It is back to school today for 2,105,394 elementary and high school pupils.
While the opening of every school year is special, particularly for the 149,705 children who will be beginning first grade, this year more than most presents unique challenges.
If adversity breeds excellence, this year’s crop of pupils promises to be one of the best ever.
Until last week it was far from clear that the school year would even open as planned on September 1, at least not in those parts of southern Israel that regularly came under rocket and mortar shell fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Operation Protective Edge had not come to an end, and there was real concern that many schools were simply unequipped with bomb shelters and therefore could not provide adequate protection for pupils.
But the cease-fire agreement clinched under Egyptian mediation seems to be holding.
The Home Front Command announced over the weekend that all security limitations put in place due to rocket threats have been lifted, including limitations preventing the opening of schools. As a result, the school year will begin as planned.
But transition from war mode to the classroom will not be easy. Educators have been directed to address the issue of the Israel-Gaza conflict. A circular issued by the Education Ministry called on schools to focus on “the personal resilience” of the pupils. Time will be set aside at the beginning and the end of the school day to focus on experiences from the summer vacation. Students will be encouraged to discuss the circumstances under which they were forced to leave their homes due to rocket threats and the lack of security.
Meanwhile, the Arab sector is mourning the shocking murder of Yussuf Haj Yihya, a school principal shot dead by a masked gunman during a staff meeting at the Amal school in the central Arab city of Taiba.
Following the murder, Taiba parents decided to postpone the opening of the school year in protest against the lack of law enforcement in the Arab sector. The city municipality declared it would hold a general strike today.
As though the conflict in the South and the murder in Taiba weren’t enough, Education Minister Shai Peron has a slew of reforms in the offing for the school year, many of them highly controversial.
The matriculation process will be revamped in a number of ways. Perhaps the most significant reform will be a greater emphasis on classroom discussions and research projects and less time devoted to testing. Other reforms include a Holocaust studies program in preschool, more emphasis on science and general studies and a reform in the way international assessment tests will be administered.
Most school principals are lauding Peron’s reforms, though some argue that too many changes are being made too quickly.
A grassroots parents’ movement against overcrowded classrooms nicknamed “the sardine protest” succeeded in postponing a planned reform that would have done away with classrooms with too few pupils. All these changes are further compounded by the Education Ministry being forced to undergo a major budget cut in the wake of military expenditures on Operation Protective Edge.
The Defense Ministry is demanding NIS 9 billion to cover the costs of the 50-day war, and is also asking for an NIS 11b. increase in next year’s budget. To cover that cost, cabinet ministers were asked Sunday to approve about NIS 2b. in across-the-board cuts from the 2014 budget. In fact, the Education budget will be the hardest hit of all the ministries, with a NIS 517 million cut to elementary and high school education and another NIS 175.5m. to higher education.
As is usually the case, the poorest will be the most adversely affected.
Among the various programs, the most likely candidate to be cut is the subsidized afternoon schooling for kindergarten and elementary school pupils. Presently, longer school days are provided free of charge in the weakest municipalities, enabling parents (usually mothers) to work. Another endangered program, enacted by the Trajtenberg Committee after the socioeconomic demonstrations of the summer of 2011, provides free-of-charge preschool education for children aged 3 to 4.
Although the costly war in Gaza has to be paid for somehow, it is not the field of education where the cuts should be coming from. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that security is Israel’s top priority. But he should add education to that equation.