We make our way through the school’s corridors, which are abuzz with happy chatter and decorated with pupils’ colourful works of art. De Buurt is a small-scale, independent educational initiative that in many aspects approaches things rather differently than your average neighbourhood school.
The building alone, in which former living areas have been remodelled as cosy classrooms, resembles anything but a traditional school. Instead, it is homely, charming and vibrantly busy. “I like to call us a village school in Ghent,” Director Tim Vandromme proudly states.
Laying the foundation for the future
De Buurt was founded in 1976 as an equal-rights project, to offer vulnerable children from the surrounding area a stimulating environment to be themselves in. Today, 120 pupils attend the school, which depends almost entirely on the support of an engaged group of parents and volunteers, donations and education subsidies. De Buurt is part of FOPEM and a member of the non-profit organisation Taborgroep.
The project is still a work in progress. Things in the pipeline include installing a new kitchen (meals are prepared from scratch here every day), connecting the entire site to the green-energy district heating network, and adding more greenery to the playground. Tim sees the long list of initiatives as the school’s ‘masterplan’. “We’ve been working to accomplish everything for more than three years now. I’m basically a part-time building contractor these days,” he grins.
Growing (up) together
At De Buurt, children from all sections of society learn side by side. Why is that mix of different social backgrounds and native languages so important? “Diversity is an asset. Our peers help create opportunities for us,” Vandromme explains. “Your friends from school may be part of a youth movement, or head to the library together. When you’re surrounded by inspiring, enthusiastic role models, it’s easier to tag along.”
Together, pupils work on major projects that have a clear goal, such as publishing a newspaper, or even setting up a bakery. It’s all about learning by doing and gaining experience. Each project allows pupils to put into practice things they’ve learnt in different subjects, all in accordance with the curriculum. Here, language is viewed not just as a functional tool, but also as a connecting factor.
Multilingualism as an advantage
When asked how De Buurt handles the fact that its pupils speak so many different languages, Tim Vandromme launches into an enthusiastic answer: “You should capitalise on multilingualism. Having a rich mother tongue is the ideal starting point for learning another language. The more languages are spoken in a setting, the more obvious it becomes that having a shared language is useful.”
“But the opposite is equally true: children who are native Dutch speakers have a very positive view of multilingualism. My two daughters also attend De Buurt. The other day, I heard them saying: ‘Wow, our classmate speaks Dutch AND French AND Arabic.’ They’ve realised that being multilingual is an advantage.”
Twice a year, De Buurt’s pupils go on exchange to a school in Couthuin, in Wallonia. As they take part in activities together, the children speak a mix of French and Dutch – they’re completely immersed in both languages. “Of course, no one’s going to pick up a language in just three days,” Tim concedes, “but you’ll still have crossed a threshold. When I studied French, I had to learn everything from textbooks. The first time I had to open my mouth and actually speak the language, I was terrified.”
Action leads to interaction
Since we’re on the topic of language, we decide to broach the subject of children’s deteriorating reading and writing skills these days. What’s Tim Vandromme’s take on that, we wonder?
The director says he keeps his finger on the pulse by making De Buurt’s pupils take standardised reading comprehension tests. They easily score the average result for Flanders, which Tim believes is due to the amount of interaction that working on projects encourages them to have. “You can set children as many assignments as you like, but what really matters if you want them to become proficient in a language is interaction. Research has shown that the average time a preschooler spends interacting at school (that is: the time they actually engage in dialogue with a teacher) is sometimes no more than ten seconds a day. I find that really shocking. Our focus on doing projects significantly increases the likelihood of pupils interacting.”
“Of course, this so-called deterioration of children’s knowledge is also a matter of framing. If we took the media’s word for it, our entire education system is beyond all hope. ‘Education in this country is going to the dogs,’ people sigh. But we shouldn’t dwell too much on these reports, because then it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Communication remains one of De Buurt’s biggest challenges, given the school’s diverse group of pupils. “When we host an info evening,” Tim Vandromme elaborates, “I need to tailor my message to two completely different target groups. Higher-educated parents will ask critical questions about our vision, while other parents just want to know whether or not their child will be given something to eat at our school.”
“If it were up to us, we’d communicate in a much more low-threshold way, but on the other hand, you mustn’t underestimate people. On a number of occasions, I have shown parents around in as accessible a way of speaking as possible, only to find out afterwards they have university degrees and held high-ranking positions in their home countries. I always feel incredibly ashamed then, but that bias is very, very hard to get rid of.”
“That is precisely why we keep insisting on having high expectations of each and every child. Ben Weyts may demand we raise the bar in terms of language and maths, but if you’re projecting lower expectations onto some children because you’re assuming they’ll fail, nothing will ever change.”
Just before we’re about to leave, we remember to ask: “What have you been doing with the computer screens?”
“They’re used in our secretariat and in classrooms. These days, digital textbooks are all the rage, but there’s no way we could afford a projector for every single classroom. Donations like this make a real difference.”
When we’ve said our goodbyes, we turn around one last time.
“Inspiring, isn’t it?”
“And such lovely people!”
Want to know more about the ins and outs of De Buurt?
Have a look at their website!