Education demands sensitivity

Ethiopian students and parents are undermined by a system that refuses to learn how to relate to us.

October 3, 2007 12:50
4 minute read.
ethiopian child 298.88

ethiopian child 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

At the start of each school-year - and this one was no exception - I find myself seized by anxiety over how the education authorities will treat Ethiopian children. Will they offer all kinds of reasons just to prevent our children from gaining a place in the system? Will Ethiopians be sent to schools for children with special needs simply because they come from a different culture? Children of Ethiopian origin have been dubbed mentally retarded because they did not pass the Israeli experts' measurement of how "normal" children should perform. Such mistakes are eventually corrected thanks to the intervention of individuals of goodwill or the media. But the problem of educating Ethiopian children is immense. There are seemingly insurmountable difficulties posed by the education establishment, and by the community itself. Ethiopian parents do not know how the education system works in this country, and their children pay a painful price for their parents' ignorance. Parents naively imagine their experience in Ethiopia can help them navigate the Israel education system. IN ETHIOPIA, the school year starts in September, and registration of new pupils begins a week before classes or on the first day of school. Parents take their children to school, get them registered. End of the story. Educating the children becomes the responsibility of the teachers and school administrators. Student discipline is strict, and competition is rigorous. Parents know that their children are in good hands. Parents are invited, at the end of the year, to take part in a parents' day when the local authorities give prizes to outstanding pupils. Even on this festive occasion, not all parents attend. Parents who live in the outlying villages do not come. They have more serious business to take care of - farming. IN ISRAEL, to get a place in a good school, parents have to get their children registered well before the start of the school. Israeli parents know how to locate good schools and when to register their children. There is hands-on parental involvement in the educational process. It is a completely different culture unknown to us. When Ethiopian parents finally take their children to school at the beginning of the academic year, most of the best places are occupied. The only schools perennially open are the boarding schools which are looked down on by native-born Israelis as breeding grounds for hooliganism. Even pupils who do find their place in government schools have other disadvantages. Their parents are not educated, and hence are not able to help them with their lessons. Parents don't even ask their children if they went to school. The after-school tutorial classes that schools provide for Ethiopian children are not really substantive. To my mind, they serve mostly to provide jobs for the natives. FOR THE Ethiopian child in Israel, education is characterized by ups and downs; by truancy and suspensions. Sometimes principals and teachers send our children home for trivial reasons, at times for no apparent reason at all. They know the children will eventually be allowed to resume classes. But the damage is already done. They have missed several weeks of learning. Truth be told, one of the major reasons why our children are truant is because they don't understand the lessons and don't want to be embarrassed or humiliated in front of their classmates should a teacher call on them. Better to stay away from school than open yourself up for ridicule. Traumatized and stigmatized, many youngsters of 11 or 12 years of age fall victim to alcohol and smoking - not to speak of drugs. They start drinking alcohol early in the day and just keep going. I have seen them, and I am a witness. Theft and crime are rampant. Police statistics attest to the fact that crime among Ethiopian youth is on the rise and increasing every year. Authorities are seemingly unwilling to address the problem. In fact, our children's misfortune serves as a prop for fund-raising by the government and Jewish Agency in Europe and America to raise money in order to "rehabilitate" the unfortunate drop-outs. WHY ARE our children so undermined? Put it this way, if Ethiopians could compete on par with other Israelis in the job market, who would do the menial, dirty work shunned by sabras? I know it sounds harsh, but it is as if the government deprives our children of the right to higher education so that they can remain "hewers of wood and drawers of water." If the government were serious about helping our children, the system would provide for an intensive orientation for Ethiopian parents on how the education system works here in this country. The authorities would explain the indispensable need for parental involvement in their children's education; the importance of after-class activities, such as tutorials. The state would provide employment opportunities for young Ethiopians who have already graduated from universities and community colleges so that they could serve as role models in the community. The reality is quite the opposite. Ethiopians live in neglected towns away from the center where there are few employment opportunities and where schools are poorly-equipped to help them. I appeal to Education Minister Yuli Tamir to re-think how the bureaucracy deals with the Ethiopian community. What it takes to properly absorb and educate our people - to create a vibrant black community - is a positive willingness to do the right thing. There is no reason why we should serve as props for mobilizing fund-raising money, when what we really want is to share in the Israeli dream. The writer is based in Jerusalem and comments on Ethiopian issues.

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