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The familiar knock on haredi education is that it does not prepare its graduates for life after yeshiva. But in Kfar Saba, the municipality is fighting tooth and nail to close down a SHUVU school, run and staffed by haredim, on the grounds that it is too good, and Kfar Saba public schools cannot compete.
Two years ago SHUVU-Kfar Saba opened with 25 students. Enthusiastic parents quickly spread word of the school. This year 160 children registered by opening day, and that number would have been far higher were it not for the uncertainty over the school's future.
Twice in recent weeks, the fate of the school has been the subject of hearings by a subcommittee of the Knesset Education Committee headed by MK Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima). In the first hearings, city officials were grilled about a protocol of a meeting of the Kfar Saba municipal education committee at which it was voted to oppose the school in any way possible.
The MKs criticized a number of anti-haredi statements in the protocol: "If they are haredim, there is no place for them here"; "We don't want to see this stream here." But, in general, the excellence of the school counted as heavily against it as its haredi management and staff. The Education Ministry official who testified at the meeting of the Kfar Saba education committee admitted that former Education Ministry director-general Ronit Tirosh was very enthusiastic about SHUVU's educational model. Over and over, the members of the Kfar Saba education committee stressed the declining school population in Kfar Saba and expressed their fears that the SHUVU school would drain students from the public schools.
A week after the hearings in the Knesset, the members of the Knesset Education Committee came to Kfar Saba to view the location of the SHUVU school in an area zoned for light industry. They also viewed a number of former school buildings that are either being used for other municipal needs or standing empty. The large building of the former Ben-Zvi school in the Aliya neighborhood, for instance, is barely being used, and SHUVU has offered to pay all the costs of refurbishing the building. The neighborhood residents committee has petitioned the municipality to move the SHUVU school, in which 20 neighborhood children currently study, to the neighborhood.
After their tour, the five MKs sat down for a stormy meeting with municipal officials. MK Elkin summed up the meeting with the statement that the Kfar Saba municipality does not seem interested in finding a suitable location for the SHUVU school. The Education Ministry official present admitted that she had no idea why her ministry opposed the school. And an Education Ministry closure order based on health concerns turned out to be bogus. The regional director of the Health Ministry admitted that he had only received a request from the Education Ministry to visit the school late the previous afternoon.
A THREE-PAGE spread on the SHUVU system in the June 28 Globes shows why Kfar Saba officials are so fearful of competition from SHUVU. On an unannounced visit to a first-grade class in Rishon Lezion, the Globes reporter found the entire class easily solving mathematical equations in which they had to figure out the missing term, a level of conceptual thinking with no parallel in the state curriculum for that age. She found the pattern repeating itself in every one of the required secular subjects and at all grade levels.
SHUVU schools, Globes reported, provide eight hours of weekly math instruction versus four in the state system. English classes start in first-grade as opposed to fourth, and computers are introduced in kindergarten.
The reporter started with the hypothesis that agreeing to SHUVU's rules - separation of boys and girls from fifth grade, modest dress in school, daily prayer, intensified Torah education - was the price secular parents were willing to pay for superior secular studies. But she soon found out that the parents also viewed the religious education as a plus. One mother told her that she agreed with the separation of the sexes, and saw it as enhancing concentration. Another commented that she had no problem with her child coming closer to religion and would even "bless" such a decision.
I recently spoke to a mother in the Kfar Saba school who compared her own education in the state education system, in which she had been exposed to a full-range of classical Jewish texts, with the dearth of such studies her older children received. In her view, SHUVU provides a model for the whole educational system. "At 18, my son will go into the army, and without SHUVU he would have absolutely no idea what connects us to this place at all," she told me.
In many ways, SHUVU's secret weapon is the dedication of its mostly Bais Ya'acov-trained teachers, all of whom spend hours each week providing unpaid individual tutoring and home visits. In stark contrast to the general society, teaching is the most respected profession in the haredi world, and that is reflected in the quality of the teachers.
A survey of SHUVU parents found that over 80 percent believe the cultural level is higher and the violence lower than in the state system (none felt the opposite was true). Dr. Tamar Horowitz of Ben-Gurion University has written that the level of teacher accountability in the SHUVU system is the highest of any school system in the country.
All this is reflected in the enthusiasm of the students. One mother told Globes that when she initially registered her children, they were skeptical. But now their enthusiasm is "sky-high." Instead of trying to shut down competition from SHUVU, Kfar Saba might be better advised to emulate its educational model.