helped schools devise internal rules for actions in case of behaviour issues in class — like defining exact roles for the teacher and the school, and how to find help outside of the school. «Initially the overall feeling was sad. The teachers were confused and had no idea what they could do,» says Daniela

The results of the programme were impressive. A year later 79% of the participating teachers said in a survey that in cases of breach of discipline they could find solutions themselves. In schools not participating in the programme that number was 10%. The majority of teachers in such cases go first to the school administration, then to support staff (such as a social educator or a psychologist), and then only as a last resort would they find a solution themselves. At the moment the programme has been concluded, having run out of EU funding.

Education researcher Hattie points out that courses like this aren’t enough — what is most important is cooperation among teachers. Meeting on a regular basis and sharing experiences is most effective. Regrettably, such meetings are dominated by conversations about the curriculum, students and grades, and discussions of teaching methods and their effectiveness are rare. Too often this cooperation among teachers is limited to the exchange of teaching materials, telling «war stories» and trying to justify why it doesn’t work «in my case»,» the expert writes.

The Brocēni secondary school did not participate in the programme because no one at the school was aware of it. Teachers in the district can take courses organised by the municipality; last year, for example, principals and their deputies attended a several-day development course on innovation in schools. Teachers were offered a lecture by the controversial psychotherapist Viesturs Rudzītis on what it means to be a female teacher, and one by TV star-gone-life-coach Viesturs Dūle on emotional intelligence. The municipality hasn’t offered anything particular on discipline issues, says Daila Frīdmane, education specialist at the Brocēni municipality, adding that teachers have not asked for such a course.

It is not only the teachers who need help. In this Saldus social services is an example of success; it offers parents three different training programmes on raising children. The courses last an average of two months and are in demand. Each group includes up to 12 parents. The courses is taught by local social workers, trained for this at the Dardedze crisis centre. Behmane admits that smaller municipalities, like Brocēni, may not be able to afford to offer courses like this. Saldus social workers also go to schools to work with teachers. «What issues do they most encounter at schools? Intolerance toward children (she answers) — you’re late again!»

Brocēni social services have heard about the parent training in Saldus, but are still thinking about offering such a course themselves. However, the good news is that already in the spring three meetings were held in the municipality, where all the services involved came together to discuss the issues of specific children.

Both local and international education experts agree that Brocēni municipality is headed in the right direction. Only by joining forces can the institutions help children from families that either cannot or don’t know how to support their children. Paul Tough points out a typical excuse — a person’s character determines everything, and nothing can be done about it. But research proves that character can be changed. If parents can’t do that, «help can come from social workers, teachers, officials, doctors and neighbours.»

In Latvia, at least for now, there is no thinking in this direction. Everything social support-related depends on the understanding and capabilities of the municipality — teacher training, social educators, and teachers’ assistants. The Ministry of Education has no information as to how much municipalities spend on «support functions» for education. Last study year less than half of educational institutions in Latvia had a social educator, and half of them had a psychologist.

No government institutions collect data on how educated or prosperous are the parents of students at particular schools. The OECD, the only source of available data, suggests taking these factors into account when allocating funds for schools, as it may cost more to teach children from troubled families. In Belgium additional payments for teaching problem children can constitute up to 15% of schools’ budget. It pays back in the long term, as educated citizens have better-paid jobs and the state collects more in taxes.

In May, before taking the exams at the end of ninth grade, Dāvis had not decided what he was going to do next. He could go to a vocational school with a sports focus to become a fitness coach. Mom wanted him to stay at Brocēni secondary school, otherwise she would have no one to take his little brother to and from kindergarten.

At the end of the summer Dāvis made his choice. In August he enrolled at Kandava technical school to become a car mechanic.

*All students’ and parents’ names have been changed.

Written by Inga Spriņģe
Edited by Sanita Jemberga and Nellija Ločmele, IR
Translated into English by Laura Ziemele
Pictures by Kaspars Goba

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