Learning to improve

There have been some positive changes in the education system in east Jerusalem, but more still needs to be done.

School bags (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
School bags
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
On Monday morning, upwards of 250,000 pupils packed their freshly sharpened pencils into new backpacks and stepped into empty classrooms to begin the 2012-2013 school year. The capital has the country’s largest school system and one of the most complicated, serving Arab pupils, haredi pupils, secular pupils and state religious pupils. After years of neglect, the large gaps in the haredi and Arab sectors as compared with the secular and state religious schools continue to grow.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat pledged on the first day of school to “stop sweeping those gaps under the rug.” Over the next few years, haredi schools will receive an additional NIS 700 million to build 1,182 classrooms. The Arab sector will receive an additional NIS 400m. to build 400 classrooms.
Barkat has spent a great deal of energy promoting his dedication to improving education in east Jerusalem. In their annual report about schools in east Jerusalem the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Ir Amim (the organization for an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future) begrudgingly gave the municipality a better grade than they’ve given previous administrations.
“From continuous monitoring in the field, Ir Amim and ACRI have discovered that professionals within the Jerusalem Municipality and Manhi [the Jerusalem Education Administration] are aware of these critical disparities within the east Jerusalem educational system and are making efforts to correct them,” the report states.
As the school year commences, In Jerusalem takes a look some of the pressing issues in east Jerusalem.
THE DIRE lack of schools in east Jerusalem has given rise to a dangerous phenomenon: schools that are classified as “recognized but unofficial.” The schools fall into a gray area. While they receive some funding and recognition from the Education Ministry, and, more recently, from the Jerusalem Municipality they are are only partially supervised by authorities and are often for-profit institutions that charge high tuition. Sometimes they may even withhold diplomas if a student falls behind in payment. Authorities have little or no oversight over teachers, the curriculum or the building itself, which leaves them powerless to address safety concerns raised by parents.
In the absence of municipal schools, the number of semi-official schools has increased exponentially over the past decade. In the 2001 school year the number of pupils in these institutions was roughly 2,000, while during the last school year it reached 28,280.
Recognized but unofficial schools exist across Israel as well as in west Jerusalem, though the concentration in east Jerusalem is significantly higher because pupils have no other choices, ACRI stated in the report. There are 86 kindergartens and 54 official schools in east Jerusalem, compared with 53 kindergartens and 70 schools in the “recognized but unofficial” category.
East Jerusalem has one of the highest dropout rates in the country. A staggering 40 percent of 12th-graders do not attend school. According to the Jerusalem Education Administration, the average dropout rate for grades seven through 12 is 17.3% in east Jerusalem. This is compared to 6.2% dropout rate among Arab Israelis and a 4.2% dropout rate for Jewish Israelis.
This trend can only be expected to worsen, since east Jerusalem does not receive the same truancy help that west Jerusalem receives. While last year there were 16 centers for pupils with learning difficulties in west Jerusalem, there were only five such centers in east Jerusalem, despite the fact that a similar number of pupils reside in both parts of the city.
BARKAT HAS trumpeted his plan for 400 new classrooms for east Jerusalem. The leafy east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina will receive 20% of the classrooms, more than any other single neighborhood. Why is one of the richest neighborhoods of east Jerusalem getting the most classrooms, when other areas have even more of a need? There are a few reasons.
The municipality already has an excellent working relationship with the local council, a fact Mayor Nir Barkat applauded on Monday during the dedication of the new special-needs kindergarten in Beit Hanina. The neighborhood was the first area in east Jerusalem to receive street signs after the local council worked extensively with the municipality to map and name the neighborhood streets in 2011.
But cooperation is only part of the story. Oded Lilienthal, who works in the municipality’s planning branch dealing with public buildings, said the municipality has concentrated on Beit Hanina because there simply isn’t any room for schools in other neighborhoods.
According to the city’s master plan, Beit Hanina has a large number of l a n d parcels that are already d e s i g - nated for public use, including for schools. Other neighborhoods have little or no area designated for public buildings, Lilienthal explains. “In Abu Tur, I really want to build [classrooms] there but there’s no place to build them,” he says.
The city is aware that other neighborhoods are even more desperate for classrooms, but that will involve changing zoning laws, a very lengthy process. This is further complicated by the fact that the city does not have an approved master plan, only a de facto master plan that city hall officials adopted as a working plan without final approval from the Local Planning and Building Committee or the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Building Committee. Because the document is unofficial, changing zoning designations will be even more difficult.
Lilienthal adds that the Education Ministry finally recognized this challenge and started giving the municipality money earmarked for buying land from private owners.
This would allow the municipality to open schools on land that is designated as residential. But the land purchase, in addition to construction or renovation, means the process will be much more expensive.
For the short term, he says, the municipality is concentrating on areas that already have open public land, while they scramble to try to find a solution for the more crowded neighborhoods.
“The real problem,” he says, “is that there’s just no room to build.”