Studying the figures

At the end of the school year, a look at how Jerusalem’s education system is faring.

The last day of high school (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The last day of high school
Two years ago, one sunny morning in the week after the school year ended, I found out that the Cohens, an American immigrant family who lived on the first floor of my building, were packing up to leave the country. A quick inquiry revealed that it was not the lack of security that was sending them back to their native Connecticut, but a deep conviction that this country – and more specifically, this city – could not provide the kind of education they sought for their teenage daughters.
The Cohens explained that they loved the country and loved Jerusalem, but could not accept what they considered a “not Jewish enough nor modern enough education,” and were therefore returning to the US.
“Education, a good education system that prepares the young generation for a successful future, is the key to a successful city, and that is what I plan to do here – turn the Jerusalem education system into the best in the country.” So stated Mayor Nir Barkat in one of his first speeches following his election to the position in 2008. Since then, the city’s education administration and institutions have gone through tremendous changes – mostly technological, with laptops for teachers, computerization of schools and, as of this coming school year, a pilot program in 12 schools that entails using tablets only, rather than notebooks, pens and pencils.
Most of the attention and budgets are invested in the state school system, which includes religious and secular schools (from kindergarten through 12th grade).
“The education system is by far the most important sign [of whether] something is improving or not in regard to a city’s status in the eyes of its residents,” Barkat said at the time, taking a public pledge that soon the Jerusalem education system would become the best in the country.
If the education system is a litmus test of a city’s appeal for young couples and families, then the figures in the annual report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies are a reflection of the city’s social evolution.
A first quick glance at these figures tells a story that begins positively, with the number of students in state schools no longer dropping and then, since 2009, slowly but consistently rising, mostly in public religious schools.
Jerusalem has the country’s highest number of pupils in kindergarten through 12th grade – all together, 266,700 students – including 21,000 in the Arab sector’s private education system. These numbers grow each year at a significant rate – in 2011-2012, Jerusalem had 219,900 pupils (compared to 49,260 in Tel Aviv, and 39,800 in Haifa).
The number of pupils in the Hebrew education system (as opposed to those studying in Arabic or Yiddish) for 2013-2014 stands at 161,400, with 62,600 of these (39 percent) in the secular and religious public schools, and 98,800 (61%) in the haredi education system. But while in 1997-98 there was a considerable drop in the number of such pupils in the two state school streams, this drop stopped completely in 2009, and the figures have remained the same since: 39% in the state schools, 61% in the haredi system.
Within the state school system, there has been an ongoing increase in numbers, with the religious schools boasting 11,900 students today compared to 11,300 in the secular schools. A look at the changes within the school systems during the period that begins with Ehud Olmert as mayor (1997), spans mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term, and ends with Barkat, shows that while there has been stability in the number of haredi students (from kindergarten to age 18), there has been significant growth in the religious state schools.
Meanwhile, the secular state schools still remain the smallest demographic, indicating that not enough new secular families are moving into Jerusalem and too many of them are still leaving it.
As for the quality of state education, some of the figures are improving, but still not enough. Of the 5,272 students who graduated high school in the city (that figure includes haredi institutions that presented their students for matriculation), 96% of secular state school students, 96% of religious state school students and 51% of students in the haredi system took the matriculation tests.
Yet the results of these tests are still far from satisfactory. In the religious state schools, 76% obtained a higher matriculation score than the national average score of 72%. In the secular state schools, 69% scored lower than the average in the same stream in the country, which stands at 71%. As for haredi Jerusalemites who took the test, only 13% of them passed.
It is important to note here that if one does not divide up the figures according to the different types of school systems and instead looks at the total number of students, the percentage of 12thgrade graduates taking the matriculation exam in Jerusalem comes out lower – mostly because of the low percentage of haredi students successfully taking the exam – placing Jerusalem fairly low in comparison to national figures.
As for the education system in the Arab sector, there has been, in recent years, a significant transition from private institutions to state or semi-state ones (the latter being schools that are recognized and supervised but do not receive state funding). This past school year, there were 83,700 Arab students in kindergarten through 12th grade, not including wholly private institutions. During the last decade, the number of students in the state and semi-state schools has doubled from 42,100 to 83,700 – likely a result of parents moving their children to such schools because they are more affordable than private ones.
Nevertheless, according to the latest figures from the municipality’s education administration, there is still a shortage of about 900 classrooms in the Arab sector, because alongside the existing lack of facilities, the construction of new schools is not keeping up with the Arab population’s birth rate.
However, there have been serious attempts to fill that gap, including the brand new science high school for girls that opened two months ago in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Part of the ORT school network, it serves 350 students and offers various extracurricular scientific programs.
As for the results of the matriculation exams – which are known in the Arab sector as “Tawagih” (based on the Palestinian matriculation exams) – 82% of the students took the test in 2011-12, and 52% passed. Today, pupils can register at any school, regardless of where they live (one of Barkat’s platforms during his campaign), and there are semi-private high schools as well, where parents who don’t want their children going to school with children from underprivileged neighborhoods pay an extra fee that most other parents cannot afford.
Yet the education system in the city is far from being healed of its original failures – violence in the schoolyards, crowded classrooms, high costs for the parents, a lack of qualified teachers (mostly in the secular state schools) – and this has led many students to drop out because they can’t keep up. Add to that the lack of facilities, with Arab students still studying in warehouses and rented apartments, and a haredi school system that suffers from an unbearable lack of classrooms, and it becomes evident that there is a long way to go.
“The inclusion of modern technology in the classrooms is a good step, but it doesn’t give answers to all the problems in education,” says Etti Binyamin, former head of the local parents’ association.
These problems, even if they are less dramatic than they were 10 years ago, are still waiting for adequate solutions.