For years, the registration numbers for elementary schools and kindergartens in the city have been considered an indicator of the sensitive balance among the various populations here: Arabs versus Jews, religious versus secular, unofficial haredi institutions versus public schools.

With school registration over, a change in the picture is becoming apparent this year. The news of three elementary public schools opening this year, in addition to 12 kindergartens, could mean that something, albeit minor, is happening in this context. It doesn’t mean that the battle of demographics has been won, but it certainly indicates that for at least a few dozen families, staying in the city – perhaps also for its education system – became an option.

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The three schools are in Har Homa (one secular and one religious) and one in the Katamonim, the latter being more significant in this context. Up to recently, a new school that opened in a new neighborhood automatically meant the closure – and handing over to the haredi system – of a school that had failed to have enough students to function in an aging neighborhood.

The number of students in the new school in the Katamonim might indicate the change that has been so highly anticipated at Kikar Safra.

Among the reasons for the change cited by various sources at the municipality is the 11th month in public kindergartens – a program that will be extended next year to all the municipal kindergartens, shortening the summer vacation of toddlers to one month, without any additional payment by the parents. The many programs launched to improve the level of studies and the conditions in the schools, such as the Schmidt program (to deter students from dropping out); the “City without Violence” – as its name indicates; and “Smart Class,” a program aimed to increase the use of technological tools by teachers and students.

And perhaps most important of all, the cancellation of the registration areas, one of the major issues on Mayor Nir Barkat’s program during his mayoral campaign.

“Education is certainly a major factor in people’s decision to remain here or leave,” says Dr. Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who is also a member of the education committee.

But that being said, the municipal education system still suffers from many problems and deficiencies, such as violence among students; an embarrassingly low number of high school graduates; lack of classrooms, especially in the haredi and Arab sectors; the poor condition of many of the schools, including kindergartens; and lack of funding. On top of these, the toxic atmosphere between the mayor – who holds the education portfolio – and the president of the parents’ association adds a lot of tension. The two do not speak to each other, meet only in court, and a ruling to leave the facilities bestowed by the municipality is pending on the association.

The situation in the Arab neighborhoods is considered by many at Kikar Safra to be “explosive.”

Representatives from both the Right and the Left warn that the vacuum left by the lack of classrooms is being used by nationalistic and fundamentalist groups, who offer inexpensive instruction to parents who cannot afford private education and do not have solutions in the public stream.

At a recent meeting of the Knesset Education Committee, chairman MK Zvulun Orlev, warned that the municipality, which depends on funding from the government (to build classrooms), might pay the price for this neglect. According to former deputy mayor Pepe Alalu (Meretz), who was the first to raise the issue more than eight years ago on the city council, there is still a lack of some 700 classrooms in the public education stream. The municipality claims it is renting classroom space so that no Jerusalem Arab pupils will not have a place in a school by the beginning of the year.

Ir Amim and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, however, released figures claiming there is currently a lack of of 1,000 classrooms and that only 39 new classrooms were built in the 2009-2010 school year.

The committee favors the eventual return of technical education rather than pushing students who may not be suited for it into the theoretical course of studies, meeting the vision of Danny Bar-Giora, head of the Jerusalem Education Administration. Canceled some 20 years ago, technical education (led mostly by ORT) might become popular again. Bar-Giora admits that “Pushing all students into the theoretical stream for years was not such a good idea. It is obvious that not all of them are good at that. It also explains the low number of high school graduates.”

The education system, backed by the mayor, is launching a series of programs, some of which are quite innovative and others that have been run here before. But they all share one common goal: to turn the schools into better places and to transform the capital’s education system into an attractive one.

Anthroposophic education as a stream within an established high school at Seligsberg is one example.

In this methodology, it is believed that with proper training and personal discipline, students can attain experience of the spiritual realm.

Including disabled students in regular classes is another way, which is already being applied in many elementary and junior high schools.

Yet another is enhancing science and technology courses on one hand, while encouraging young leadership projects on the other – with new laptops for teachers and students thrown in.

There is no question that this administration believes that modernity and technology are the keys to success.
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