You do the math

For the first time in many years, state school enrollment has increased – albeit by a modest 200 pupils versus 9,000 additional haredi children. Is this a sign that the city is becoming more attractive to young, educated families?

School children 521 (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
School children 521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem)
The big smiles on the faces of the high-ranking staff of the Municipal Education Administration over the past few weeks says it all. For the first time in at least a decade, the little signs indicating that changes are afoot can no longer be disregarded. The continuous drop in enrollment in state schools has stopped, and as of this school year enrollment is, in fact, increasing.
It is perhaps too early to talk about a permanent change, but according to Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, it is evident that there has been a significant shift in the attitude of young, productive families. In other words, fewer of them are leaving the city.
A quick look at the figures of the local Education Department could be misleading. After all, while the rise in the state stream is about 200 additional pupils, the haredi stream has some 9,000 new pupils. But as Choshen explains, what matters here is the change in the trend.
“The fact that for the first time we have a meaningful number of new pupils in the two grades that matter in this case – kindergarten and first-year elementary school – is the most important indication. It means that the parents of some 200 children decided not to leave the city but to stay here, declaring their confidence in the city’s ability to provide their children with a good education,” she says.
Although the head of the Education Administration at Safra Square, Danny Bar-Giora, declined to be interviewed, a few high-ranking employees in the department have confirmed that the figures are considered an important first step in the right direction.
“The decision made at the highest level was to put most of the effort into the education system. This was based on the assumption that the decision of young decision to stay here or to leave would be influenced mainly by the level of education their children would receive. It was a real gamble, and we could have been wrong, but it looks like it was the best gamble we could have taken,” says one official.
The new school year, which started on September 1, continues to rank Jerusalem at the top of the Education Ministry’s districts, with a total of 247,800 pupils in the three major streams of education – state schools (both secular and religious), haredi and Arab.
Besides the first emergences of the state-stream revolution, with the above-mentioned new pupils, there is another revolution going on in this administration, and the two are probably connected – namely, the computer revolution.
Upon entering office, Mayor Nir Barkat announced that his first priority would be a major improvement in the city’s education system. As a result, Barkat kept the education portfolio in his hands, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Computerization of the school system – for teachers and pupils – solutions for the lack of classrooms in east Jerusalem and opening the registration areas in the city all began immediately. But it is only this year, close to Barkat’s third year in office, that the first signs of success are being seen.
“Barkat’s education revolution,” as it is sometimes pompously called at Safra Square, also included some less popular steps, such as a somewhat abrupt changing of the head of the Education Department (the late Benzi Nemet) to enable the entry of the new director, Danny Bar-Giora. He was formerly the principal of the Arts High School and for a while was head of the principal training department at the ministry and close to the mayor. The two strongly believe in excellence in education through modernization of the system and a network of monitoring the schools’ progress, based on an American model of tracking and analyzing results in all the city’s state schools.
“There is a sense that education per se is becoming less important, while the emphasis is being placed almost solely on tangible results, such as the number of students eligible for matriculation,” says a veteran high-ranking member of the education staff. “Not that it is bad to have higher numbers of students who obtain their matriculation, but education is much wider than that one aspect, isn’t it?” The computerization revolution will cost a total of NIS 26 million, NIS 18m. of which has already been invested, and another NIS 8m. will be invested in 2012.
A small part of this sum has come from donations, but most of it comes from the municipality’s budget, a decision led by Barkat since his first days as mayor.
NIS 4m. of this budget will go toward the computerization of all the state schools in the city: computers for teachers, computers in classes in the e-learning classes, fully computerized and totally different from anything seen until now in an average classroom.
Barkat’s goal to adapt Jerusalem’s education system to the 21st century will be achieved by the end of the 2012-13 school year. Another NIS 11m. will be invested by the end of 2012 to supply computers to all the teachers in the state education system (including teachers in east Jerusalem) – a total of 2,550 computers.
On top of this the municipality, together with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Safra Fund, have distributed 500 computers to children in needy families, within the Computer for Every Child project. And in 2012, the project will start to include pupils in the special education stream.
What’s more, all the teachers have received special training in e-learning, and advanced courses have been offered to them with suitable tools for teaching through computerized classes. The whole computerized revolution is crowned by the Et Hada’at (Time for Knowledge) program, a special educational program based on and implemented through computer networks in the schools.
For Barkat, there is no doubt that the use of technology in the education system is the most appropriate answer to the challenges facing the city. He sincerely believes that through technological superiority in its education system, Jerusalem will attract more young and productive families, who will think twice before leaving for the center of the country. Based on this year’s promising figures, he is right.
According to Choshen’s findings, the reverse in the trend started within the state religious stream even before Barkat’s election. “After years of a continuous drop in enrollment, it stopped, meaning that enrollment numbers in this stream remained static for a while, and then, about three years ago, began to rise very slightly and slowly. The major change came with the reverse in the trend within the state secular stream, and now it is a clear and meaningful change,” she says.
What this change means is that fewer young and productive families are leaving the city, and that is a figure we will be able to see quite soon in the data the JIIS releases at the end of every year.
But it can also mean that young non-haredi families are moving to Jerusalem, and they are probably doing so because they consider the city’s education system a promising one for their children.
“The next thing we will want to know is which neighborhoods have the highest enrollment in the state stream,” adds Choshen, “to analyze the present situation.”
At present, we know that Har Homa and Beit Hakerem, where there are long waiting lists for the state secular schools in the neighborhood – something we have not seen for many years – are the peaks, as well as Katamonim, where young, educated couples, both religious and secular, have decided to live.
While Har Homa is a relatively new neighborhood with a large number of new immigrants from the West (mostly France and the US) and Beit Hakerem has long been the bastion of the secular population, it is interesting to note the changes in the Katamonim’s population.
According to social activists there, a large number of young families, both religious and secular, moved in mainly because of the relatively low realestate prices.
“And now their children have grown up a little, they go to state kindergartens and schools, and they are probably a large part of the explanation for the changes in the enrollment trends in the city,” says Bracha Arguani, a resident of Katamonim and long-time housing activist.