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Children who immigrate to Israel after age 12 are far more likely to fail high school matriculation exams or drop out of school, according to new statistics presented Monday to a joint Knesset session of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee and the Committee for Immigrant Absorption and the Diaspora.
"There is a large decline in the number of immigrant pupils passing their matriculation exams," said Michael Melchior, chairman of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, who called on the Education and Immigrant Absorption Ministries to devise a plan to deal with learning Hebrew and improving school standards among new olim ahead of the coming school year.
The meeting, which was attended by 15 MKs from across the political spectrum, representatives of the Education and Immigrant Absorption ministries, the Israeli Association for Immigrant Children, teachers organizations and pupils' representatives, heard how a lack of Hebrew instruction in the school system and no option for new immigrants to take the exams in their mother tongue were just some of the reasons new arrivals were failing to achieve the same levels as Israeli-born pupils. Immigrant children make up about 19 percent of Israeli pupils from kindergarten through high school.
The statistics gathered by the Israel Association for Immigrant Children found that there was a nine percent fall between 2001/02 and 2004/05 in the number of immigrant pupils passing their matriculation exams. It also noted that between those years only 44.5 percent of new immigrants passed compared to 58% among non-olim. Melchior noted that the statistics for Ethiopian immigrants was even more troubling and that a separate hearing should be dedicated solely to their problems.
The ensuing discussions led to a harsh exchange between some of the foreign-born MKs present and Israeli-born Ronit Tirosh, formerly the Education Ministry's director-general, who argued that it was imperative immigrants struggle through learning the new language and that they should accept that the examinations and language of instruction in the schools must take place in Hebrew.
"In Israel, the main language is Hebrew," she answered other MKs who called on the Education Ministry to translate test papers into Russian, French, English, Spanish and Amharic so that new immigrants would stand a better chance at passing. "Just like immigrants in the United States are tested and live using English, that is what the Hebrew language should be in Israel."
Several of the foreign-born MKs, including Melchior, who was born in Norway, Russian-born Michael Nudelman, chair of the Committee for Immigrant Absorption and the Diaspora, Marina Solodkin and Alex Miller both originally from Russia. argued that immigrant children should be given more extensive Hebrew classes. They questioned why the Education Ministry had cut back on ulpans within the school framework and some recalled their personal experiences of being child immigrants and struggling with a new language and a new culture all at once.
"A child could be an excellent student but if he does not understand the language then how will he pass the exams?" asked Miller.
"How can we throw a 12-year-old immigrant into a classroom without him knowing a word of Hebrew?" asked Nudelman. "Even an adult would struggle with this new environment and for children it is even more difficult."
Amiud Bahat, director of the department of immigrant absorption in the Education Ministry, said the ministry was aware of the problems and was concerned with the falling test scores.
"Today's aliya is different from the past," he told the committee. "There are fewer immigrants and they are more spread out than in the past. There used to be enough pupils to form an ulpan class in every school but today when there are only two immigrant pupils in a school, it is not possible."
Melchior dismissed his explanation and called on the Education and Immigrant Absorption ministries to work at solving some of the problems before the new school year begins in September.
"This is not a national crisis but it is a national problem," concluded Melchior, adding that immigration and absorption should be made a top priority by the State of Israel.