Latvia: The Schoolboy who burned the cactus

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.

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.

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The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica) is a non-profit organization that produces investigative journalism in the public interest