In the past three or four years, the influx of immigrants in Iceland has increased steadily. According to a study conducted by the Icelandic Statistical Bureau, the country’s immigrant population makes up close to 5% of the country’s total population. With the influx, however, comes the introduction of a group of new young Icelanders, children of immigrants assimilating to a new country, language and culture; a group that this week will be heading back en masse into elementary and secondary schools around the country.
Around the capital district, many elementary schools say they have a clear-cut orientation process in place for students of foreign descent entering the Icelandic school system. Representatives of both Fellaskóli and Austurbæjarskóli say that the schools have been especially conscious in recent years to put forth effort to fully integrate international students into the system.
“We have a very clear reception process in our school when it comes to receiving students with foreign backgrounds,” says Kristín Jóhannesdóttir, principal of Fellaskóli. You could say that the student’s education has three parts: There is the reception process, then there is tutored instruction in Icelandic, and then Icelandic study in the class-system.”
In Fellaskóli, according to Jóhannesdóttir, the reception process begins with a meeting with the child, his/her parents, a representative from the school’s International Students Department, an academic advisor, a school nurse, the principal, and a translator if necessary. The student then begins a two-week orientation program on an abbreviated daily schedule.
“This time is used to build up trust between the student and the teacher as well as the student and other students,” says Jóhannesdóttir. “We try to overcome their shyness and emphasize a relaxed atmosphere in the relationship. The teaching is individual-based and that is to say aimed at the student’s ability. The subjects covered in that time are first and foremost about the student him/herself and their most immediate environment.”
Building on Diversity
Nína Magnúsdóttir is the department chair of the International Students Department at Austurbæjarskóli, the self-proclaimed “mother- school of diverse teaching.” According to Magnúsdóttir, although foreign students take Icelandic courses in the International Department, the school is eager to integrate the kids socially, as well as academically.
“We want to emphasize that which is communal rather than that which isolates or divides,” she says. “We emphasize the social aspect and foreign students, from the first day, spend as much time with a common class as is possible. The teaching strategy builds on collaboration and teamwork where the students work together and help each other out. Our emphasis is on multicultural teaching that builds on the idea that everyone has something to offer and that being a foreign student is just a facet of the school’s diversity.”
Jóhannesdóttir agrees, adding that integration process happens on several varying levels within the school.
“It’s not just in the International Students Department that they learn Icelandic,” Jóhannesdóttir says. “The Icelandic language classes are related and compatible to all the subjects. The kids learn both within the Department and in their other classes. It’s very important that that is very clear, that they are not shut up in some department, they are also out in classes, and that’s where the other part of the Icelandic instruction takes place.”
In both Fellaskóli and Austurbæjarskóli, the orientation process ends only when the student has been integrated fully into the regular curriculum with the rest of their class. Socially, however, the results of the school’s efforts are slightly more vague.
“It is different with all the kids, and we are very conscious of this,” says Jóhannesdóttir. “But there is strength in numbers, and there are many kids here who have immigrated from the same country for example, and they connect with each other first, and the kids who take courses in the International Department, they also tend to stick together a bit. We try to be conscious of the social aspect, but we’re also aware that these kids are maybe not going out for sports as much. We try always to point it out if kids have an interest in it, but not everyone has that interest. People are different.”
The Daunting Numbers
In March of this year, the Intercultural Center held a conference titled Immigrants and Secondary School. Among a panel of experts and elementary, and high school and university instructors, Solveig Brynja Grétarsdóttir presented the results of a research project she recently completed as part of her MPaeddegree at the University of Iceland.
The project was one of the first formal investigations into adolescents of foreign descent in the Icelandic school system. The results of the research were quite conclusive, as this was the first formal investigation ever conducted on this group. The research looked at 119 students who were enrolled in summer day camp at The Reykjavík Sports & Youth Council, ÍTR, in the second half of the last decade. The camps are a combination of courses and recreation activities, intended to integrate children aged 6-12 years old into Icelandic culture and language before entering elementary school.
“We wanted to see people with a similar base,” says Grétarsdóttir. “We got a list from ÍTR but we knew very little background, we didn’t know for example whether one of the parents was Icelandic, but we had kids who had at least been deemed in need of this sort of preparation. We tried to choose a group with similar circumstances. They are all from the capital district, so we’re not picking this up from all over the country.”
Of the original surveyed group, 64.7% have dropped out of Menntaskóli, close to half of that percentage having dropped out within the first year, with most of the remaining never having entered secondary school at all. Of the small number of kids who have graduated or who have been determined likely to graduate, 64% were girls.
Making the Language Their Own
The dropout rate stands in stark contrast to that of native Icelandic Secondary School students, which, according to Iceland’s Statistical Bureau, hovers just around 15%. Grétarsdóttir attributes the numbers to vulnerability in the grasp of the language.
“The experts say that if the language isn’t all right, then you can’t get much out of all the other subjects. Kids are often quick to pick up every-day language, they can go to the store or manage in their friends group, but when it comes to learning geography, then vocabulary is quite different.”
Jóhannesdóttir says that she is well aware of the importance of educating teachers to deal with the special circumstances and diverse needs of foreign students.
“There are students of foreign descent in all of our classes, so it’s an issue that concerns every teacher. We all take responsibility for that, and all participate in making sure the student makes the language his own and that’s why we think it’s very important that all the teachers in the school have a good understanding of how they should adapt the curriculum and work with foreign students in the classroom setting.
“We try to have a lot of variety and we have very specific methods to build up vocabulary and practice pronunciation, and we have them practice the language, and we work to improve their reading skills and then of course they work regularly on writing projects.”
As the resources for proper Icelandic education for children is clearly available in at least a few of the city’s elementary schools, in the end it may just come down to confidence.
“It’s quite a big issue,” says Jóhannesdóttir, “overcoming this shyness and working up their self-confidence, just to not be afraid to say the words.”
Since the influx of immigrants is quite recent, general statistical and social information concerning immigrants and their children is still scarcely available. Grétarsdóttir says that when she began research on her thesis in April of last year, no information was available on the group from the Icelandic Statistical Bureau.
“Once I started talking to people and doing my research the Bureau started to collect information and statistics with a similar group. I think both they and the ministry of education were beginning to realize that it doesn’t make any sense to receive people into this country and not to know anything about them and how to react to them or to receive them. I felt it really pointed to the fact that some ball had begun rolling.”