Mentor programme helps kids with migrant roots succeed at school


Four Brussels women are leading a non-profit that sends mentors to pupils’ homes to help bridge the gap between them and their schools

Language matters

The performance gap between pupils with a migrant background and those with parents born in the country is the highest in Belgium of all the 36 developed Western nations in the OECD. That means that if your parents were born in another country, you will trail much farther behind your peers than in Turkey, the Czech Republic or, yes, the United States.

It’s difficult to say what wildcard is making things harder here for children with migrant parents. (The blame is usually passed around between lawmakers, school administrators, parents and teachers.)

But the founders of Ladder’op in Brussels think that whatever the root causes, the answer is role models and knowledge. “So much talent is being squandered; so much potential in children goes untapped simply because they end up in study tracks that aren’t right for them,” says project manager Cinzia Tagliavini.

This, she says, is either because the study streams don’t match their talents or because they are below their level. “There are so many possibilities to advance your education that aren’t known among children and their parents.”

A little effort goes a long way

Ladder’op is one of a handful of initiatives launched in recent years by young locals with migrant roots trying to help close the educational gap by playing the long game. The founders of these projects – which include Kilalo and Pep in Antwerp – all went through the local educational system. This gives them perspective on the unique challenges faced by primary pupils who grow up in homes where Dutch isn’t spoken and on the difficulty parents face in navigating a school system that is wholly foreign to them.

“We’re trying to act as bridge,” explains Tagliavini (pictured left). “Because these children go to Dutch-language schools, it’s very difficult for parents to help them with, say, math questions because they don’t speak Dutch.”

The parents, she adds, often also have low levels of education. “What all these children need to succeed is just a little bit of extra support.”

The children find it so, so special that someone who speaks their mother tongue is pursuing higher education

- Project manager Cinzia Tagliavini

The four women behind Ladder’op, which they launched in 2015, went to the same secondary school in Anderlecht and have Italian, Iraqi, Guinean and Flemish roots.

The first few years, the non-profit was a passion project, with all four of them working full-time jobs. Since 2018 and thanks to subsidies from the OCMW welfare agency in Anderlecht, they were able to hire Tagliavini to work on the project part time.

The number of participating kids has grown in size and ambition since the launch: during the 2017-2018 school year, Ladder’op received 100 requests for mentoring – more than triple the 30 they started out with in 2015. The founders also hope to start coaching both Year One-aged children and those in secondary school if they can obtain more financial support – and mentors.

Based out of a small office in Anderlecht, Ladder’op sends its coaches into children’s homes, most of them concentrated in low-income, heavily migrant neighbourhoods like Sint-Joost, Schaarbeek, Anderlecht and Molenbeek.

During the weekly visits, Ladder’op coaches assist the pupils with any school-related questions or problems they might face. “Usually that’s homework, but it could be anything that the child has difficulty understanding,” she says. “We really aim to bring the school closer and into their homes.”

Training future teachers

A large majority of the coaches are teachers or social workers in training who assist Ladder’op as part of their coursework. Many of them, crucially, have migrant roots themselves.

They try, for instance, to match Turkish pupils with Turkish coaches to help prevent the same language obstacles they face in class. Coaches become role models. “The children find it so, so special that someone who speaks their own mother tongue is pursuing higher education,” says Tagliavini.

This is also what makes them different from most local educational initiatives, she says, insisting that Ladder’op is a mentoring programme and not a homework assistance project.

There are currently more than 200 homework assistance projects in Brussels that provide children with a quiet study space, supervised by a volunteer whom they can ask questions. Many of them have long waitlists, and a majority are targeted at children enrolled in French-language schools.

We’ve seen kids flourish who didn’t dare talk to the teacher because the barrier just seemed so steep

- Cinzia Tagliavini

To get Ladder’op mentoring, pupils must be referred by teachers and be kansarm, a semi-legal term that means they must face structural barriers that limit their possibilities to fully participate in society. Rather than just materially poor, they must be poor in opportunities.

If a pupil is accepted, parents pay an annual registration fee of €5 and €2.50 per hour of mentoring (each mentoring session lasts one hour). The hourly fee drops to €1.25 if the parents are low-income under federal standards.

The success of unsupervised, non-profit initiatives like Ladder’op can be tricky to measure in both the short and long term. But the founders aren’t primarily focused on getting the mentored children to advance to the next year, though almost all of them do.

Tagliavini: “What we primarily want is for children to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. We want children to regain their confidence and believe in their talents.”

And there are anecdotal signs suggesting that they are succeeding, she says, pointing to the confidence gained by some of the children that have been with them since the very beginning. “They used to be so quiet and felt very insecure in the classroom because of their limited command of the language. They didn’t dare talk to the teacher because the barrier just seemed so steep. We’ve seen those kids flourish.”

Photo: The founders of Ladder'op, from left: Cinzia Tagliavini, Hadiatou Diallo, Luna Batota and Hannelore Piens
(c)Nicola Manzo