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Vantaa boosts language training for immigrant-background youngsters

The city of Vantaa is budgeting a further six million euros for immigrant language education over the next three years. Among the targets is a unique daycare centre.

Rautpihan päiväkoti Vantaalla.
Children at Vantaa's Rautpiha daycare centre. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

Lunchtime is just starting at the Rautpiha daycare centre in Vantaa, a suburban area just north of Helsinki. Kindergarten assistant Nimco Mahamed is telling the children what is on the day's menu.

"Lihakeittoa (meat soup)," says Mahamed.

"Lihakeittoa," the children repeat.

"Juustoa (cheese)," Mahamed continues.

"Juustoa," the children shout out.

Then course by course, Mahamed and the children go through what they'll be served in the lunchroom today.

This is an important lesson as none of the children speak Finnish as their home language, and so the focus at Rautpiha is very much on language learning.

Story continues after photo.

Rautpihan päiväkoti Vantaalla.
Children at the Rautpiha daycare centre speak a wide range of languages. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

Unique daycare

The Rautpiha daycare centre is unique in that all of the 47 children over the age of three who attend have immigrant backgrounds.

It is the only daycare centre of its kind in Vantaa, and most likely in the entire country.

Today is still part of the autumn holidays, so there are only eight children and three adult educators in a group that normally includes 18 children and six adults. Of the adults, two are regular kindergarten teachers, one an assistant, one a childcare specialist and two specialized kindergarten teachers.

Story continues after photo.

Rautpihan päiväkoti Vantaalla.
Play is a key to learning a new language. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

It is a real boon that the group can be broken down into smaller supervised groups. In a large group, it is possible that some children would not get the help they may need in language learning.

According to one of the kindergarten special education teachers, Satu Pyy, adults are needed to help children verbalise their play, especially children whose first language is not Finnish.

"Language is the key to everything - learning, friendships, expressing emotions," says Pyy.

More investment in language

The city of Vantaa intends to spend more on language education for immigrants.

Each of the city's roughly 10 daycare centres - where over 70 percent of the children are immigrants - will be hiring more kindergarten teachers.

In addition, any school with significant numbers of immigrant pupils will in future have a special guidance counsellor whose job will be to provide assistance to immigrant youth in their studies and other facets of their lives. More staff focused on immigrant students will also soon be seen in Vantaa's vocational schools.

Inequalities on the rise

According to Vantaa Deputy Mayor Elina Lehto-Hägglund, one of the factors spurring these measures is an increase in inequalities within the city, despite measures such as residential zoning that mixes families with differing income levels.

In addition, Vantaa has followed the principle that children attend the school closest to their homes. This is intended to prevent parents from "shopping around" for schools and possibly creating economic or ethnic clustering.

Even with these in place, inequalities are on the rise.

"There are more learning difficulties than in the past and the number of young people dropping out of vocations schools has gone up," says Lehto-Hägglund.

Story continues after photo.

Rautpihan päiväkoti Vantaalla.
Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

Support in five areas

Now Vantaa has designated more financial support to five areas seen as needing special efforts to rein in inequalities. They have been chosen on the basis of the level of immigrant residents, the level of unemployment and the need for healthcare.

City officials have not released details of what areas are included in the plan because they do not want to see the neighbourhoods labelled as "undesirable".

"We want to make sure that all children, immigrant and Finnish-speaking, keep up. We want to make sure that the language development of all children, starting from a very young age, is such that it creates favourable conditions for their schooling and continuing education," Lehto-Hägglund tells Yle.

More adults

Over the next few years, Vantaa will budget six million euros for the five designated areas for use in schools and daycare centres, as well as for improvements in their surroundings. The funds will be paid out at a rate of two million a year over a span of three years.

"It could be that this won't stop segregation, but it is at least a start," Lehto-Hägglund says.

In three years, efforts will be evaluated.

The director of the Rautpiha daycare centre, Melanie Kuparinen, is more than pleased with news of increased funding. The money may be used for outdoor improvements, acquiring equipment and extra staff, she says.

"With the extra money we could have an adult at every lunchroom table," says Kuparinen. If there were a grownup at every table, it would be good for the children. Then they could freely chat with an adult."

This is an important point especially when considering that adults at the daycare are one of the most important sources of language skills for many of the children.

Story continues after photo.

Rautpihan päiväkodin lapsia ja henkilökuntaa Vantaalla.
Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

To the door and back

The day continues at the daycare centre. Satu Pyy asks the children to gather around. It's time for songs and play.

Each child in turn raises a card and chooses one that says, in Finnish: "fact, skill or trick".

One holds up a card with the instruction in Finnish to "walk to the door and return with a card on your nose".

The child's face freezes. It is clearly an uncomfortable situation.

"'To the door and return,' what could that mean?" Pyy asks the group.

From across the room, one can see young brains processing the unfamiliar words. Seconds pass by, but in this classroom there is plenty of time.

"I'll help you!" one of the girls shouts.

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