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(photo credit: Ori Porat [file])
Despite a number of ongoing challenges facing the education system, the 2009-2010 school year began Tuesday morning, with the arrival of over 1.1 million pupils at over 4,000 schools across the country, the Education Ministry said.
Over 56,000 classrooms were ready to accommodate the pupils, along with over 120,000 teachers, the ministry said Monday.
All the numbers are up slightly from last year, with the largest increase coming from 12th grade students, whose numbers rose from over 102,000 pupils in 2008 to an expected 105,500 pupils this coming year.
President Shimon Peres on Monday hosted some 200 soon-to-be first graders at his Jerusalem residence, telling them that their official entry into the education system was a "birthday for the entire country."
"The whole country starts first grade with you," Peres said. "We want you to grow up together, study diligently, and I want to send a hug from all of Israel's residents to each and every one of you. Good luck with your studies, you are our future."
During the ceremony, which was also attended by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, three students recited blessings for the new school year. Sirin Slimane from the northern town of Bu'eine-Nujeidat spoke in Arabic while Rivka Dinau, an Ethiopian immigrant from Ashkelon, together with Amit Malka from Hatzor Haglilit, spoke in Hebrew.
"I am also excited today, as is the whole country," Peres said after the blessings concluded. "And you should know that you are loved, no matter where you come from."
Protests continued Monday regarding the unresolved issue of the enrollment of over 100 Ethiopian pupils in Petah Tikva, where the controversy has threatened the start of the school year.
Meanwhile, the head of the Secondary School Teachers Organization, Ran Erez, said earlier in the week that a number of other unresolved issues were still looming on a national level.
According to Erez, those issues included the ongoing shortage of certified security guards for the country's schools, and a financial dispute over driver's education classes, which are mandatory for all 11th grade pupils and have been hurt by the layoffs of some 160 driver's ed teachers over the summer, along with salary cuts meted out to another 600.
Nonetheless, Erez said he was hopeful that the problems would be resolved, based on the successes he had witnessed in recent months.
"We solved so many issues over the summer," he said. "We were able to add thousands of classroom hours and NIS 150 million to the budget for math and English courses in secondary schools, and we succeeded in bringing down the number of pupils in the classroom from 40 to 35."
Still, other issues, out of Erez's jurisdiction, were seen as possible problems for the start of the school year, including a threat from Arab educators on Monday that they would begin engaging in civil disobedience if the Education Ministry followed through on plans to to remove reference to the "Nakba" from textbooks in the Arab education system.
Sa'ar, who had previously said he was mulling such a move, on Sunday announced that he was dropping the third-grade textbook that used the term, which means "disaster" and is used by Arabs to describe the creation of the State of Israel.
"In the five months since its formation, the government, along with the Education Ministry, has made a number of dangerous decisions, such as a prohibition to commemorate the Nakba of the Arab people in schools, the changing of road signs, forcing the singing of the 'Hatikva' national anthem at schools and setting the promotion of military service or national service as a criterion for rewarding schools and staff," the head of the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education in Israel, Atef Moaddi, told a press conference on Monday.
"We reject these decisions outright," Moaddi said. "And we stress that if an attempt is made to carry them out in Arab schools - the response will be refusal and civil disobedience."
Furthermore, Jerusalem municipal workers on Monday declared a general strike beginning at midnight after discussions with 3,500 workers employed via personnel agencies broke down.
The employees, many of whom are special needs educators in schools, are demanding improved working conditions.
The Histadrut Labor Federation said the strike would lead to disruptions on the first day of school Tuesday, but the municipality said the new year would begin as planned.
Police officers will temporary fill in for missing school security guards until after Rosh Hashana, Lt.-Cmdr. Meir Ben-Yishai, head of the Israel Police's Security Department, said Monday, as an estimated 10 percent of all guard positions are unfilled.
Ben-Yishai met with security officers and Education Ministry officials Monday to assess security at schools ahead of the start of the school year.
Erez had said that any junior high or high school that has no guard Tuesday would not open.
Yaakov Lappin and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.