Getting a better grade

There is no lack of criticism of Jerusalem’s education system, but steadily rising enrollment figures in secular and religious Zionist state schools are a sign of a positive trend.

Students (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On a particularly warm summer evening in downtown Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat stood on the rooftop bar of the recently renovated Alma Restaurant, a microphone in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, and spoke about the capital to some 100 successful young businesspeople and senior government officials.
At the end of his speech, a participant addressed a question to him regarding the problems of the city’s education system, including why schools have been handed over to haredi institutions and how could Barkat expect non-haredi young families to remain in Jerusalem under these conditions. A big smile spread across the mayor’s face, as if he had been anticipating the question so he could tell the audience about his achievements.
That very morning, Barkat had received the latest figures from the city’s education administration, and he had reason to smile. It appeared that last year’s indication had become a real trend, with a 4 percent increase in registration for secular and religious state schools and kindergartens.
“The Zionist education stream is back in Jerusalem,” declared the mayor.
Most people in the audience that evening were not residents of the city but were members of the Sanhedrin Forum – a group of young men and women between the ages of 28 and 35 who have reached a certain status in their professional lives. Jerusalem has not been of much interest to the forum, as the members don’t think the city has much to offer in terms of employment or education – which they consider to be controlled by the haredim.
Barkat was eager to meet with them, but on the condition that they came to the capital. It took a while, but they finally came to Jerusalem – where quite a few of them were born and had studied – as guests of the New Spirit organization.
Through their questions, they tried to understand how the city functions; if the mayor (who is considered, in some ways, “one of them”) has succeeded in changing the negative image of Jerusalem as a city of poverty, haredi extremism and security risks; and what it has to offer the young and successful. Most of their questions were in reference to education, which they see as the most important means to improve the city’s situation.
Judging by the figures the education administration released earlier this week, it is clear that something has changed – at least in regard to the number of secular and religious pupils enrolling in state schools (which rose 2% and 4%, respectively) and a slight increase in the high school students who have graduated (4%).
For Barkat, there is no doubt that these positive changes are the result of his policy as mayor and holder of the education portfolio at city hall – namely, the large scale project of computerization of the schools and classrooms, the abolition of catchment areas for junior high and high school, and the increase in the education budget.
While he is not wrong, some parents and senior officials – many of whom formerly served in the administration – say that this is only one aspect of the improvements that are required.
“A laptop for every teacher is certainly a good thing,” says Natalia Kogan, mother of a graduate of a prestigious high school and another student enrolled in a state high school. “But we shouldn’t get confused – education is much more than technology, and I am far from being satisfied with the present situation in the city.”
Jerusalem’s education administration is the largest in the country, with more than 250,000 pupils, from preschool to 12th grade, in three major streams: the state secular and religious; the haredi (private and semi-state); and the Arab (private and state). After 11 years under former mayors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, during which the curve showed a clear rise in the numbers of haredi pupils at all levels and a drop in the number of pupils at secular and religious institutions, the wind has clearly changed direction. The first year of Barkat’s administration, 2008-9, showed a halt in the statistical trend favorable to the haredim, followed the next year by a slight increase in the number of nonharedi pupils in state schools – with an increase in the number of pupils in state secular and state religious schools as of last year.
According to the education administration in Safra Square, the trend is continuing. Therefore, next year – an election year – the curve will show an additional increase in the number of pupils in the state stream. Additionally, statistics show that more non-haredi people have decided to remain residents of the city or want to visit.
For Barkat, these encouraging figures could not come at a better time. It is no secret that the mayor and his staff are busy preparing his campaign – and the figures demonstrate that under his watch, his accent on education has been successful.
However, when examined more closely, things are far from perfect.
This includes the unexpected and embarrassing resignation of the head of the education administration, Danny Bar-Giora. An experienced principal at the city’s High School of the Arts and later a senior Education Ministry official, Bar-Giora was brought in by the mayor as “a close friend and partner, to implement the Barkat education revolution in the city.”
Bar-Giora left about two years later, however. Although he has refused to explain the reasons behind his decision, two things indicate that they were quite serious. Firstly, Barkat didn’t make any attempt to persuade Bar-Giora to stay. Upon delivering his resignation letter, Bar-Giora and the mayor exchanged just a few polite words – which was strange, considering the warm welcome Barkat had given him.
Secondly, despite his refusal to explain his reasons for resigning, Bar- Giora has not hesitated to meet parents and present the conclusions from his experience in the position. While being careful not to criticize Barkat openly or directly, he has expressed harsh criticism of the education administration – despite the fact that he himself headed it not long ago.
