Hitting the books

As the school year starts, we take a look at the shortcomings and successes of the capital’s education system.

There is still a shortage of classrooms and facilities for children in the Arab and haredi sectors. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
There is still a shortage of classrooms and facilities for children in the Arab and haredi sectors.
On Monday, a new school year will kick off for the 266,000 children and teens of the city. At the end of a chaotic summer, punctuated by missile attacks and sirens and less access to the seashore, a certain sense of normality has come with the return to the classroom.
What awaits Jerusalem pupils in all grades and in all neighborhoods? What financial burden will parents have to bear, and will there be the same problems as last year – or perhaps some new ones? And how do things look in the Arab and the haredi sectors? This article will try to give the widest picture of the situation in terms of both successes and failures.
Jerusalem is the Education Ministry’s largest district. It contains all segments of Israeli society – secular, religious, haredi, Arabs, children with special needs, kindergartens to high schools. In addition, it has the highest number of special schools, which are, in fact, semi-private schools that are expensive for the parents. There are also some experimental schools, such as anthroposophic schools, bilingual schools, democratic schools and Keshet schools (religious and secular together).
The battle to obtain the highest number of students eligible to matriculate is a tough one in Jerusalem because most of the graduates of the haredi schools don’t take the exams. As for the Arab sector, although for the past three years there has been a significant increase in the number of students who take the Israeli matriculation (as in Arab Israeli schools in Israel) rather than the Jordanian test as in previous years, the numbers are relatively low.
And, like every year, some crucial issues remain unsolved, even so close to the start of the new school year, such as the renovations required for safety needs in many school buildings and the issue of new contracts for teachers employed through private contractors (and not as employees of the municipality or the Education Ministry).
In fact, Jerusalem has at least one – dubious – achievement. It has the highest number of teachers employed through private contractors. That means that these teachers are dismissed at the end of every school year and are rehired for the next one. But the situation is so distorted that not only do these teachers not benefit from the advantages their colleagues have (employed by the municipality or the ministry) and therefore have no coverage for the two summer months, but they don’t obtain their signed contract until the last minute.
Another cause for concern, among parents and staff, is the activation of the afternoon programs for children in kindergartens and first and second grades. Up until the end of last week talks between the Jerusalem Parents’ Association, the municipality, the ministry and the committee representing the staff in kindergartens and preschool teachers seemed to be progressing towards an agreement, but on Monday the whole project received a fatal blow. The Education Ministry and the Treasury issued a joint announcement that the project (called Tzila) will be canceled, following a decision by the Treasury not to finance it.
“The Education Ministry and the Treasury have sloughed off all responsibility toward the children and their parents by canceling the afternoon program from 2 p.m. in kindergartens and grades 1 and 2,” wrote Paz Cohen, president of the Jerusalem Parents’ Association, adding “This is an irresponsible act, especially after such a terrible summer vacation, to deprive these children of a stable and educational framework after school hours and force the parents to leave work early in order to stay home with their children.”
Cohen called upon the two ministers and Mayor Nir Barkat to withdraw from this decision and to provide the staff with an immediate solution and the required budgets to reinstate the afternoon programs, “If need be, even out of the city’s budget for the beginning,” he concluded.
But while the immediate problem caused by this decision is still under negotiations, there are quite a few other problems that are still awaiting solutions. Most of them are to be found in the infrastructure of school buildings, mainly in the haredi and Arab sectors. Despite all efforts – and financed by the Education Ministry – there is still a great shortage of classrooms and adequate school buildings in these two sectors. This year, like in the past 10 years or so, haredi and Arab children will have to study in the parking lots of residential buildings, in small, nonair conditioned rented apartments or in warehouses in the midst of commercial areas.
While in the haredi sector most of the problems lie in the lack of matching the rate of construction with the rate of growth, in the Arab sector the situation is more complicated. In most of the Arab neighborhoods there is a severe lack of land for public use (such as schools or kindergartens) for various reasons, such as political needs like preventing illegal construction, since the first years following the Six Day War, a large amount of plots were “colored” in brown on the master-plan maps, which means that these are areas where construction is prohibited. Building schools (or any other public venue) in such locations requires a long procedure to change the designation of the lot into one that enables planning and construction. This takes time. But as the Meretz representatives on the city council (who were the first, already in 2001, to appeal to the court on this issue) point out, no one is rushing to make that happen.
The situation in the haredi sector is no better, exacerbated by the constant friction and tension between that sector and the secular population. Every time a secular public school experiences a drop in the number of pupils, education representatives or city councilmen of the sector try to obtain these structures, or parts of them, for their needs. Every time this happens, some ad-hoc organization tries to stop the process, which results in one more zone of tension between haredi and secular residents.
“But even after we solve all these problems,” says Cohen, “we will still have to find a way to cope with the Education Ministry’s decision to fill classes with 40 children, which is insane in terms of education.”
For the moment, the main achievement of the association has been to preserve organic classes. That is, existing classes that have fewer than 40 pupils will be allowed to continue, while new classes opening this year will have to adhere to the new rule.
One of the remarkable achievements of the Parents’ Association is the significant reduction in the price of the tablets that will replace textbooks this year. Thanks to the hi-tech revolution led by Barkat, tablets will be used instead of books. However, the price the parents had to pay was very high. Cohen says that for now, the prices have been “dramatically lowered,” and the fear of over-radiation has been solved by replacing the Wi-Fi systems in most of the schools with the use of direct Internet.
Another measure taken is the rule to disconnect the Internet in the classrooms whenever the tablets are not in use.
In addition, special programs to combat racism, xenophobia and violence, especially after the dramatic events of this summer, will be implemented in all the schools. Cohen, whose children study at a bilingual school, says that while for the Arab children there is a high anticipation to return to school and renew ties with their Jewish friends, things are not so easy or evident for Jewish children and their families.
“They had a very tough summer vacation. They [the Jewish children] have been exposed to difficult and painful experiences during the shelling of the country’s southern cities and region, and it is not clear how they will react to getting back together with their Arab classmates. I heard from quite a few parents that this is not an easy task. We may see that some of them will choose not to return here.”