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German School In Alamogordo Gives Window Into Country's Approach To Vocational Learning

Joe Widmer


Alamogordo is home to largest community of German expatriates in the U.S. most of them serving in the German Air Force at Holloman Air Force base. Alamogordo is also home to the largest public German school outside Germany. 

It’s the start of classes at the Deutschen Schule Alamogordo students are learning about nutrition, putting power point presentations together and taking science classes, like students at any school in the U.S..  But this institution is little different it is exclusively for German public school students living in Alamogordo.

There are 140 students at the school. Most of the students like sophomore Tatjna Luedke have parents in the German Air Force or work on base supporting the German mission; training Tornado Jet pilots.
“Well I like it here, I am used to the desert because I lived in El Paso for 3 years as well. I kind of really like America. I love the warmth.” Tatjna said.

Students like Tatjna only go to class from 8am until 1pm, yet they achieve the equivalent of a U.S. high school education in the 10th grade two years before most other students in the U.S.. International data shows German students have higher math, science and reading proficiency levels overall. Torsten Reinecke is the school’s principal, he said the German system is far more streamlined.   

“The way of education of Germany is much faster than the American way because we segregate our students after the fourth grade into 3 different levels A, B and C level”. Reinecke said

As young as ten years old, German students are put into three different tracks in accordance with their skills and proficiency. The levels are ‘Gymnasium’ for college preparation, ‘Realschule’ vocational training high school and “Haupschule’ training for apprenticeship and the workforce.

“Usually the students at the Gymnasium go on later to university, the ‘B’ level  students they become clerks at administration or insurances or in the bank and ‘C’ level they most of the time do hand work, like electricians, car mechanics something like that” Reinecke said.

Ulrike Burgheim teaches English, geography and science at the school she said the German system allows the talented students to excel and the slower learners to get the direction and attention they need.
“There are definitely some who are very eager to learn, very smart and they really want to digest material and for them it is definitely very good to be with kids who want to do the same. If you teach all levels together in the classroom it is always a little bit slower.” Burgheim said.

Students less inclined toward university are trained in the skills needed to be successful in the German workforce. They get channeled into as many as 350 different vocational areas; anything from mechanics to computer science to arts.

Some say the U.S. could take a lesson from Germany’s vocational approach, like President Obama during his 2013 state of the union address.

“Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job.” President Obama said.

German schools coordinate with industry to give students apprenticeships and training while they are still in school. In most cases, two-thirds of the training costs are born by the employers.  Ulrike Burgheim said it is seen as an investment in workforce quality.

“We had a lot of students who were not aiming for the higher education that got a lot of training on the job already. While they were going to school, which you know that was quite interesting for companies as well. So the German school system tries to give kids certain skills for their later work.” Burgheim said. 

In Germany, unemployment among 18-24 years olds is as low as 6.9 percent. Back in the U.S., unemployment of 18-24 years olds stands at 10.8 percent (April 2016).

This blend of vocational training with other schooling is happening in the U.S. to some extent. Programs such as the Early College High School at New Mexico State University are an example. But few programs are directly aligned with the demands of the workforce like they are in Germany or a number of other economically robust countries like South Korea and Switzerland.

And New Mexico Workforce Solutions data shows that disconnect might be a problem for high school graduates entering the workforce.  In February, 2014 the unemployment rate in Dona Ana County was 7.9 percent while there were more than 4400 job openings much of them in skilled areas such as public administration, manufacturing and finance. 
But not all students, including Tatjana, are sold on the system.  She said the German approach is too stressful and there is too much pressure to choose a career at such a young age.

“So it is pretty frustrating to just get thrown into the world and you have to study this, you have to study you have to know what you want to do.  I think that is pretty hard.” Tatjana said.

Tatiana is in the Realschule: the ‘B’ level track, but she said the Gymnasium ‘A’ level would be better for what she wants to do after she graduates. Because she missed French language, a key prerequisite she can’t move to the higher program. She said the flexibility of the American education system would have been better for her and her career.

“You have  a lot of time to learn it and if it is not your thing after that you can still take another path. It is more time to really realize if you really want to do it or not. So you can always choose."  Tatjana said "That is better than here at the German school in Alamogordo, where you have to take one path and that is it.” 

Principal Reinecke acknowledges the German system can stress out and place a lot of pressure on students prematurely. He said his son studied both at the German school and the local high school in Alamogordo. He said the German system is heavily focused on math, natural science and language and is far more restrictive while the U.S. model allows students to explore and follow their interests.

“I would like a school system with the best things of the American system and the German system. This would be a longer education time together with all children maybe in the 9th grade separation into different levels, this would be in my opinion the best way to do it.” Reinecke said.

The German school in Alamogordo exclusively educates the children of German military personnel and supporting German staff. With the German mission in Alamogordo ending in 2019 the German school will close down.  Smaller public German schools continue at German military installation throughout the US.

Simon Thompson was a reporter/producer for KRWG-TV's Newsmakers from 2014 to 2017. Encores of his work appear from time to time on KRWG-TV's Newsmakers and KRWG-FM's Fronteras-A Changing America.