At such a meeting organized by the Yerushalmim Movement a few weeks ago, Bar-Giora painted a very pessimistic picture for the 30 parents in the audience. “Check everything, and don’t trust the system blindly,” was one of his recommendations.
NONETHELESS, THE achievements of the education administration under Barkat’s leadership are evident. The project to computerize the education system provides intensive teacher training and, as of the coming month, the project will expand to preschools, with 25 preschool teachers receiving training. Still, in most schools in the city – as well as in the rest of the country, according to an Education Ministry source – there is shortage of experienced mathematics and physics teachers.
The slight increase in the number of students who graduate doesn’t change the fact that overall, the number is still very low (52%). It is true that Jerusalem has received some negative press on this issue – mostly because the media often do not understand that pupils in haredi schools do not take the matriculation exams at all, which negatively influences the statistics. But there is more to this. While it is good that there is finally a mayor who understands that education should be a top priority, it is not enough.
“Education is everything,” says Noa Weiss, a mother of four children, the youngest of whom entered sixth grade this year. “A school is a place where the child should feel at home – not alienated, not dependent on his parents’ means.”
She says that two of her siblings were so dissatisfied with the city’s education system that they established a school to fit their needs and expectations. Weiss, who lives with her family in Ein Kerem, thought she would not have to send her children to this school – until her youngest entered the system. Together with other area parents, she has been completely involved in a long and exhausting process to establish what shouldn’t have been a problem – what she calls “a real state school.”
“I even thought I’d write a book about my experience on how to open a school and maintain it versus the establishment and bureaucracy,” she says with a deep sigh.
“Parents have a critical role in all aspects of their children’s education,” she adds. “It sounds obvious, but it is much more complicated than it seems at first.”
Weiss and her partners wanted to ensure that Ein Kerem’s small school maintained its status as a community institution.
“We didn’t want a private or semi-private school,” she says. “But we wanted a community state school that would also be a good school, and it is amazing to me how difficult that is to achieve.”
The first obstacle, according to Weiss, was the lack of good teachers.
She says that in the first years of the process, it was simply impossible to find such teachers. All the educated, experienced, high-level teachers taught at private or semi-private schools, where parents have to pay high tuition, making these schools inaccessible to a large portion of residents. In this particular case, the fact that the school was operating from two different locations – in a small building in Ein Kerem and in the former Argentina school in Kiryat Hayovel – was an additional obstacle.
The solution was finally to join the Experimental school, but that was the first and last compromise, notes Weiss. “We were adamant that [we] would function without additional parents’ payments, that it would be a full community school,” thus ensuring it would accept any neighborhood child regardless of his level, and that it would “have a large scope of studies, so that its graduates would be prepared for both religious and secular high schools after.”
Weiss says that they managed to obtain almost all their requests.
“We have – since this is a community school – both religious and secular pupils. So we provide them with all they need in order to continue from here either to some prestigious religious high school or to a no-less-prestigious secular school. That’s a genuine community attitude.”
Weiss points out that in the present situation, parents are being forced to become an active part of the financing system, as schools without additional programs financed by parents are becoming less attractive. As a result, parents who can afford it are sending their children to other schools, while the children of those who cannot afford to do so remain in schools that quickly fall to a low level.
“The idea that in order to avoid that situation one had to go through privatization of education was unbearable to me,” says Weiss. “And I am still convinced that it does not need to be like that.
But it takes a toll – not every parent can invest the time, energy, willingness, patience and dedication we invested here, and the system knows that, too.”
Asked what should be the aim, Weiss says that every child deserves “a state school with the qualities of a private school. That’s what the state’s obligation is towards us and our children.”
Kogan says that the problem stems from the relationship between parents and school staff.
“I have, from the first years of my children’s education, adopted a clear position that we are three equal parts in this endeavour – the parents, the school staff and the child – and that we have to work together in full respect of each side. There were cases where I thought that my daughter or my son was wrong, and I never hesitated to express it – unlike too many cases where parents automatically accuse the teachers of every problem.”
KOGAN’S CHILDREN studied in secular state elementary schools, with her daughter continuing on to a private high school, while her son went on to a semi-private school. Her principal concern is the level of the teachers. In her opinion, that is the most important issue.
“I do not expect the school to educate my children in terms of their behavior, that is the parents’ task, but I expect the school to give my children the best level of education in the sense of knowledge and to prepare them for their future professional life – and that’s a teacher’s job to do. We are satisfied with the atmosphere and attitude at our son’s school, but the level of the teachers is low, too low, and that’s the problem, which will not be solved by the fact that the teacher has a laptop or the classroom is totally computerized.”
