Space to thrive
TEXT: LOUISE OLDER STEFFENSEN | PHOTOS © ÆRØ EFTERSKOLE
Helped by the safe and beautiful surroundings on Denmark’s idyllic Ærø island, Ærø Efterskole has, since its establishment in 1989, provided a safe, supportive and fun environment for teenagers with learning disabilities who have previously struggled at school. “We focus on developing as individuals; on being part of something bigger and on practical learning through activities that the students choose for themselves,” explains principal Mette Bækmark.
As with other Danish efterskoler, students learn much more than just traditional academic subjects here. At Ærø Efterskole, the school day is centred around seven practical workshops, allowing students to pick up new interests and skills with supervision from the school’s many teachers and support staff members. Traditional subjects, such as science, history and Danish, are brought in through themed days or as part of the workshops.
“Many of our workshops have commercial relevance, which means that our students pick up a trade or interest that they can pursue as a job in future. Our cooking team learns to work within a professional kitchen and prepare the meals that we eat at the school. Our handicraft group picks up skills like carpentry, painting and bricklaying, and has built several fantastic additions to the school over the years,” says Bækmark. “Other workshops, such as sailing, sports or riding, teach things like maintenance, movement and personal responsibility, which will be essential in adulthood. What unites our subjects is that they focus on personal growth and practical learning – the pressure is taken off book learning and our students instead pick up skills like reading and mathematics through practical, real-life situations and with technological help if needed.”
Unlike other efterskoler, Ærø Efterskole often allows students to stay for several years, developing lasting friendships and close, supportive relationships with the adults at the school. “We get to know our students really well and care for them deeply. We often keep in touch after they leave the school too,” Bækmark says. “Many of our students appreciate a little extra guidance in learning daily life skills.”
Students live together in houses and receive individual support from a regular contact person every day so that they gradually learn to live independently in smaller houses with a few of their friends. “What all of our students need most of all is a stable, caring, respectful environment, which gives them the space to spread their wings but has their back when they need it – together, the adults and the students at the school provide that for one another.”