Kogan says that difficulty in finding skilled teachers for mathematics and physics is the result of the general atmosphere in Israeli society, where young people mostly study fields that will enable them to generate high incomes, while teachers are still underpaid, despite reforms. In one way, both Kogan, who is not opposed to the semiprivatization of education, and Weiss, who is strongly opposed to it, admit that the most important factor is the kind of home in which the child is raised.
“[A child who grows up in] a family with love of knowledge and respect for education, like having books at home, will succeed, no matter what level the school is,” summarizes Weiss.
Kogan – who didn’t hesitate to pay for private lessons whenever she felt the school didn’t provide the level she wanted for her children – says much the same.
A senior education administration official says that considering the wildly competitive atmosphere in society and the sometimes devastating influence of the media (with many polls showing that a high percentage of youth don’t want to study and would rather become celebrities and appear on TV shows), the local system can hardly survive.
“I sometimes dream that we can return to the simple and decent state education we believed in once – equal education and equal opportunity for all children. Knowing the situation, I’m afraid that this will remain a dream,” says the official.
“But,” he adds, “parents should not give up their role and should always be ready to fight for the best quality of education their children deserve.”
Numbers Game
For the second year in a row, the education administration at city hall and the Education Ministry are facing the issue of matriculation exams in Jerusalem. It has become an issue between Mayor Nir Barkat and the ministry, as Barkat accuses it of ignoring some basic facts regarding the city’s figures.
When taking into consideration two of the three main sectors within the city – the haredim and the Arabs – the exact numbers of students obtaining their matriculation vary. According to ministry figures, when considering all students at the correct age for taking taking the matriculation exams and comparing them to the numbers of those who pass, Jerusalem is ranked very low. Barkat claims that this is unfair, since many of the haredi and Arab students do not even show up to the tests and therefore shouldn’t be taken into consideration. According to Barkat’s calculation, the number of Jerusalem students who matriculate is much higher and is growing.
Of course, this is more than just a semantic debate, with education being Barkat’s ticket to winning the last election and assumed to be his major pull for voters in the next election, scheduled for November 2013.
While, according to the mayor, last year there was a 4% rise in the number of state high school matriculation graduates compared to the year before, the Education Ministry has just published a report indicating that 44.3% matriculated in 2011 compared to 48.41% in 2010.
According to the city’s figures, 68.4% of students who took the matriculation exam passed it last year, (compared to 63.9% the year before) in both state secular and religious schools, which indicates a growth of more than 4%.
And now on to more figures for this new school year that opened this week; and first, the good news. Five new first-grade classes opened this year in state secular and religious streams and 24 new kindergartens and pre-schools will open this year, under the framework of the Trajtenberg Report recommendations. As a result, 98% of the children of pre-school age (three and four) will be included in the state system, which is free of charge.
The city’s education administration invested NIS 400 million this year to create 400 new classrooms in east Jerusalem. According to official figures released since last year by the ministry, there is still a shortage of some 400 classrooms for the Arab population of the city.
Financing of classrooms is the ministry’s responsibility, but it is the municipality’s obligation to find an appropriate location and to build the classrooms. This year, east Jerusalem will gain 58 newly built classrooms as well as 10 new pre-school classes, six of them for children with special needs.
A total of 10,404 pupils will study this year in state secular and religious preschools. The number of children who started first grade this week in state secular and religious schools is 3,872. The city’s haredi administration has decided to add 1,182 classrooms at a cost of NIS 700 million; The municipality did not specify how long the construction will take.
This year, 30 classrooms have been made accessible for disabled pupils throughout the city, in addition to the 86 that were made accessible in the past three years.
Two thousand computers have been dispatched to the city’s teachers, and as of this month, the first 25 preschool teachers received laptops in the framework of the extended “A Laptop for Every Teacher” project launched by the mayor two years ago.
One hundred and thirty thousand of the city’s children will study in state-run secular, religious and Arab schools this year. Twenty thousand Arab children will study in private schools. One hundred thousand haredi pupils will study in haredi institutions (compared to 93,000 last year).
And going from numbers to names: The most popular names in secular state schools in Jerusalem are Aya (girls) and Daniel (boys); in religious state schools they are Shira (girls) and Daniel (boys); in the haredi system they Sara (girls) and David (boys) and in Arab schools they are Sadin (girls) and Muhammad (boys).